COLLINGWOOD, ON – With the arrival of the XV Crosstrek, Subaru now has two entries in the crowded compact SUV segment.
Why two? Because Subaru figures the class has become so crowded it can be sub-divided into large and small. Segment growth is forecast to continue to 500,000 units in Canada by 2016 (from just under 300,000 in 2011).
The company believes the Forester can hold its own in the "large" end of that market with the Crosstrek taking on the contenders in the smaller, more stylish and fuel-efficient part of the class.
Stated simply, the XV Crosstrek is an Impreza hatchback that has been raised 75-mm. It has different front and rear bumpers, contrasting-colour plastic cladding on the rocker panels and wheel wells and larger unique wheels and tires.
The interior, drivetrain, steering and brake systems are all straight from the Impreza.
Some might question the wisdom of making such obvious and minimal changes to an existing vehicle and calling it something different. But history and Subaru beg to differ.
In 1995 it did exactly the same thing to the Legacy wagon, slapped an Outback label on it and watched sales go through the roof.
Issues to address
Let’s get the name issue off the table up front. The XV label was used during development and still applies to the same vehicle sold in other global markets.
Subaru’s North-American marketing arm came up with Crosstrek nameplate so the vehicle wears both appellations here – XV Crosstrek. But don’t be surprised to see the XV part dropped in the coming months.
But what about the issue of the Forester and Crosstrek competing for what appears to be the same customer?
First of all, the Forester is in the twilight of its current generation and will be replaced, probably next year.
It is also visually and dimensionally a different vehicle. It’s boxlike shape contrasts with the curvy Crosstrek. And, it's 104-mm taller, 110-mm longer and in a different class altogether when it comes to fuel economy.
Both vehicles have 221mm of ground clearance, which is tops in the class and greater than even the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
In making the case for the Crosstrek, Subaru says it is placing increased emphasis on emotion, design and fuel efficiency in pursuit of conquest sales and younger buyers.
The Forester customer exemplifies the intensely loyal Subaru customer; someone who will not likely consider the Crosstrek. Similarly it does not see a potential Crosstrek buyer even looking at the more conventional Forester.
Lighter and more fuel-efficient
While the Crosstrek may be smaller than the major players in the segment, such as the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson and four-cylinder Toyota RAV4, it has the same 682 kg (1500-lb) tow rating as them.
Towing is not even recommended for competitors of similar size like the MINI Countryman and the Nissan Juke.
The Crosstrek also boasts more interior and cargo space than the latter – and better fuel economy and lighter weight than anything in the class, large or small.
The interior is identical to the Impreza, with great visibility thanks to a low belt line, lots of glass, thin pillars and a tall seating position. Soft-touch materials are used on the top of the instrument panel, doors and armrests but there is plenty of hard plastic elsewhere and a generally subdued air for a vehicle intended to attract new, young, fashion-conscious buyers. The 4.3-inch multi-function monitor in the center is unique to Canada.
There are 632-litres of cargo volume available, thanks to the lack of intrusion from struts allowed by the double-wishbone rear suspension.
The drivetrain is also straight from the Impreza – a 2.0-litre flat four paired with a five-speed manual or CVT automatic transmission. Each is mated to a different full-time AWD system.
That engine however is the single weak point. It first appeared in the 2011 Forester with 2.5-litres of displacement and next in the 2012 Impreza in 2.0-litre form. It has been updated for 2013 resulting in lower friction and improved emission performance.
There is nothing wrong with the engine itself. It is quiet, smooth, and uber-reliable. But 148 horsepower and 145 lb- ft of torque is not enough for this application, especially since the torque peak doesn't arrive until almost 5000 rpm.
Alternates are on the shelf at Subaru parent, Fuji Heavy Industries, including the larger displacement (2.5-litre) and turbocharged versions and an awesome diesel with 258-lb-ft of torque that is available in Europe.
The five-speed manual transmission is easy to use, with well-defined gates and a light positive clutch. A hill-hold feature makes starting off on hills a breeze.
But, with just five speeds and a torque-defficient engine, it seems short one gear and as a result the engine is buzzing at nearly 3000 rpm at highway speeds.
The CVT is OK – acceptable because there are paddle shifters on the steering wheel that allow you to simulate six gears. Left to its own accord, it motorboats like all the others under heavy throttle use. And due to the lack of torque there is lots of that.
Granted, driven in a conservative manner, few will notice the noise that is generated by sustained wide open throttle. Driven in this manner, the Crosstrek is the most fuel efficient CUV on the market.
Excellent ride quality
The electrically-assisted steering, four-wheel disc brakes and suspension, aside from the 75-mm increase in ride height, are also Impreza sourced.
The Crosstrek retains the traditional and excellent Subaru ride quality with huge amounts of suspension compliance – perhaps easy to do with something sitting this far off the ground.
But the engineers managed to achieve this without the added height becoming a factor in the turns. There is very little lean or sway, thanks to a low centre of gravity made possible by the flat-four engine mounted low in the chassis.
The 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek is available in three trim levels – Touring ($24,495), Sport ($26,495) and Limited ($28,995).
Standard equipment on all includes: power heated, folding rear mirrors, six-speaker audio system with steering-wheel-controls, power windows, remote central locking, USB/iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, automatic climate control, and a tilt and telescope steering wheel.
Subaru Canada sales were up 44% in August and10% for the year-to-date, putting it on track for record sales and 3% of the market by year-end, triple the share of 2005.
That 2% share gain might not appear on the radar of the major players, but for a small player like Subaru it is major accomplishment. And the Crosstrek will likely make a significant contribution to that improvement.