When you’re shopping for a car, it’s easy to get tunnel vision — to focus on a specific market class, and look only at vehicles within that one single class.
Say, for example, that you decide you want a subcompact crossover. This is a class that blends the utility of an SUV with the affordability, conveniently diminutive dimensions, and economical fuel consumption of a small car.
If you’re focused within that class, the redesigned 2018 Subaru Crosstrek emerges as a leader.
Priced from $22,710 with all-wheel-drive as standard equipment, the Crosstrek beats most competing subcompact crossovers for its interior comfort, acceleration, ride quality, and gas mileage. It also trumps last year’s model for its updated in-dash technology and solid-feeling ride quality.
The Crosstrek also brings appealingly spunky styling — a cheerily unpretentious attitude toward a splash through the mud, all without looking aggressively cutesy or truck-like. Its alloy wheels look like they belong on a Jeep, not a Mercedes-Benz. The look departs little from the first-generation Crosstrek, but it works.
Subaru created the Crosstrek by taking its Impreza hatchback, lifting the body a few inches higher off the ground and adding the off-road-style wheels and a few more aesthetic tweaks. This means that inside, for better or for worse, the seating position feels more like a car than an SUV. You don’t sit in chair-high seats peering over a low dashboard, because the floor and dashboard all rose up together.
The interior styling has little design flair, but it’s functional. The controls work well, and there’s a well-executed touchscreen infotainment system, but the dashboard is blocky and the cabin doesn’t feel upscale, even on the tested well-optioned model that’s priced at $30,655. Comfortable front and rear seats — including above-average rear legroom — keep things pleasant, and the cargo space also beats the subcompact norm at 55 cubic feet, with the rear seat folded.
Driving dynamics are nothing special. Plenty of suspension travel helps the Crosstrek absorb big bumps without fuss, but the 152-horsepower four-cylinder engine is noisy and not very powerful, at least with the available automatic transmission. A sensitive accelerator makes it feel peppy at first — almost too jumpy — but there isn’t much performance backing up that initial impression. That said, many subcompact crossovers do even worse.
The Crosstrek’s fuel economy is good for a crossover. The EPA rates it at 29 miles per gallon in mixed driving with the automatic transmission, despite the extra weight of its AWD system. The tested automatic Crosstrek averaged about 31 mpg in mixed driving. The six-speed manual, evidently not geared to match the EPA test cycle perfectly, falls to 25 mpg — but kudos to Subaru for even offering one.
Up until now, we’ve been evaluating the Crosstrek in the context of the subcompact crossover class. That class features such models as the Honda HR-V (roomy, but slow, noisy and missing key tech features), the Mazda CX-3 (fun to drive and fuel-efficient, but cramped inside), the Kia Soul (affordable, refined, and spacious, but not fuel-efficient and lacking all-wheel-drive), the Chevrolet Trax (generally pleasant, but dull and lacking in rear-seat room), and the Jeep Renegade (fun-looking and usefully roomy, but pricey and not fuel-efficient), among others.
To sum up, there’s no subcompact crossover that lacks notable drawbacks. That’s because there are obvious downsides in trying to make a smaller, cheaper crossover — generally, the available models will feel small and/or cheap. In that context, the Crosstrek stands out positively in several key ways, and its downsides are easy to excuse.
But let’s avoid that tunnel vision of focusing on one specific market segment. Expand your horizons, and you might find some appealing alternatives to the Crosstrek.
You can start within the Subaru dealership, with the aforementioned Impreza hatchback — which starts at some $2,800 less than the Crosstrek and gets better gas mileage. If you don’t need higher-ground clearance or love the Crosstrek’s styling touches, the Impreza greatly improves the value quotient. It even retains the Crosstrek’s all-wheel-drive system.
If you’re not counting pennies, also consider stepping up to some excellent crossovers one size-class larger than the Crosstrek — but which aren’t much more expensive. The Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue are two outstanding options, with extra-spacious interiors, refined driving experiences, and exceptional fuel efficiency. If you find they feel almost too big inside, the upscale and agile Mazda CX-5 keeps things cozier.
Sticking with subcompact models, the Nissan Rogue Sport — not to be confused with the larger Rogue — is a generally competent crossover with an admittedly bland personality. And the Jeep Compass and Renegade share Subaru’s off-road focus, though with less refinement and fuel economy.
So if the Crosstrek seems appealing to you at first glance, there are a variety of options that could also suit you well. Don’t miss out on considering those other vehicles, whatever their size and shape.
That’s not to say you might not still like the Crosstrek most in the end. With hardy utility, modern safety and infotainment technology, and an appealing personality, Subaru’s entry-level crossover is surely the right fit for plenty of buyers.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.