In this day and age, the average family needs every bit of help they can get.
Long work hours, schedules jam-packed with activities, debt, debt, and more debt keep the pressure on from all directions, so vehicles that can handle all of a family’s needs without straining the household budget are becoming increasingly popular. If you needed more proof than the rise of do-it-all crossovers and pickup trucks, look to the proliferation of tiny, subcompact crossovers. What started out with the ugly-as-sin Nissan Juke and Mini Countryman has become a niche with every mainstream manufacturer getting in on the action.
While many markets dabbled in the segment, it wasn’t until this past decade that the pint-sized mini-utility arrived in North America and stuck. While the Crosstrek’s bones are based on the compact Impreza and not a subcompact like competitors from Honda and Chevrolet, the $21,795 Crosstrek is clearly priced against the likes of the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, and Kia Soul. While surprisingly spacious subcompact cars like the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa Note are minimum requirements for a family of four, the next step up to mini-crossovers offers just a bit more relief on strained backs and convenience that is prized by parents and worth the jump in monthly payments or extra dent in the savings.
Considering the Subaru Crosstrek offers some of the best qualities of the SUV breed in this segment combined with the efficiency and maneuverability of a small car, it’s no wonder that Subaru has seen sales increase steadily every year since its introduction in 2012. And with the introduction of a brand-new 2018 model it just had its best ever January sales in the USA by about 30 percent, so it’s only going to get better. What makes it so great? Well, first of all, it looks the part. The 8.7 inches of ground clearance are a boon to anyone that goes off the beaten path, but it sets the stage for the Subaru Crosstrek to stand tall and look tough over its city slicker competitors.
The practical gray body cladding only reinforces that and provides some rugged contrast to the vibrant colors on offer for the Crosstrek. That ground clearance also offers the twin benefits of allowing extra suspension travel and higher seat heights. Although the first-generation Crosstrek tended to ride a bit stiffly and crash over any sort of rough pavement, the 2018 has smoothed that behavior over with better damping that doesn’t go too far over to spongy and soft to compromise handling. The higher seats make getting in and out easy for drivers and, combined with wide rear door openings, it's no strain to install child seats and buckle up young ones.
Behind the wheel, those extra inches offer better visibility, too, and the Crosstrek’s view out in all directions makes it simple to park and maneuver in tight quarters even without the standard backup camera. For things you can’t see at all backing up, Subaru offers rear cross-traffic alert (along with blind-spot detection) standard on Limited trim and as an option on Premium models. Reverse automatic braking is an option on Limited trim. In a worst-case scenario, Subaru’s crash ratings have always been exemplary, and the Crosstrek's new high-strength construction maintains that with Good scores across the board from IIHS and earns a Top Safety Pick when equipped with EyeSight.
In terms of practicality the Crosstrek is competitive with segment leaders in all the usual areas. Cargo space is 20.8 cubic feet in the trunk with a maximum of 55.3, and the rear seats split 60/40, so you can fold the small side down and still squeeze a couple small passengers in the back seat while carrying extra cargo. The seats are comfortable and even the second row has generous headroom and just enough legroom, and is wide enough for a small adult or adolescent to squeeze between a pair of car seats, so it really is a five-seater, unlike a lot of subcompacts you'll find.
On the budget front, the Crosstrek can be as efficient as any other all-wheel-drive competitor and even some front-drivers in the segment when equipped with the CVT, but the manual transmission is off the pace when it comes to thriftiness. The 2.0L horizontally opposed four isn’t turbocharged but still manages a respectable 152 hp and 145 lb-ft and all-wheel drive is standard. With the base manual transmission it manages 29 mpg on the highway, 23 in the city, and 25 combined, but with the CVT its highway rating shoots up to 33 and 27 in the city for a very respectable 29 combined.
Our tester was the manual transmission 2.0i Premium model and we saw slightly better than that 25 combined rating with a typical mix of suburban traffic and highway cruising. The manual transmission is something I would normally pick in a heartbeat, but not in the Crosstrek. Clutch takeup is abrupt and not very natural, so it takes more attention than I would want in a little runabout, and because of the tricky clutch, it makes for quite a bit of work to get moving with any speed. At least the clutch is light enough that it’s not tiring even crawling along in heavy traffic. The CVT is programmed with quick throttle response, so you really get a good jump through intersections, making it feel quicker than it really is.
That said, there isn’t a lot of power at the top end and it gets pretty sluggish at higher speeds with either transmission. And while the manual has hill start assist, the CVT includes Subaru’s X-Mode and hill descent control for light off-roading excursions – and because of its small size and decent ground clearance it is no slouch crawling over rough terrain. In more typical conditions, the Crosstrek’s off-road prowess makes potholed city streets a stress-free rumble, but as mentioned earlier, it is composed in corners and can still be driven quickly around onramps and through tight corners without feeling like it’s going to tip over.
Unfortunately, the 2.0i Premium we sampled was not equipped with Subaru’s EyeSight tech, which includes adaptive cruise control, automatic pre-collision braking and lane departure warning. In other Subaru vehicles I’ve tested, EyeSight-based adaptive cruise worked very well in heavy traffic, maintaining distances and controlling the gap smoothly. One of the biggest improvements in the 2018 Subaru is the updated Starlink infotainment system. As with most new cars today, it’s touchscreen based with Bluetooth connectivity as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Those features are nice, but previous versions of Starlink had very poor touchscreen response times, so everything lagged, and the menus were too convoluted for easy, distraction-free operation. The main touchscreen can now be customized with shortcuts and you can access various compatible apps from your smartphone right on the screen, with additional info available in a dashtop screen and in the gauge cluster. It just plain works, so it’s not irritating or distracting, which is exactly how an infotainment system should be. Some nicer graphics wouldn’t hurt, but we can live with the cheesy icons.
While other brands might throw better features at you for better prices, win you over with sporty dynamics or funky styling, the Subaru Crosstrek meets those essential minimum family requirements for space and utility at an affordable price point and ownership costs (resale value should be excellent as well). The 2018 Subaru Crosstrek is easier to live with on a daily basis thanks to improved cabin tech and smoother ride, and it remains one of the most rugged and capable little SUVs compared to anything in its price range.