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First Drive: 2018 Subaru Crosstrek

Not so much safety fast as slow fun

Todd LassaWriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

DEADWOOD, South Dakota — Subaru has no plans for a b-segment subcompact any time in the near future. That is not a bad thing, even if the subcompact crossover is the segment every other automaker that isn't already there is racing to enter. Subaru has been there for six years, in its own quirky way.

The new 2018 Subaru Crosstrek, a model that entered the U.S. market as the XV Crosstrek for the 2012 model year, is based on the 2017 Impreza, a compact sedan/hatchback directly targeting the latest Honda Civic. That should make the Crosstrek a direct competitor for the Honda CR-V as well as the segment's new sales leader, the Nissan Rogue.

But because the Crosstrek is, as it always has been, basically a jacked-up Impreza with more serious four-season tires and fender cladding, not an SUV on a compact car platform and its own blown-out "tophat," it turns out to be a 'tweener, with just a 1.2-inch increase in wheelbase, 0.6-inch increase in overall length, and 0.9-inch wider body compared with the model it replaces. It's 63.6-inches tall, including the standard roof rack. More importantly, the new taillamp design allows for a wider rear aperture to make it easier to fit bicycles and such in back.

And so it feels and drives much tighter and sportier than any of its main competitors, from the Jeep Renegade and Compass to the Honda HR-V and CR-V. Subaru benchmarked the Mazda CX-3 and BMW X1 for dynamics, and the new Crosstrek is far superior on the road to the Bimmer, at least. If you really need a compact SUV as capacious as a CR-V or Rogue, there's always the popular Forester, which will become the fourth model to adapt Subaru's Global Platform designed to accommodate all future compact and midsize models. The platform also is designed to accommodate gas engine powertrains, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. A Crosstrek PHEV is rumored by the 2019 model year.

Subaru is proud of this cost-effective move to a single platform, which launched last year with the new Impreza. It makes the new Crosstrek 1.4-times stiffer than the Mark I Crosstrek with a 70-percent increase in torsional stiffness, and carries expectations for top safety ratings from the National Highway Transportation Safety Institute and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, just like its more low-slung sibling. Subaru's new Ascent makes its debut later this fall as the third model on the new platform, while WRX/STI and Legacy/Outback will come after the 2019 Forester.

The Crosstrek's new suspension features MacPherson struts front and a double-wishbone rear. It has a 13:1 steering ratio, about the same as in the BRZ and much quicker than the XV Crosstrek's 16:1 ratio. The new steering allows for fewer correction inputs mid-turn, Subaru says, yet it's stable enough to have none of the twitchiness you don't want in a tallish crossover/utility. All Crosstreks also come with standard torque vectoring. The master cylinder and brake booster has been revised, and Subaru says it "took every bit of unnecessary tolerance out" of the brakes for a more linear, more connected feel.

All this adds up to a sub-compact-y compact crossover that's as rewarding and fun-to-drive through tight twists and turns as the best modern compact cars. Key words here are "tight twists and turns," because the engine, which also is mostly new, is not a willing partner in such endeavors.

The updated FB20 2.0-liter naturally aspirated flat-four, mounted 10mm lower in the chassis versus the previous model, now has direct gas injection and a 12.5:1 compression ratio, to add four horses while maintaining the 145 lb-ft torque figure. The torque is fed through your choice of a redesigned continuously variable transmission with wider ratio coverage and a lighter, smaller torque converter, or a six-speed manual transmission, one cog more than the new Impreza and the old XV Crosstrek manual. The manual is standard on the base and Premium trim levels, while the CVT is optional on the base for the first time, as well as the Premium, and is standard on the top-spec Limited.

Neither transmission can do much for the 152-horsepower H-4. Torque seems to be hiding until you reach nearly 4,000 rpm, and both my drive partner and I did a lot of rowing on the morning portion of the road test in a Cool Gray Khaki (a sort of baby blue) six-speed Premium. The handling feels tight, with compliance generous enough to allow significant roll in the corners, but also with very little understeer and a willingness to rotate until the vehicle dynamic control/torque vectoring (for which we found no defeat switch) catches it. Steering is remarkable, with feel, feedback and precision as good as anything on the market, and the brakes are strong and effective. The pedals allow for easy heel-and-toeing.

The H-4 is better matched with the CVT, I concede to my drive partner, and there are standard paddle-shifters on the column if you want to shift through seven gears - er, steps - on your own (there's no floor-shifter redundancy; move that shifter into the manual gate and there's no toggling except for the paddles). The CVT also comes with optional X-MODE system for better control over loose and slippery surfaces, and hill-descent control which nicely replicates driving down steep off-road hills in first gear with the manual. Subaru provided a short quarry course, which showed off the hill-descent control's smooth confidence, as good as any Land Rover's at twice the price. More than that, the quarry's steep, loose rocks, up and down, reminded me that the Subaru Crosstrek, which features minimum ground clearance of 8.7 inches, is more off-roadable than any B- or C-segment crossover competitor I can think of.

The downside is that the Limited comes standard with 18-inch wheels, which aren't as comfortable over bumps and uneven off roads as the 17-inch wheels, which are the only choice on the base and Premium trims.

More important for my antediluvian manual gearbox obsession, even if the six-speed isn't as well matched to the underpowered flat four, it's still much more fun. Working the manual certainly doesn't do anything for fuel mileage, which already is at a disadvantage versus the CVT, but it does amplify the H-4's throaty exhaust noises. On a couple of tight dirt and gravel roads in the morning route, the manual could be made to dance around the corners like an early WRX. In fact, the low torque coming out of tight second-gear corners reminded me of the first WRX imported here, even though they had 227-horse turbos. These were a specific kind of road, in which I kept it either in third and, mostly, in second, using the momentum through the turns to keep the revs up.

Subaru says 6- to 7-percent of 2012-17 XV Crosstrek buyers opted for three pedals, not a bad number, but one that forces the automaker to severely limit options on the manual-gearbox base and Premium for production efficiency. Many of the standard and optional features on the Limited, which include an 8.0-inch multimedia display, keyless entry with push-button starter, optional Eyesight safety package with adaptive cruise control, automatic pre-collision braking, lane departure and sway warning, navigation and high-beam assist, are available on the CVT Premium, but not the manual Premium, nor the manual or CVT base.

Stick-shift customers might not care about that, but they can't get a sunroof or Harmon/Kardon audio on the manual Premium, even though they're both available on the CVT Premium. It's the price to pay — or more accurately, not pay — in order to have the most fun-to-drive affordable small crossover on the market.

2018 Subaru Crosstrek Specifications

PRICE $22,710 (base)
ENGINE 2.0L DOHC 16-valve flat-4/152 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 145 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 23/27-29 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 175.8 x 71.0 x 63.6 in
WHEELBASE 104.9 in
WEIGHT 3,142-3,230 lb
0-60 MPH 10.3 sec