Meet Subaru's latest car-SUV crossover: The 2013 XV Crosstrek, an Impreza hatchback that's been beefed up for the "active lifestyle" that SUV buyers are supposed to lead -- or at least desire. Is the $22,790 XV Crosstrek the SUV for a new generation, or will it sink like a stone? Let's drive it and (try to) find out.
Legend has it that Subaru came up with their iconic Outback back in 1995 because they didn't have the money to develop a proper SUV. Instead, they took a Legacy wagon, jacked up the suspension, bolted on some rugged-looking trim -- and inadvertently created the vehicle that put Subaru on the map. What many people don't realize is that Subaru also Outback-ized the smaller Impreza that same year -- and yet in 16 years of sales, the Outback Sport, as it was known, never took off. Maybe it was the lack of a raised suspension, or the fact that people were looking for bigger utility vehicles, not smaller ones.
Of course, that was long before gas hit $4/gallon. Today, small-car sales are growing, and the Impreza has risen to meet the challenge, receiving a major re-do for 2012 that included a nicer interior and a more miserly engine. Subaru thinks the time is right for a new small Outback, and this is it: The 2013 XV Crosstrek.
The XV Crosstrek certainly looks the part: Big, beefy body cladding, big, beefy wheels, and -- most importantly -- big, beefy ground clearance. Subaru claims 8.7" beneath the XV Crosstrek, same as their other-other crossover, the Forester. The sheetmetal is identical to the Impreza hatchback, but the XV isn't just a car on stilts; it looks purpose-built. The pricing is pretty car-like, though: $22,790 for starters, $1,445 more than a comparably-equipped Impreza hatchback. The automatic leather-lined Limited model goes for $25,290, and an XV with all two of the options (sunroof and navigation) lists for $27,290.
In the Driver's Seat
CUV commercials often show smiling families exploring the Great Outdoors, but Subaru says their buyers really do lead such adventurous lifestyles, and they've designed the XV Crosstrek's interior to suit. The basic layout is identical to the Impreza; it's a conservative but well-executed design, with predictably-placed controls, adequate storage, high-quality materials and soft padding in the places you rest your elbows. The XV Crosstrek gets unique seat cloth (unless you pop for the Limited model, which gets leather). The 22.5 cubic foot cargo bay is lined with a thick rubber tray, so you can toss your muddy boots into the back without a second thought. Fold down the back seats and you can stuff in a mountain bike, sans front wheel.
The XV Crosstrek's stance gives drivers a unique view of the road: You sit taller than you would in a car, but you don't lord over traffic as you would in a big SUV. Visibility is good all around, despite the pinched rear-side windows. A rear-view camera is optional on the Premium model and standard on the Limited. And speaking of visibility, this is a good a time as any to mention that the optional cold-weather package includes a de-icer for the windshield wipers -- very handy. The back seat feels like, well, a car -- it's actually rather roomy by small-car standards, but lacks the towering headroom of many CUVs.
On the Road
The XV Crosstrek inherits its 148 hp 2-liter four-cylinder engine from the Impreza, which is not a particularly quick car to begin with -- and the XV Crosstrek's extra 150 lbs of weight doesn't help matters much. The XV Crosstrek isn't exactly slow, but it isn't exactly fast. It does, however, have one key advantage over its peers: Unlike many small crossovers, the XV Crosstrek is rated for towing -- although it is limited to 1,500 lbs.
Another thing that differentiates the Crosstrek from other CUVs is that you can get it with a 5-speed manual transmission. I really enjoyed driving the stick-shift Crosstrek, though I can't understand why Subaru hasn't yet added a 6th gear. Automatic XV Crosstreks get a continuously-variable transmission (CVT), which does a better job squeezing power and fuel economy from the engine; EPA ratings are 25 MPG city/33 MPG highway, versus 23/30 for the manual. Those are good numbers by SUV standards, but compared to the regular Impreza -- 25/34 for the manual and 27/36 for the CVT -- they show the price we pay for style.
The CVT also comes with a more sophisticated electronically-controlled all-wheel-drive system, versus the mechanical system in manual cars. I had the chance to do a little off-road bashing in the XV, and the automatic did indeed do a better job moving power from wheel to wheel in slower, steeper, stickier situations. But on plain ol' dirt and mud, either one does an impressive job. Out on the pavement, the Crosstrek's handling is similar to the Impreza; the steering is a bit light, but the all-wheel-drive system provides excellent grip. The Crosstrek leans less than you would expect given its height.
Will the XV Crosstrek have the same appeal for today's buyers as the Outback did in the 1990s? I'm really not sure. The optimist in me says yes: If people realize they can get their dose of SUVness in a smaller, more fuel-efficient package, they might well go for it. But the cynic in me says no: SUV purists will think the XV Crosstrek is too small, while those who prefer small cars will buy -- well, small cars.
It doesn't help that the XV Crosstrek faces so much strong competition. There are a lot of good compact SUVs on the market, which offer more space for a similar price: The Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Subaru's own Forester spring to mind, not to mention micro-SUVs like the Nissan Juke and MINI Countryman. Cross-shop the Crosstrek against small hatchbacks, and the picture is even more bleak: Start the Impreza on which the XV Crosstrek is based -- it's $1,500 cheaper, more fuel efficient, and just as good in the snow. And then you have the super-frugal and fun-to-drive Mazda3 SkyActiv and the gadget-laden Ford Focus.
Then again, it seems there's always a place for a niche vehicle, which the XV Crosstrek certainly is. With any luck, Subaru will have the same success with the Crosstrek in 2013 that they did with the Outback in 1995. -- Aaron Gold