2021 Subaru Crosstrek Review: First Drive

Power solves everything

The Subaru Crosstrek was pretty close to the ideal small crossover for auto journalists.

Very car-like? Check. Tidy dimensions? Check. Even an available manual? Check. There was just one major flaw: the engine. The standard 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder was what you’d charitably call “adequate”. It struggled to pull the Crosstrek up to passing speeds, with foot-to-floor moments resulting in more noise than forward motion.

When the Crosstrek first touched down in 2013, this was fine. Now, as the sub-compact crossover scene is positively packed—ahem—the little Subaru’s weaknesses are in sharper relief. To combat the influx of competition, Subaru has gone with a classic move: drop a bigger engine in. It’s introduced a new trim to take advantage of it too, the Sport (Outdoor in Canada), with chunkier exterior styling and more off-road chops.

We spent a day with a 2021 Crosstrek equipped with the larger 2.5-liter engine, and found its added muscle has made an already good option in the segment even better.

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Customers demanded more displacement

We start with that new engine. Only available on higher-up trims like our Canadian-spec Outdoor model—roughly equivalent to the new Sport trim in the US—the 2.5-liter boxer engine is the same unit found in the Legacy. It produces a healthy 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque; improvements of 30 and 31, respectively, over the base 2.0-liter. That might not seem massive, but the change dramatically improves day-to-day activities like highway merges. Still utilizing a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the Crosstrek now builds speed with more confidence, and can hold cruising speed with much less effort than before. No need to phone ahead and plot out highway passes in advance: just bury the throttle, watch the revs flare up, and feel them translate into forward momentum.

According to the Subaru Canada team, the new engine is a direct result of customer feedback. Buyers wanted more power, and the good news is they won’t see much of a change at the pumps for the upgrade. The combined miles per gallon drops by just one point from the 2.0-liter, to a 29 mpg average (8.0 L/100 km). That’s balanced by a better highway figure than the smaller four-pot, coming in at 34 mpg (7.0).

The first leg of our test route was largely highway, and it took little time to see (and feel) the benefits of the new engine. The CVT “kicks down” when you demand all the power, shifting it past lumbering 18-wheelers and middle-lane dawdlers. Settling into a steady 68 mph cruise, however, netted an incredible 44 mpg (5.3 L/100 km). At that rate you’d be looking at over 725 miles on a single tank.

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Still adept off-road

Then again, you’re not buying a Crosstrek to just sail the country’s motorways. No, you’re buying a crossover for the ability to head off the beaten path when the mood strikes. To that end, Subaru took us to a light off-roading course during our day with the 2021 Crosstrek. It was more rented-cottage than Rubicon, but there were still plenty of jagged rocks, rutted paths, and even some water crossings. It looked far more imposing than we imagine most Crosstrek buyers would submit their rides to, yet the 2021 model took everything the forest trail threw at it without issue.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Subaru Outback Review

With a standard 8.7 inches (220 mm) of ground clearance, the Crosstrek consistently rolled over the larger rocks on the path without any expensive-sounding dings from underneath. The Sport/Outdoor gains a unique two-stage X-Mode drive system, with dedicated driving modes for snow, dirt, and mud. We switch between the modes on the trail and the benefits are immediately clear. With X-Mode engaged, the Crosstrek is surefooted, computer algorithms smoothing throttle response and ensuring the power is being used most effectively.

We ask Ted Lalka, VP of planning and marketing at Subaru Canada, if the team found any unique challenges with off-roading a continuously variable transmission. He explains that the decision to use a chain for the CVT instead of a belt has helped, not only making it more responsive but more durable as well.

Car-like in all the good ways

Circling back to the intro, the Crosstrek has long been a critical darling because of how close to cars it sits on the car/SUV spectrum. It’s obviously based on the Impreza, in the same way the Outback cribs from the Legacy, but that pays dividends in how it drives, and in accessibility.

Getting into the Crosstrek, we immediately notice the higher seating position relative to the Impreza. The payoffs are numerous. For starters, it provides a clear view to the end of the hood, mentally shrinking the Crosstrek. (At 176.5 inches in length, it’s more Kia Sportage-sized than the new Seltos.) It also makes getting in and out easier, be it for kids or those with bad backs. Headroom is still ample too, though it’s worth noting our Canadian tester doesn’t come with the sunroof you’ll find in a comparable US-spec model.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Kia Seltos EX Review: Where Do Its Priorities Lie?

Space in the second row is competitive. The afore-mentioned Seltos offers an extra inch and a half over the 36.5 inches of legroom in the back of the Subaru. To counter that, the Subaru does have around the same amount of extra legroom up front, so you should be able to match the Kia on balance. The trunk is where the Subaru loses ground, offering 20.8 cubic feet compared to 26.6. Drop the rear seats and you’re looking at 55.3 cubes; the Kia offers 62.8.

On the road, the Crosstrek’s high suspension and chunky all-season tires translate to a smooth, comfortable ride. Its relatively light 3,265 lb (1,480 kg) curb weight means it turns in quickly, and it will hold on in corners more than that ride height would suggest. Even the CVT is agreeable. It can still buzz up in certain scenarios, but will fake gear shifts when you request all power from it.

Standard safety for a reasonable price

Subaru is bullish with its EyeSight system, and with good reason: it’s a comprehensive suite of safety features. For 2021, every automatic-equipped model features EyeSight, including all of the usual active aids like automated emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keep assist. 2021 models also include an advanced cruise control with lane centering. We found the latter very effective, but also quite forceful; a slight tug from the wheel on our end saw a sharp correction from the system, swerving to the far side of the lane.

SEE ALSO: Subaru Crosstrek vs Subaru Outback: Which Crossover is Right For You?

The entry point for the 2021 Crosstrek isn’t much different from before. US pricing increases by just $100, with the lineup now starting at $23,295 after destination ($25,595 in Canada). The new Sport/Outdoor sits in the middle of the range, offering the most affordable way into 2.5-liter ownership at $27,545 ($31,795 CAD). The Limited remains the bells-and-whistles range-topper. It lists for a few thousand more than the new trim either side of the border. The Sport gets a unique exterior look, plus its own wipe-down interior fabric, with flashes of yellow trim and contrast stitching to brighten things up.

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Verdict: 2021 Subaru Crosstrek First Drive Review

Subaru didn’t rock the boat with the revised Crosstrek. It’s stuck to the brand’s core tenets—value, safety, a sense of adventure, and a sprinkling of driving fun—while tweaking the details. The brand could’ve sat on its laurels: the Crosstrek outsells the Impreza, Legacy, WRX and BRZ combined in the US, and just had its best-ever sales month in Canada.

Instead, Subaru listened to its customers, and addressed the single biggest issue they had with the previous model. The new 2.5-liter engine transforms the Crosstrek, making it an easier car to drive on the highway. That the extra power rings in at a reasonable price, and barely registers at the pumps, only adds to the value equation. The Crosstrek was already high up on our list of sub-compact crossovers, and the 2.5-liter makes it an even more attractive option now.

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