Subaru is a very, shall we say, realistic car company.
"Honda already makes a very good Civic, so we're not going to make a better Civic," explains Ted Lalka, vice-president of product management for Subaru Canada. "We're not going to make a better Corolla. So what can we make that stands out, that's better? Well, we can make all-wheel drive."
So that's the Japanese maker's specialty, and it's why I'm at a secret test track – "very top secret!" – here on a mountain north of Tokyo, hammering the new 2018 Crosstrek around a bumpy gravel road. This is the all-new second generation of the small crossover, built on the same global platform that reinvigorated the Impreza last year and which will likely underpin all the company's vehicles.
Like the Impreza, this new Crosstrek shares very little with the previous model since its basic core is entirely different. The chassis is considerably stiffer and lighter, for more responsive handling and fuel economy, and it's safer too, crumpling on impact in all the right places to better protect the occupants. Subaru says crash-energy absorption is increased by 40 per cent.
There was a previous generation model here to drive as a comparison, and it showed the new edition is noticeably quieter and smoother. Being a cynical sort, the difference was so apparent I might even have imagined an enthusiastic Subaru engineer poking a screwdriver through the older car's muffler, or loosening some nuts and bolts, but I'm sure this was not the case – I drove the current car at home soon after driving the new Impreza, and was unimpressed.
The Crosstrek is a popular vehicle though, chasing behind the Forester and Impreza for the company's sales. It's the right size for many couples and young families, and Subaru is reluctant to slot it into a particular category. As such, it straddles the compact SUV and sub-compact SUV sizes, being a little smaller than the first and a bit bigger than the second.
It's also capable off-road, with an "X-Mode" that keeps everything under control with the press of a button.
"It doesn't really make sense to have something like this on only some of the trim levels," said Lalka, just before we pressed that button and launched ourselves over the edge of a dirt track's exceptionally steep drop. The Crosstrek handled the descent with no muss or fuss. "The cost of it is really in the research and development, so we might as well include it in every trim. It's part of what makes us stand out as a car company."
Subaru's main selling point these days is that all of its vehicles are all-wheel drive – except the rear-wheel-drive BRZ sports car, developed in partnership with Toyota – and often, that AWD costs about the same as the competition's two-wheel drive. Not everyone needs AWD, which can be heavier on fuel consumption and more expensive to repair, but plenty of people want it. You're less likely to get stuck in the winter, and wet-weather driving can be more sure-footed with the right tires.
There's neither snow nor rain on the top of this mountain, where Subaru has a high-speed asphalt oval as well as a couple of off-road courses and various other diversions. Driven back-to-back with the previous generation, the new Crosstrek's much-revised 2.0-litre engine doesn't seem much quicker (it's up four horsepower, with power on tap 500 rpm sooner, apparently) but it's all-new seven-speed-equivalent CVT is less whiny and its overall ride is considerably smoother and quieter. (The six-speed manual is still nothing to write home about, so I won't.) On the rutted, pot-holed gravel course, it holds the road much more effectively with its all-new suspension, firmer steering and active torque vectoring as standard.
There's now a less expensive base version from before, called the "Convenience," which starts at $23,695. You don't get heated seats for that price, which is $1,300 less than the cheapest 2017 Crosstrek, but you do get air-conditioning, cruise control, and a 6.5-inch multimedia display screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The CVT – which you want, because you don't want the stiff and thirsty manual transmission – is $1,300 extra on the three less-costly trims and standard on the top-of-the-line Limited trim, which starts at $31,695.
So is it all worth it? The new Crosstrek is a marked improvement on the old crossover, and it's less expensive too. Oh, and it has all-wheel drive for about the cost of a two-wheel drive. What's not to like about that?
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
- Base price/as tested: $23,695/$33,195
- Engine: 2.0-litre direct-injection flat-four
- Transmission/drive: Seven-speed CVT or 6-speed manual
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): CVT, 8.8 city/7.2 highway; manual, 10.5 city/8.1 hwy
- Alternatives: Mazda CX3, Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, Toyota C-HR
- Looks: Subaru says the plastic fender cladding looks “rugged and practical”, but it also looks like a sleeker Pontiac Aztek.
- Interior: Both cloth and leather are very nicely refined for these price points, with plenty of space. Like the Impreza, the cabin is a bit more spacious than before, with a couple of centimetres more leg room and shoulder room. The rear cargo door opening is now considerably wider, by an extra 10 cm.
- Performance: Takes a while to get up to speed, but holds its own once there. The fuel tank is bigger at 63 litres, up three from before and up 13 from the Impreza for a range of close to 800 kilometres.
- Technology: Lots of smart features as standard, and everything else as options. The Eyesight camera and sensor system, now in its third generation of driver assistance, is a $1,500 option, but only available on the two most expensive trims.
- Cargo: 1,565 litres of space (up 95 litres) in a more accessible cargo area, though the rear lip is too high for a dog to jump into.
A solid improvement all around for the popular crossover.