SUVs

2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid adds plug, subtracts utility, joy

In the transition to plug-in hybrid, Subaru's lovable compact SUV loses a lot -- and not just storage space.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Before I discuss the 2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid, let me say that I genuinely enjoy the standard, gas-powered Crosstrek. It's manageably sized, solid to drive, possesses surprising off-road chops and, crucially, it feels like a good value -- especially in lower trims. I've even grown to like its chunky, quasi-rally car looks. 

It seemed reasonable to me, then, that adding a plug-in hybrid powertrain with a slug of pure electric range and whisper-quiet operation around town would be something of a slam dunk. 

I was wrong. 

After spending a week with this crossover SUV, I'm left with the impression that the added electrons do little more than make the Crosstrek Hybrid markedly less attractive. I admit my drive experience proved to be different than that of my colleague, Manuel Carrillo, who attended the vehicle's launch event last November. 

Let's start with the positives we can agree on: The Crosstrek Hybrid features a total combined range of up to 480 miles, meaning one's bladder will almost certainly give out before this Subaru's power sources are exhausted. EPA estimates call for a friendly-sounding 90 MPGe figure, with a short-but-reasonable 17 miles of electric-only range. I even like the Hybrid-exclusive Lagoon Blue Pearl paint and 18-inch wheels of my tester. So far, so good.

The plug-in hybrid powertrain appended to Subaru's 2.0-liter flat-four engine is a two-motor system, with one working as a starter and battery-pack recharger and the second motor adding 118 horsepower and 149 pound-feet of torque. That sounds like it should make for some seriously impressive performance considering the gas engine produces 152 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque all by its lonesome.

Here's where things get complicated: You can't simply add the engine's power figures and those of the electric motors. That's not the way the hybrid game works. In fact, the combined power output is slightly less than the internal-combustion only model, at 148 horsepower. Thanks to its extra torque, however, Subaru says this PHEV model hits 60 miles per hour in a second less than conventional gas-only Crosstreks, despite weighing substantially more. Unfortunately, I'd be lying if I told you I felt the difference on the street, and I'd be curious to know what the relative figures are when the Hybrid's battery is depleted.

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All of that is par for the course, but that still doesn't tackle the two main pain points the plug-in powertrain introduces to the Crosstrek's otherwise winning formula: Deeply compromised cargo space and a festival of weird powertrain noises.

Let's start with the spacial constraints. The Crosstrek simply doesn't feel like it was designed for electrification. The proof is evident as soon as you lift the hatchback, where the 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery pack intrudes on the available cargo space. According to Subaru, storage capacity goes from 20.8 cubic feet behind the rear seats to 15.9 cubes, a loss of 26 percent. Seats down, max space goes from 55.3 cubic feet to 43.1 cubes, a 22-percent utility haircut. 

What those figures don't tell you is how the battery pack chops up the space and makes it less useful. Instead of opening the hatch to find a slight recess and a flat load floor with the seats down, you get an awkward hump that extends upward from the bottom of the hatch opening, effectively rendering the cargo area too shallow to bother accommodating a cargo hatch cover. What's more, with the seat backs down, the battery creates huge cliff, making it awkward for larger objects. 

The final straw? There's no place to put the included charge cord, which lives in a zippered bag that has to be stored… somewhere. (This is a common issue among EVs, but it's particularly glaring here given the other spacial compromises the powertrain introduces.)

Cargo space is rendered shallow and seriously compromised by this PHEV's battery.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

The second issue is admittedly more subjective, but the sheer variety of seemingly random electronic noises audible when driving in pure-EV mode is annoying. They're compounded by occasionally wonky low-speed brake-pedal feel, presumably due to the system's regenerative function. I found these whirring and high-pitched frequencies grating over time. Despite Subaru's efforts to add more sound-absorbing materials, the electric drivetrain's audio byproducts are more pronounced than any EV or PHEV that I've driven in some time (including Roadshow's long-term Nissan Leaf, which is in my garage as I write this). In fact, they're loud enough that a passenger even asked, "Why does this car make so many strange noises?"

Electrified cars have come a long way in a short time in terms of powertrain noise. Early ones made a whole cocktail of unusual sounds. Today's models generally don't annoy on this front -- but to this driver, the Crosstrek does. The last Toyota Prius Prime I drove didn't bother my eardrums nearly as often, as it happens, and this Subaru borrows that vehicle's hybrid drive bits.

More unpleasant noises reveal themselves when the gas engine fires up, too. The continuously variable transmission gives plenty of that stretched-rubber-band/drivetrain slip sound under hard acceleration, and the engine itself seemingly always turns on at speeds over 65 mph regardless of the battery's state of charge.

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Considering I drove the Crosstrek Hybrid during a week of prolonged cold (check the temperature readout in the multifunction display) and wasn't able to charge the battery daily, I'm inclined to give the car's observed efficiency something of a pass this go-round. I barely broke double digits in electric-only operations on a full battery, and I only netted 29.4 miles per gallon in mostly freeway driving, as I couldn't get home to my Level 2 charger every day I drove it. Even in light of the weather and and my heavier-than-average right foot, my observed efficiency still doesn't compare particularly favorably to the gas-only 2019 Subaru Crosstrek's official EPA estimates of 27 mpg city and 33 hwy. 

On days when you can't charge the battery, you're effectively agreeing to tote around nearly 500 pounds of additional weight for very little benefit. In other words, if you buy one, make sure to charge your PHEV as often as possible -- it only takes about two hours.

In light of all this, I have to admit I found the Crosstrek Hybrid's asking price to be pretty unappealing, especially since it's only available built on the regular Crosstrek's top-shelf Limited trim. For the internal-combustion-only model, that means pricing starts at a still-reasonable $27,195 plus $975 delivery, for a total price of $28,170 before options. 

Electrons go in here. Gas goes in on the other side.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

The Crosstrek Hybrid, by comparison, asks a minimum of $34,995 plus delivery -- $35,970 before options. With the $2,500 optional Starlink navigation/premium audio/moonroof package, my Crosstrek Hybrid totaled an eye-watering $38,470. That's getting close to twice the starting price of a base gas Crosstrek ($21,895). Fortunately, the PHEV qualifies for a $4,500 federal tax incentive, and state and local incentives may further cushion the blow in your neighborhood, so you're really only looking at around a $3,000 price hike for the hybrid powertrain.

Even assuming generous incentives and discounts, however, I'm disinclined to recommend the Crosstrek Hybrid over its perfectly enjoyable (and less costly) gas-only sibling. Oh, and don't be tempted to dismiss this brief review as the rantings of an anti-EV crusader -- I'm onboard for the electric revolution, just not the compromise-laden way this Subaru delivers it.

Lagoon Blue Pearl is a fetching Hybrid-exclusive paint color.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow