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car review

2013 Subaru Crosstrek.

At last fall's AJAC TestFest of 2013 models, Subaru entered its XV Crosstrek in the Best New SUV Under $35,000 category. It didn't win, but placed a close second behind the Ford Escape 1.6-litre EcoBoost. As a voter, I didn't choose either one; I think Honda's CR-V is the category winner here.

What turned me off the Crosstrek was its CVT. Subaru likes to describe it as a Lineartronic transmission – whatever that is – the idea being that power transfer is smooth, uninterrupted, predictable and, well, linear.

While I would concede that it is relatively smooth in operation, this CVT is too unresponsive and slows this vehicle down. Takeoff acceleration from a standing start is paralytic and, if you need instant snap right now, for overtaking on the highway, for example, it simply isn't there in the low rpms.

In fact, I was shocked at how unresponsive my tester was and tried it again and again to see if things would get better. They didn't. By way of comparison, a conventional planetary type of transmission would have a kickdown that would drop it down a gear or two, and off you go, but that doesn't happen here and the CVT in the Crosstrek – Lineartronic or otherwise – takes too long to spool up and detracts from the overall character of this vehicle. In short, stay away from the CVT.

Which is definitely possible, as Subaru also offers a five-speed manual that is $1,300 cheaper than the CVT, with only marginally inferior fuel consumption.

Elsewhere, power for the Impreza-derived Crosstrek is delivered by a 2.0-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder that develops 148 horsepower. Subaru's Symmetrical all-wheel-drive system is standard on all models. Not all of the entrants at TestFest offered AWD as standard issue, so that's a good thing.

As well, Subarus have excellent off-road capabilities. Most folks interested in this kind of rig are looking for extra traction and road-holding ability in lousy weather or deteriorating road conditions, but I wouldn't hesitate to take the Crosstrek into the boonies. Because of its relatively small size and light weight, this should be an off-roader par excellence.

That said, 148 horsepower is not going to set the off-roads on fire and all of the other entrants in this category outpower the Crosstrek – some by a considerable margin. The CR-V, for example, develops 185 horsepower and the Ford Escape, 178. Yet another reason to stay away from the power-sucking CVT.

Subaru is offering the Crosstrek in three packages: Touring, Sport and Limited. My tester was the latter, and it came with leather interior, voice-activated navi system, back-up camera, climate control and a power sunroof. This takes it from a starting price of just more than $30,000 to more than $32,000.

A base Touring model, on the other hand, is less than $25,000 to start and has heated front seats, air conditioning and tilt/telescoping steering. This makes it a more attractive proposition.

Behind the wheel, lack of power notwithstanding, the Crosstrek is about as driveable as these things get. It's perched higher off the ground than the Impreza, but nothing onerous and entering and exiting is a cinch.

The flat-four boxer engine has a built-in smoothness and civility and it's less rambunctious than the Escape. Fuel economy is also a pleasant surprise; equipped with the CVT, the Crosstrek delivers 8.2 litres/100 km in town and 6.0 on the highway. With the exception of the Mazda SkyActiv CX-5, this is the best fuel economy in this category.

Storage capacity, equally important, is down here, however. The Crosstrek offers less room to haul stuff than all its competitors. The CR-V and Hyundai Santa Fe are vastly roomier inside.

One small thing I did like was the choice of paint. In addition to the usual greys and blacks, there is a distinctive Tangerine Orange colour that makes the Crosstrek stand out in a crowd.

Years ago, BMW conducted studies that related car colour to safety. They found that bright tints such as the now-famous Aztec Orange and Taiga Green are much more visible than white, grey or black, and can result in fewer accidents. Interestingly, many fire departments changed the colours of their engines about the same time, going from traditional red to lime green and so on. Worth bearing in mind.

However, that wouldn't be enough to sway me. I like the Crosstrek's off-road prowess, its engine and its deceptive ruggedness, but it's too small and gutless. Especially with the CVT.

Tech specs

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek Limited

Base Price: $30,995 as tested: $32,410

Engine: 2.0-litre, horizontally opposed four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 148 hp/145 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.2 city/6.0 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-7, Mazda CX-5, Ford Escape 1.6 Eco-boost, Hyundai Santa Fe, Chevrolet Trax, Nissan Rogue, Kia Sportage