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Subaru targets 'urban adventurers' as segments become more niche

They're young, city-dwelling, fairly well off and probably married but childless.

They're urban adventurers, as Anton Pawczuk, Subaru Canada's director of product management and sales training, calls them. This is the specific demographic Subaru is targeting with its refreshed 2016 Crosstrek.

In the crowded but still growing small sport utility and crossover vehicle market, car makers are slicing the customer demographic into thinner pieces and trying to aim variants of their product line at them. That, however, can leave shoppers shell-shocked.

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"It's a confusing mess," says George Peterson, president of California-based Auto Pacific, an automotive marketing research company. "They're in sensory overload right now. If they land on the right vehicle, it's a miracle or it's a mistake."

Sales figures compiled by DesRosiers Automotive show light trucks, which includes SUV/CUV, made up 61.5 per cent of Canadian sales so far in 2015, up more than three percentage points from this time last year. Passenger cars shrank to 38.5 per cent from 41.8 per cent in the same period, a trend analysts expect will continue.

The phenomenon parallels what's happening in the United States, says Peterson.

"This is kind of a result of people really preferring the crossover two-box body style to a traditional three-box sedan body style that the passenger cars provide," he says.

No one is predicting the demise of the family sedan just yet. But dealers are seeing an erosion of sales as customers opt for more versatile SUV/CUV body styles, says Robert Karwel, senior manager for J.D. Power Canada's Power Information Network automotive division.

Because most CUV/SUV models are built on the same platforms as sedans, it's easy for manufacturers to shift production to the more profitable segment.

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Compact SUVs sell on average for about $27,000, and subcompact SUVs for $25,000, while the average transaction price of a compact car in Canada has fallen below $20,000, Karwel says.

Buyers seem prepared to accept the higher cost because financing routinely stretches to 84 months – sometimes longer – and retail leasing is enjoying a resurgence, reducing the all-important monthly payment.

"That's helping drive the growth in the SUV segments," Karwel says.

The fastest-growing CUV/SUV segments are subcompact and compact, which is where the Crosstrek plays.

There are at least 20 compact SUV nameplates for sale in Canada, and nine subcompact, a segment Karwel says didn't exist five years ago.

Which brings us back to the new Crosstrek (Subaru dropped the XV from the nameplate), in showrooms since October. It straddles the compact and newer subcompact CUV/SUV segments in pricing and features. Prices have not increased for 2016, Subaru says, with a base Touring package starting at $24,995 before fees and taxes, ranging to $30,495 for the Crosstrek Hybrid. This is what Peterson calls the sweet spot for the segment.

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The 2016's facelift includes tweaks to the grille, headlights and standard alloy wheels, which have been redesigned slightly to give them a sense of movement. Inside, there's a larger seven-inch infotainment screen, more soft-touch materials, a new steering wheel and electronics upgrades, such as Siri Eyes Free capability.

An optional technology package is available on the Sport and Limited trim levels but not the basic Touring or Hybrid. It includes the EyeSight suite of safety nannies: precollision braking, brake assist, throttle management, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lane-sway warning.

A five-speed manual transmission is available on all but the Hybrid, though the CVT automatic is mandatory if you opt for the technology package on Sport and Limited models.

Subaru believes the Crosstrek, built on the same platform as the Impreza sedan/hatchback, succeeds in being different with standard full-time all-wheel drive. The Mitsubishi RVR and Honda HR-V offer lower-priced front-drive models, but adding part-time all-wheel drive boosts most into Crosstrek territory.

The Crosstrek's high ground clearance, which Subaru demonstrated recently by crawling over some concrete parking dividers, is also better than the other players, as is its 680-kilogram towing capacity.

It's probably not the top choice for serious rock crawling (no low range or locking hubs) but splashing through some door sill-deep water and along muddy tracks in a Yokohama Geolandar A/T-S-shod example proved the Crosstrek can handle the worst cottage and logging roads.

The Crosstrek offers sedan-like handling despite its raised ride height. The distinctive thrum of its 2.0-litre, 140-horsepower boxer engine, a sound not fancied by everyone, is muted in the comfortable cabin.

Since its introduction in 2012, Crosstrek has helped grow Subaru's market share against Honda, Toyota, Ford and Nissan. Subaru has succeeded by building on its strengths – the Forester, Outback and now Crosstrek – in the small SUV game.

"That's kind of our calling," Pawczuk says. "We're just playing to our advantage."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a six-speed manual transmission was available for the Crosstrek. Additionally, it also incorrectly stated that an optional technology package was available for the Hybrid model.

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