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In its sophomore year on the market, the 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek gains a new powertrain option and remains the king of the new category it defined: You might call the compact-hatchback all-wheel-drive crossover utility vehicle. Beefier tires, elevated ground clearance, and suspension and mechanical upgrades turn what starts as a base Impreza five-door hatchback into a startlingly different-looking vehicle. The transformation is aided by body cladding and other styling changes, and a new color palette that no longer says, "sensible compact car."
The new powertrain is the first-ever Subaru hybrid, though in the real world, it has a pretty minimal impact on fuel economy--it's a mild-hybrid system that only kicks in at 40 mph or less. But the real allure of the 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid model is a lengthy list of upgrades to its suspension and noise insulation that make the hybrid a considerably more pleasant car in which to spend time than the noisy, occasionally wandery conventional Crosstrek.
The Crosstrek range can be considered in the same vein as a good pair of cross-trainer shoes: sufficiently sturdy to handle a variety of different uses, but not specialized to any one particular duty cycle at the expense of any others.
The XV Crosstrek has a brawny appearance that's surprisingly different in stance from its Impreza hatchback base. But with the exception of some extra noise and more vague on-road behavior, it still handles pretty much like a passenger car--and it offers versatile and impressive cargo capacity for ski gear, camping supplies, or just groceries and boxes. Subaru also notes that the hybrid version's battery pack is stowed under the deck, meaning that its cargo volume is largely unchanged from the conventional version.
Specifically, the Crosstrek's ground clearance is raised to 8.7 inches, and it has more engine cooling, a larger gas tank, some suspension and structural reinforcements, and good approach and departure angles (18 degrees and nearly 28 degrees, respectively). With Subaru's standard all-wheel drive distributing power among all four wheels, the Impreza-based crossover might be one of the best small vehicles for snowy driveways and dirt, gravel, and rutted roads.
The standard 2014 Subaru Crosstrek comes with a 148-horsepower, 2.0-liter flat-four engine paired either with a five-speed manual gearbox or Subaru's Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). The new hybrid powertrain inserts a small 10-kilowatt (13.4-hp) electric motor between the engine and CVT, though it's there largely to assist the engine and can propel the vehicle from a stop on electricity alone only if you're willing to accelerate very, very gently--and there's no one behind you.
Subaru says the Crosstrek Hybrid can move away from a stop electrically, "under certain circumstances," which is true, and it also kicks into electric-only mode under light loads and on downhill stretches from as high as 40 mph. Still, it operates much like Honda's mild-hybrid system--meaning it's there largely to restart the engine, capture braking energy to recharge the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, and otherwise add supplementary torque so the gasoline engine doesn't have to work as hard.
The standard 2014 XV Crosstrek has a smooth, refined ride that's a step above rival models like the Nissan Juke, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, and MINI Countryman. But our road test found that it also wandered easily at highway speeds, it was nervous and hard to keep on line, the steering was numb, and it was quite susceptible to crosswinds. It was also astoundingly noisy on certain rough types of pavement. The hybrid model has five upgrades to its front suspension and a dozen improvements to noise and vibration insulation--which together pretty much cure those problems. Subaru hasn't said if the non-hybrid model will get those same changes, though.
Below 50 mph, handling is surprisingly nimble, and the Crosstrek rides well and soaks up harshness from trails and gravel roads with great competence. It's not particularly quick, with less than 150 hp moving more than 3,200 pounds for a fully-loaded Crosstrek Limited. The five-speed manual feels more agile, against an occasional lag in power delivery with the CVT. But gas mileage is excellent for a crossover (the best in the class, really), at up to 28 mpg combined (25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway) with the CVT. It falls to 26 mpg combined, or 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway, with the manual. The hybrid improves on that a bit, at a combined 31 mpg rating (28 mpg city, 34 mpg highway)--not as much as hybrid buyers may expect--although we failed to see any real-world improvement over the CVT-equipped Crosstrek in a road test of almost 500 miles.
The cabin of the XV Crosstrek is largely the same as the Impreza, with some changes to fabrics, meaning adults can get in and out of all four doors and four of them will fit fine front and rear. All models include a rubberized cargo tray that's easily removed and hosed off, and the electronic-circuit pattern stamped into the rubber of the hybrid's tray is a nice touch. The roof rack on all models is standard and can carry up to 150 pounds. Crosstrek models come rated to tow up to 1,500 pounds, too. Materials and trims are only average for this price range, though, perhaps fitting Subaru's utilitarian image. Some interfaces for audio and trip-computer displays also feel clunky and outdated.
With a starting price around $22,000, the 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Premium (the lowest trim level) is a strong value. The Hybrid starts around $25,000. Then there's the Limited model, the more upscale trim level. That adds leather upholstery, leather shift-knob and steering-wheel trim, automatic climate control, and a fold-down rear-seat armrest with cupholders. All Crosstreks come with keyless entry, air conditioning, power accessories, and cruise control, as well--of course--as all-wheel drive. They also get a step-up display audio system with 4.3-inch screen, rear camera and HD Radio, and a navigation system with XM NavTraffic, voice control, and text-messaging ability is optional. Adding options and the mandatory delivery fee can push that up toward $28,000, however, which brings the Crosstrek into competition with more traditional compact crossovers, and the top-of-the-line Crosstrek Hybrid just crosses $30,000.