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Model year 2017 changes:
Editors' note, August 8, 2017: This review was written based on an evaluation of the 2016 Subaru Crosstrek. See the changes for the 2017 model year above.
At the wheel of the 2016 Subaru Crosstrek on a Northern California backroad, I saw many, many cars bearing the Pleiades-laden Subaru badge on their grilles. It felt a bit like being in a club, not very exclusive but distinct nonetheless.
The typical Subaru driver ostensibly enjoys the beauty of nature, making time for hiking, mountain biking and kayaking. The stereotype suggests coexisting with the environment, not dominating it.
The Crosstrek, a more recent entrant to the Subaru lineup, maintains this ethos, bolstering the ground occupied by the Outback and Forester. Although sporting SUV style, the Crosstrek's size makes it feel more like a wagon. Dropping 7 inches in overall length and 4 inches in height compared to Subaru's next model up, the Forester, the Crosstrek shows off an approachable, urban footprint and a sporty look.
The doors open wide, allowing easy cabin accessibility, but I wasn't crazy about the leather, or leather-like, material covering the seats in the Limited trim version I drove. At 22.3 cubic feet with the rear seats up, the Crosstrek's cargo area comes in at about 10 cubic feet less than that of the Forester.
Earlier this year, I drove the Crosstrek on a short off-road course, a dirt track with intentional mud puddles and ruts. Although the Subaru representative in the passenger seat advised me to steer around the worst of it, I was impressed with what the little Crosstrek could handle.
Thank its 8.7 inches of ground clearance, the same as its bigger SUV siblings, for letting me sink a tire into a mud pit and then escape. The Crosstrek's standard all-wheel drive helped the wheels find the grip they needed to keep me going. And although I had to make a couple of tries getting up a slick hill, I eventually got to the top.
That Crosstrek, and the one I drove for this review, came with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) mated to the 2-liter engine. With the CVT, Subaru uses a different all-wheel drive system compared to Crosstreks equipped with the available five-speed manual transmission. CVT models get an electronically managed system, which actively moves torque between front and rear axles based on traction and throttle input. Manual versions use a mechanical system that only responds to wheel slip.
With either all-wheel drive system, Subaru doesn't let you lock the differential for a 50:50 torque split, although setting the Vehicle Dynamics Control switch in its off position helps equalize torque distribution.
The Crosstrek uses Subaru's horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, a "flat four", which presents a lower center of gravity than an inline four. In this application, it makes 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque, and turns in EPA-estimated fuel economy of 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.
Although the power numbers don't look terribly impressive, the CVT and throttle tuning made the Crosstrek eager to take off from a start. In city driving, its acceleration is more than ample. The CVT exhibits some of the qualities that give this type of transmission a bad name. The engine note doesn't always coincide with acceleration, and power delivery feels bandy at times.
In my driving, the EPA numbers seemed overly optimistic, as I barely made the city number on the highway, while actual city driving put my average in the low 20s. Your mileage may vary, but I didn't feel like I was being aggressive on the throttle.
The steering isn't particularly sharp, but then again, it shouldn't be for this type of vehicle. The slightly slow response from the wheel perfectly suits a comfortable highway cruise. That comfortable theme runs through to the ride quality as well, with the suspension nicely damping out bumps and rough pavement. I could see taking the Crosstrek for an extended road trip.
Another boon for road trippers comes with the EyeSight advanced safety system, which Subaru now makes available on Crosstreks in Premium or Limited trim. Two forward-facing cameras watch the road ahead, warning me if I'm about to plow into stopped traffic or drift over a lane line. EyeSight also enables adaptive cruise control, which automatically slows the Crosstrek below its set speed when approaching traffic ahead. Having used EyeSight's cruise control extensively, I'm impressed with this system.
Subaru complements EyeSight in the Crosstrek with a rearview camera, and available blind-spot monitoring, which lights up an icon in the side mirror to warn of traffic in the next lane over.
Sharing the Crosstrek's dashboard LCD with the rearview camera, Subaru's StarLink infotainment system offers stereo controls and a Bluetooth hands-free system. StarLink comes in different grades, with a 6.2-inch touchscreen LCD for lower Crosstrek trims, and a 7-inch screen at higher trims. In addition, navigation is only available as an option at the top, Limited, trim.
I found StarLink intuitive enough to use, especially with its bezel buttons labeled Home, Map and Apps, but response times were just a little slower than with my iPhone. The Home button brings up big a menu with icons for major functions, such as Audio and Phone. Buried under the Info icon, I could access local fuel prices and weather, services that come in through a satellite radio subscription.
Don't expect a wonderful audio experience, as the Crosstrek's stereo, even at its best, maxes out at six speakers.
Subaru hasn't adopted Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, but I could talk to Siri on my connected iPhone by holding the Crosstrek's voice command button.
Given its small size and limited cargo space compared to its brand-mates, the 2016 Subaru Crosstrek works best for individual, couples and families with only one child. Those who live in urban areas will appreciate its maneuverability and ease of parking, the latter aided by a rearview camera.
Its all-wheel drive system and ground clearance help maintain the Subaru outdoorsy ethic, but easy drivability makes it good for everyday use. The optional EyeSight system, with its adaptive cruise control, lifts the stress of longer road trips. While EPA fuel economy looks competitive, my real world result was much lower.
At a base price of $21,695, the Crosstrek is good value. My fully loaded example, in Limited trim, came to $28,965, comfortably under 30 grand and about the most you can pay for a Crosstrek.
The Crosstrek faces a lot of competition among compact and small SUVs, contending with top sellers such as the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, to name just a few. Against these models, and many more, the Crosstrek has the Subaru badge, which proclaims its owners as members of a unique nature-loving club. That brand identity alone will make this car the logical choice for many buyers, but it backs up the brand with its own strong capability.