The 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek, now in its second year, has been an unexpected success for Subaru, which is now cutting back on standard Impreza sales to get more Crosstreks from the factory. The Crosstrek is essentially an Impreza hatchback that's been raised considerably, given bigger wheels and tires, a larger gas tank, and bigger front brakes--plus assorted reinforcements and strengthening to make it tougher in off-road conditions.
It's capable of anything from smooth pavement to mild off-roading, and good for any combination of torrential rain, blizzards, muddy tracks, gravel mountain roads, or for that matter, your daily commute. It also has good approach and departure angles (of 18 degrees and nearly 28 degrees, respectively), and with its all-wheel-drive system, which is always sending power to all four wheels, we think it might be one of the best vehicles yet for snowy roads and driveways.
It doesn't handle as well as the lower Impreza, but compared to most all-wheel-drive compact crossovers (except perhaps Subaru's own Forester), it's relatively crisp and athletic in corners. It's taller than the Impreza--with 8.7 inches of ground clearance--but it doesn't feel tippy at all. Subaru's electric power steering is light to use, but crisply weighted, and overall the Crosstrek feels like driving a car, rather than a taller small crossover. Nonetheless, it can tow up to 1,500 pounds, while some competitors--the Mini Cooper Countryman, Nissan Juke, and Jeep Compass, for example--have no rated tow capacity at all.
Two transmissions are available--a five-speed manual gearbox or Subaru's continuously variable transmission (CVT), which remains one of our favorite of the breed--and the all-wheel-drive hardware varies accordingly. Manual Crosstreks come with a viscous-coupling all-wheel-drive system with locking center differential, while CVT versions come with an electronically managed continuously variable transfer-clutch system. Both send power to the wheels with the most grip, but the manual-gearbox version provides a more direct, connected driving feel.
That said, the Crosstrek isn't particularly fast. Its 2.0-liter flat-four engine produces only 148 horsepower, and it has roughly 3,200 pounds in a loaded Crosstrek Limited. The torque peak of 145 lb-ft isn't reached until 4,200 rpm, so the car is neither sprightly nor fast. The manual version responds more quickly when a burst of power is needed, but the Lineartronic CVT is more fuel-efficient--you decide which is more important.
Under light to medium loads, the CVT delivers nonchalant acceleration, but when you floor it, the powertrain loses its composure for a moment, revving the engine high up into its range, but producing more noise than added thrust. The system's control logic causes the CVT to bog down for a second or two if you floor it, before letting the revs rise, and it remains just as quick if you ease into a full-throttle takeoff. CVT drivers have a workaround, though, in the form of six pre-set ratios built into the steering-wheel paddle-shifters.
The XV Crosstrek Hybrid adds a 10-kilowatt (13.4-hp) electric motor between a specially tuned version of the 2.0-liter engine and the CVT, with its battery pack located under the rear deck floor at a cost of just 1.7 cubic feet of cargo space lost. On the road, the Hybrid switches off its engine at stops, and while the motor is less powerful than those in most other hybrids, its 48 lb-ft of torque can move the car from a stop using all-electric acceleration if the driver has a very gentle foot--and no other cars following. It also provides regenerative braking to recharge the battery, using otherwise wasted energy, at speeds up to 40 mph.
With the added weight of the hybrid system, Subaru has fitted special lightweight 17-inch alloy wheels and automatic grille shutters to the Crosstrek Hybrid, helping it achieve a combined gas-mileage rating of 31 mpg--the highest of any Impreza or XV Crosstrek model. We didn't see a real-world difference between the regular CVT and the Hybrid Imprezas in our tests, which had more highways speeds than around-town stop-and-go traffic.