I’ll put it very plainly upfront. There is a lot wrong with the Subaru Crosstrek, but there’s something about it that gets under your skin, and explains why so many are on the roads. Before I get to the spark, let me tell you all of the pointless quirks, faults, and annoyances of the Subaru Crosstrek.
(Full Disclosure: Subaru lent me this vehicle for a week of driving up to the lakes and mountains and bucolic rolling hills of upstate New York, and lent me the car with a full tank of gas. I was warned “no rallying!” and I complied.)
The first thing abundantly clear about the Subaru Crosstrek is that the interior is terrible. Everything that should be close feels far away. Everything that should be far away feels close. It’s not a particularly small car, but the dashboard bulges out and eats up all of the space that would make the car feel roomy. Porsches are the only cars that quickly come to mind that feel more cramped than this Crosstrek.
The interior is ugly as well as space-inefficient. The center touchscreen — normally recessed, it sits flush in the Crosstrek — has inexplicably strange backgrounds. Every song played on it generated the same 1990s-grade musical note clipart, set against a starry night sky. I could not figure out how to get it to please stop pretending it was the loading screen to a Disney DVD.
When you first adjust the rather handsome (and easy to honk) three-spoke steering wheel, you discover that Subaru has singlehandedly selected the cheapest- and worst-looking plastic covering for the steering column itself. A single flap flops right in your line of sight, a vanity that does nothing to hide the sharp edges of the plastic sides of the dash around it. It makes a little gap around itself, beckoning you to explore this mysterious cave of what’s-behind-my-dashboard. How could Subaru make a coverup that makes me want to uncover what it’s hiding? I stared at it for hours on one long stretch of road trip, poked at it, flapped its floppy form.
The flimsiness of the steering column cover, though, did act as a contrast to the rest of the interior’s build quality. Nothing felt expensive, exactly, but everything did feel somewhat substantial. The seats, door cards, everything from the headliner down had a sense of solidity to it. The Crosstrek felt like a car you live with for a decade or more, not something you shuffle off after a short lease.
The engine, too, felt like a durable unit. Well, if you press the right button. You hear a distinct sound when you do it, too. Drive the car in “I” mode on the steering wheel (available in this “Sport” trim) and the car feels throttle back. The gas pedal almost pushes back at you, and the engine groans against the variable resistance of the CVT. Pressing on the gas at the bottom of a long grade feels like three things pushing against you: gravity, the transmission, and the gas pedal itself. Switch into SI mode and the car wakes up. This is one of the few modern cars I’ve driven in which the sport mode does anything. The car feels like it picks up a dozen horsepower. The car even makes a great beep when you hit the button. It sounds like the ohnck! you’d get if you clicked somewhere off the wrong menu on an old Windows computer.
Somewhere in this process the car gets something dangerous. It gets character.
Objectively, the Crosstrek doesn’t make a ton of sense. It’s not as spacious inside as the crossovers to which it seeks to provide an alternative. It doesn’t get great mileage, even with its just-fine power. It doesn’t offer the reliability of a Toyota, and it’s not as nice inside. The Crosstrek does give you AWD, but just about every carmaker on the market sells an AWD crossover now. It’s not the ‘90s anymore. You’re not cross-shopping this against a Nissan Pathfinder that was shaped like a brick and drove like a truck.
Still there’s a charm in that the Crosstrek is just ... a regular-ass car, just one with added ground clearance and AWD. The more you drive it the more you feel like you’re getting away with something. Other people on the road are buying what they think they need. You’re driving actually what you need. Even a RAV4 feels bulky and wasteful by comparison.
As you drive it, too, the annoyances become quirks. You start to kind of like the musical note clipart. Your complaints turn into roasts the more that the car stands up for you, motoring up mountains and quietly encouraging you to rip the handbrake in gravel side lots.
It’s that the Crosstrek provides you the ability to get through muddy and rutted double tracks without asking for any compromises that sort of encourages you to, well, go find some muddy and rutted double tracks. This is an “adventure” vehicle in the same way an SRT is a burnout vehicle. It’s egging you on. It has a little devil on your shoulder telling you you might as well get on out there.
Everything snowballs from there. You start pricing out a set of rally-grade Method wheels, or little bull bars and rally lights. That’s not happening with a Nissan Rogue.
If I’m going back to things that are annoying, the full-size spare eats up a ton of trunk space, though I don’t know where else I’d put it other than on a roof rack or on a trailer hitch carrier.
I always felt like the Crosstrek was an excessive vehicle, as minimalist as it is. I got the sense that anyone who really needed the extra ground clearance or AWD needed a truck, and the people mall-crawling their Crosstreks might as well just get a Corolla. After driving the thing, I understand the appeal. The car gets under your skin. For something so obliquely practical, its selling point is that it’s fun.