First drive: 2018 Subaru Crosstrek [Review]

Subaru\'s baby crossover gets a makeover.

2017 is a year of reinvention for Subaru. Starting with the Impreza, the Japanese automaker launched into what it considers its third generation of modern vehicles. The 2018 Subaru Crosstrek is the second model to be overhauled in this push, and a key element in the company's efforts to capitalize on the phenomenal success of its second-generation products.

What you see before you, however, is as much a monument to branding as it is a testament to Subaru's competence in the "crossover" market. The Crosstrek is not a new formula, but rather an old idea made new with a little marketing savvy and some excellent timing.

If you lived through the 1990s, you probably remember (fondly or otherwise) Paul Hogan's relentless hocking of the "Suberu Outbeck Spoat." In fact, depending on your age and level of automotive knowledge at the time, you may even have operated under the impression that Subaru was actually an Australian brand.

And while that's an excellent example of how powerful marketing can go wrong, Crosstrek shows that it can do good things too. Fundamentally, a Subaru Crosstrek is just a Subaru Outback Sport, but thanks to the buzzy new nameplate (and the abandonment of "XV," which happened before the '16 model year), what was old became new again.

To see for ourselves, we joined Subaru in Deadwood, South Dakota, at the (sadly temporary) "Camp Crosstrek" to take it for a spin.

Born again, againWith the release of the second-generation Subaru Crosstrek, the Outback Sport is now two generations behind us, but the basics are still the same. Underneath the badge and the aggressive cladding, the Crosstrek is essentially an Impreza Hatchback (or wagon, depending on who you ask) on stilts.

We couldn't nail any of Subaru's spokespeople down on the exact number of components shared between Impreza and Crosstrek, but let's go ahead and say it's a pretty hefty percentage. The suspension has been changed to accommodate the Crosstrek's jacked-up ride height, for starters, and the Crosstrek gets some dirt-trail gizmos to match its extra ground clearance but, really, we're talking about fraternal twins rather than mere siblings. We'll get to the specifics of that later.

What you should know off the bat (and what Subaru relentlessly drove home) is that the Crosstrek has been updated significantly for the 2018 model year. It has grown noticeably on the inside despite almost no change in its footprint; it has a much wider rear hatch opening (by four inches) thanks to the same taillight trickery Subaru employed on the Impreza; it also gets an updated engine and new transmissions.

The dimensional changes are thanks to a ground-up redesign of the chassis as part of Subaru's Global Platform initiative. It's a modular setup similar to what is being embraced throughout the industry, and the new platform will underpin everything from the Impreza and Crosstrek to a forthcoming three-row model.

The new platform is significantly more rigid (70 percent) and more capable of absorbing crash energy (40 percent). Like many others, Subaru has been expanding its use of high-strength steel and structural adhesives. These are far from firsts in the segment, but they are firsts for Subaru.

Moving partsWith a new platform comes an overhauled engine and new transmissions. At a quick glance, the updates may not be too obvious. The Crossktrek is still powered by a two-liter, four-cylinder boxer engine, but it now direct-injected and boasts an output of 152 horsepower and 145lb-ft of torque; the former is up by four, the latter remains the same.

Despite early concerns that the Crosstrek was going to abandon the manual transmission, Subaru continues to offer it. As a bonus, they even threw a new one in. It's a six-speed now, and it's available on both the base 2.0i model and the mid-range Premium. Of course, you can also option Subaru's "Lineartronic" CVT, which has been redesigned as well. It now features stepped acceleration curves and seven manually selectable ratios.

Since we're talking about a Subaru, it almost goes without saying that all-wheel-drive is standard, and all models get Active Torque Vectoring (electronically controlled brake activation to control torque proportioning). However, manual-transmission models are stuck with a simple 50/50 power split front and rear, while CVT models get a variable front/rear split depending on conditions and drive modes.

The lookThe changes to the exterior really aren't all that drastic. Subaru redesigned the 2018 Crosstrek's front fascia, taking away the middle rib in the lower grille and making the vertical components of the bumper cover and upper grille surround more pronounced. The headlamps are also a bit skinnier (height-wise) and the hoot accents have gone from ribs to ridges. Out back (har har), details such as the leading edges of the tail lights and the taper of the d-pillar are sharper; the bumper protrusions more clipped and less bulbous.

If you look closely, you'll notice the wheels are new, too, and we're fond of the updated designs.

From the outside inThe 2018 Crosstrek also gets some tech upgrades inside. It starts with a new base audio system incorporating Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality, including a significantly improved premium audio system on the top-tier Limited model.

Looks-wise, there's a lot more going on inside than there was out. The center stack is completely redesigned, with the center air vents now flanking the infotainment screen. The hooded information center above the stack remains, as does the general orientation of the HVAC controls. A new steering wheel places less emphasis on its vertical spokes (unlike the the previous unit) and ends up looking all the more sporty for it.

Behind the wheelIf this were one of our longer-term reviews, this section would be titled, "But does it go?" We're going to pretend that's the case here and get this out of the way: Man, is this sucker slow.

There are a few things to consider. First off, the Crosstrek's curb weight runs from 3,113 pounds to 3,220. That's not heavy. Power output is identical up and down the lineup--152 horses. That's not a lot. Surely this is a "slow car fast" type situation, yeah?

Well, kind of.

The good news is that the ground clearance and suspension travel gained in the translation from Impreza to Crosstrek did not erase the former's wonderful handling characteristics. Yes, there's a touch of roll in the Crosstrek, but it's of the informative rather than the alarming variety. There's a hint of motion on turn-in, followed by an immediate set that is very difficult to perturb. This is a car which can conserve momentum--a good thing, because once you lose it, good luck getting it back.

Which brings us to the bad news. Uphill passing in the Crosstrek (especially at elevation) is not fun. The manual transmission has six ratios, but third is top gear if you're trying to make progress on a grade. Fourth might hold you if it's not too steep, but fifth and sixth might as well be neutral for all the speed you'll carry. We frequently flipped the CVT over to manual mode to see which of its fixed ratios were closest to its choices for the same scenarios, and we found the computer's choices inevitably mirrored our own.

We're not convinced that the Crosstrek needs the full-on WRX treatment to be compelling to enthusiasts, but a small-displacement turbocharged engine would make a lot of sense here. Just a touch more power and a good thump of low-end and mid-range torque could make up for its shortcomings.

One other thing did stick out, and that's just how quiet and comfortable Subaru's newer vehicles have become. Like the Impreza, the Crosstrek only exhibits road noise over truly poor surfaces and we found the cabin quiet and free of intrusive vibrations, even from the CVT--a component typically known for producing unpleasant thrums and drones.

Off the pavementThe Crosstrek's trump card is its versatility, and in that regard, it shines. With 8.7" of ground clearance, it has the entire segment beat except for Jeeps with the "Trailhawk" box checked. The Compass and Renegade have the edge in crawl ratios, which we longed for when we tried out the Crosstrek's X-Mode and hill descent control, but for the situations these sorts of vehicles will encounter in the real world, distance from the hard parts to the ground is really what matters 99% of the time.

Still, Subaru had us try out X-Mode on a gravel mound in a local quarry, and even without low-range options, it performed admirably on the alarmingly loose surface. Even with the path literally falling out from under us with every bounce and dip, it did an admirable job of controlling the Crosstrek's momentum. Where we really found ourselves grinning, however, was on the side roads.

And by side roads, we mean dirt roads, gravel roads, dust roads and mud roads. Anything with a loose surface and plenty of curves will do, and the Black Hills of South Dakota have them in spades.

Get momentum, turn in, lift and stab--the formula for tail-out happiness in a Crosstrek is easily sleuthed. The stability control will intervene eventually (probably for the best considering how young the Crosstrek buying demographic really is) but it's generous enough for reasonable public-road shenanigans. Don't try this at home, but maybe go try it in South Dakota.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2018 Subaru Crosstrek is not a fast car, but it's a good one. It handles beautifully, won't rattle your teeth out and won't make your eardrums bleed. Now, if we promise to behave, can we please have a turbocharger for the new Crosstrek's first birthday?

2018 Subaru Crosstrek 2.0i Premium 6MT base price, $22,595; as tested, $23,510Destination, $9152018 Subaru Crosstrek 2.0i Premium CVT base price, $22,595; as tested, $26,905Lineartronic CVT, $1,000; Eyesight and moonroof package, $2,395; Destination, $915

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd; interior photos courtesy of Subaru.

Read more!