2021 Subaru Crosstrek first drive review: A little more capable, a little more compelling

With a more powerful engine and improvements to driver-assistance tech, Subaru's compact Crosstrek is now a more competitive option.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
6 min read

Subaru's compact and capable received a pretty substantial update for the 2021 model year, but you probably won't notice at a glance. The mid-cycle refresh leaves the exterior nearly unchanged, aside from a few styling tweaks and some wheel arch cladding for the new Sport trim seen here. Instead, the Crosstrek's changes happen largely in the engine bay and on the list of standard and available driver-assistance technologies -- and they all go a long way toward making Subaru's compact crossover even more compelling than before.

New 2.5-liter engine

The Crosstrek can now be optioned with a larger, more powerful 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, which it scavenges from its senpai, the Subaru Forester. In the lighter Crosstrek, the engine's 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque feel a bit more responsive, but more importantly, the crossover is noticeably more sprightly than it was with the older, 2.0-liter engine -- which is still available, by the way. Compared to the 2.0, the 2.5 is working with 30 extra hp and 31 more lb-ft of torque. That's 20% more get-up-and-go. 

Of course, Subaru's Symmetrical all-wheel-drive system is standard. The Crosstrek's Lineartronic continuously variable transmission isn't too bad when tooling around town and commuting, but it doesn't do the Subaru any favors when asked to hustle, regardless of whether the SI-Drive powertrain mode selector is set to Intelligent or the slightly more aggressive Sport program.

The overall ride quality is good and most of the time the Crosstrek feels more like a hatchback than what most people might think of when they read "small SUV." Over bumps, the Crosstrek is comfortable and its 8.7 inches of ground clearance lend a surprising amount of trail capability. That ride height becomes a bit of a liability if you get too ham-fisted with the steering, though, with plenty of body roll letting you know when it's time to chill out.

Interestingly, the 2.5-liter engine is nearly on par with the 2.0-liter boxer-four when it comes to fuel economy. Rated at 27 miles per gallon in the city, 34 mpg highway and 29 mpg combined, the more potent powerplant only sacrifices a single mpg from the combined estimate compared to the smaller, less-powerful engine option. 

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

In addition to styling changes, the Sport model also features a more robust X-Mode system.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Aside from the increased cost of stepping up to the new Sport or top tier Limited trim levels -- which, in fairness, also include more standard features for the money -- there's really no tradeoff for going with the bigger engine. Then again, the 2.0-liter, with 152-hp and 145-lb-ft of torque, is still the only way to get the optional six-speed manual transmission, if that's your jam. Sadly, the manual gearbox comes with a few hidden costs including stepping down to just 25 mpg combined and losing access to many of the Crosstrek's driving aids.

The new Sport model

The 2021 model year ushers in a new Crosstrek Sport trim with some interesting performance and amenity enhancements. Visually, the Sport has a more pronounced front bumper and wheel arch cladding, as well as a dark finish for the grille and exterior trim. The Sport's 17-inch wheels are done up in a dark gray finish, too.

Inside, you'll find seats upholstered with water-repellent StarTex fabric and Sport-embroidered floor mats made of 25% recycled material. Bright yellow trim pieces and contrast stitching go nicely with the Sport's exclusive Plasma Yellow Pearl paint, which I personally think is a fantastic hue. My girlfriend, however -- who is normally a huge fan of the Crosstrek -- thought it was a bit too much, calling it "vomit-y." I suppose there's no accounting for poor taste.

Sport models come standard with the new 2.5-liter engine, but upgrade to a dual-function version of Subaru's X-Mode terrain management system, adding Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud programs for the all-wheel-drive system and brake-based traction control. Other CVT-equipped models feature single-mode terrain management -- basically, on or off. Hill-descent control adds a bit of surefootedness to steep grades and is part of the X-Mode tech whether or not you opt for the Sport.

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

EyeSight, standard for most Crosstrek models, gains a new trick this year.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Safety tech

Almost every Crosstrek (at least, every one with a CVT) comes standard with Subaru's EyeSight driver-assistance safety suite. This year, EyeSight gains adaptive cruise control that now includes lane-centering assist. The steering assist works well; it's not as strong as some systems I've tested, but also not as intrusive, which lends to the Subie's relaxed on-road demeanor. Meanwhile, pre-collision braking, pedestrian detection and lane-departure warning all carry over from last year.

This Sport tester is equipped with an optional $1,600 package that adds blind-spot monitoring with lane-change assist and rear cross-traffic alert, as well as a power sunroof and upgraded dashboard tech. For the best driver-aid experience, step up to the Limited model where you'll get high-beam assist and reverse automatic braking standard.

I sort of expected the EyeSight upgrade to include Subaru's DriverFocus attention-monitoring system, which watches the driver's face and alerts them if they're distracted or drowsy, but alas, it's not included on the 2021 Crosstrek. For now, that system can only be found on Subaru's larger and crossovers , as well as the .

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

Sport models feature yellow interior trim and matching contrast stitching.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Starlink infotainment

Subaru's Starlink infotainment suite carries over mostly unchanged, here in its upgraded Multimedia Plus spec with an 8-inch touchscreen and TomTom-powered navigation software. It's a decent setup with a nicely organized menu structure and responsive interface, but also nothing to write home about. That said, I honestly think I prefer this smaller, simpler system to the massive, vertical screen you'll find in the new Legacy and Outback. The more petite option is just easier to wrap my head around. Besides, with standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, I don't think anyone who carries a modern phone will be left wanting for media streaming apps or excellent navigation software, even if they forgo the tech upgrade and stick with the Crosstrek's standard 6.5-inch screen.

The Crosstrek also features Subaru's subscription-based Starlink telematics services. Starlink Safety Plus and Security Plus grant remote control and vehicle monitoring via a smartphone app, allowing drivers to lock/unlock the doors, remote start the Crosstrek with pre-set climate controls on cold or hot days and receive notifications when the car's alarm is triggered. Collision notifications, emergency SOS assistance and roadside assistance are the sort of features you hope to never use, but will be glad to have when you do. Parents can take advantage of features like geofencing and excessive speed notifications -- helpful when lending the Crosstrek to a younger driver. 

There's also a Starlink Concierge Package that unlocks "in-vehicle assistance with restaurant and hotel reservations, purchasing tickets for sporting/theater events and scheduling service appointments," according to Subaru. That sounds cool, but it's also somewhat redundant to anyone with a functioning phone in their pocket.

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

The 2021 changes only make the Crosstrek a more compelling option.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Pricing and availability

The 2021 Subaru Crosstrek remains a strong and practical choice for drivers looking for a good mix of light off-road capability and excellent on-pavement manners. With more standard features and more available power, you can expect a price increase, but not as much as you might think.

Including a $1,050 destination charge, the starting price for the base 2021 Crosstrek is just $23,295 with the six-speed manual, which is just $100 more than last year. Go for the CVT and you're looking at $24,645 -- an increase of $140. Considering the CVT also comes with EyeSight safety tech and X-Mode terrain control, it's probably the more realistic starting point for most drivers. The new Sport trim starts at $27,545 and Subaru doesn't even charge extra for the fancy yellow paint. With the sunroof and tech upgrades, my example pictured here comes in at $29,145. 

Ever since its launch, the Crosstrek has carved out a nice little niche for itself and continues to compare favorably against other vehicles at this smaller end of the compact SUV space. The 2021 Crosstrek is hitting dealerships as you read this and it's a more well-rounded choice than ever.

2021 Subaru Crosstrek

Engine 2.5-liter H4
Power 182 hp
Torque 176 lb-ft
Transmission CVT
Fuel economy 27 city / 34 hwy / 29 combined mpg
Length 176.5 in
Width 71.0 in
Height 63.6 in
Curb weight 3,265 pounds
Max cargo capacity 55.3 cubic feet
Base price $23,295
As-tested price $29,145
On sale Now