Friday February 22, 2013

ZEKE WRIGHT

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BENNINGTON -- Given incremental growth in size and cost of both Outback and Forester, Subaru felt the need to fill a niche just a half-size larger than its standard bearer Impreza. Enter the 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek (simply "XV" in other markets).

You may call it a jacked-up Impreza, crossover, or compact sport-ute, and in all three instances -- you’d basically be correct. Capitalizing on the automaker’s dog-friendly, outdoorsy image, the Crosstrek derives similar driving dynamics from the Impreza chassis while offering just a "wee bit more" in room, style, and especially road clearance. With 8.7 inches of ground clearance -- three more than today’s Impreza -- the Crosstrek is presumably for those with larger dogs jumping in back.

Afraid the taller dimensions might affect the fun factor? Nope -- the trade-offs here are minimal. To wit: with traction control engaged in a big, wide, snowy parking lot, the Crosstrek amiably understeers fed too much throttle, turning with no hint things would ever spiral out of control.

Turn those stability control electronics off and the Crosstrek reveals a mischievous second nature. With judicious use of the parking brake, the vehicle allows its driver to drift and counter-steer to his or her heart’s delight, predictably and in an eminently controllable fashion.


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There’s no top-heaviness, and yes, this Subaru certainly has symmetrical all-wheel drive standard.

Take note, Subaru of America: if you ever need a driver to recreate that for a commercial, I’m your man. My dog will even hang out the window, tongue lolling.

On dry pavement at speed, this crossover feels no larger nor less controlled than its car siblings. Turn-in might be just a touch slower. You do sit taller, with a better outside view, but that’s basically all, and it still fits down city streets. The one downside is more buffeting on gusty days on the highway. Basically, though, Subaru struck a good balance with the ride and, as automotive writers are wont to say every few years, it’s a testament to modern suspension tuning.

Although minatory styling it has not, the Crosstrek’s exterior lines are attractive and more proportional than the current five-door Impreza hatchback’s similar fashion scheme. The test vehicle came in Desert Khaki paint, but clearly everyone who’s anyone ought to pick one of the three pearls: Venetian Red, Tangerine Orange, or Marine Blue.

Under the hood it’s identical to the Impreza, and that’s a good thing given last year’s redesign. Powered by the same 2.0-liter, four-cylinder "boxer" engine making 148 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque, the Crosstrek’s fuel economy according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates comes in just a smidgen lower given slightly more mass: 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway with the as-tested Lineartronic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). I saw about an as-advertised 30 mixed. (The available five-speed manual ostensibly gets 2-3 mpg less.)

For everyday drivability you’ll hear no complaints from me, but you’ll also never mistake the fact there’s no turbocharger as in the Impreza WRX or Forester XT. Even more regrettable, Europe gets a stout turbocharged diesel option in their XV unavailable here. With more weight, assume the Crosstrek speeds to 60 mph a few ticks slower than the standard Impreza. Nobody’s racing.

The CVT? Still very fine, with again perhaps the best compliment being its seamlessness: engine RPMs move linearly with how much your right foot gooses the "go" pedal. The "slow" pedal works well, too. Of note, there’s a fairly large fuel tank capacity here of 15.9 gallons.

Features-wise, there’s no base model as the Crosstrek comes in two flavors: premium or limited (my tester was the latter, with leather interior trim, rear-view backup camera, automatic climate control, and a 6.1-inch LCD screen in the dash equipped for navigation).

The interior cockpit of the Crosstrek, still decidedly Subaru spartan, works once more for me (but I’m already a fan). Materials are suitable, controls are ergonomic, and any fault found would have to lie with the touchscreen display: the hardware is fine, the software is not. (How do we get a list of XM stations instead of flipping one-by-one? What voice commands does this car understand? Please learn how to drag and "pinch to zoom" maps like a smartphone, Subaru!)

The premium’s starting price is $21,995, but my loaner as-equipped with all the trimmings came to $27,536, not including delivery and destination. Automakers everywhere: why do you continue to ding us for necessities like floor mats and splash guards?

What exactly does this Crosstrek compare to? I’m still not sure -- certainly not other full-blown SUVs, even the small ones. The Suzuki SX4 appears closest but, if you haven’t heard, they’re getting out of the U.S. car market. So grab Fido and go.