Most people wouldn’t call it an enthusiast car. The Subaru Crosstrek has never had a strong base engine, and even the Sport is far from a WRX. We’ve given it little attention, even as it’s quietly become Subaru’s best-seller. But as the 2023 model faded out, I realized I was going to miss it.
It is an enthusiast vehicle, just not in a normal way. This isn’t an entry point to sports cars or racing, but an entry point to automotive adventuring. Cars are man’s best tool for accessing this endless worth. Come into a Subaru dealership with that attitude and $25 grand in your pocket, and you’ll leave with a brand new vehicle that can get you to just about any starting point you can find on AllTrails.
That’s true with a number of cars. The difference is that Subaru people actually do it. In every national park parking lot, every plot of BLM land abutting a famous trail, every ski town on a fresh pow day, every desert campground on a new moon, you see them. It’s not just them, of course. The overlanders come in their 4Runners and Land Cruisers, the families in their pickups towing campers, and the van lifers in their sprinters. But the backpackers and the day trippers, the people making it work on a budget, they tend to show up in Crosstreks.
I know exactly why. It’s where the road leads. I’m not a Subaru fan by nature. I’ve scoped out many beat-to-death WRXs and talked with far too many obsessive fans to feel called to the brand. But I need a modern adventure car. For the year, I have no huge overlanding trips in mind, I don’t need to haul thousands of pounds anywhere, and I don’t want to fuel a V-8 car in California. For $24,870 to start, you can get a Crosstrek, with a simple, pleasant interior, enough ground clearance to best many trucks, and a real all-wheel-system. It’s not cut out for trail work itself, but it can get you to just about any trail in the country, and leave the fun part for you and your legs. The Crosstrek will swallow four adults, and their gear, and offers a bunch of hitch and roof accessories to make getting your gear out there easier. It’s no wonder you see them everywhere.
My curiosity stoked, I called up Subaru. The company delivered a $29,520 Sport model in an oh-so-2022 shade of flat blue. Like all Crosstreks, it looks simultaneously playful and rough, a somewhat run-of-the-mill car that still manages to ignite the “what-if” part of my brain. Something about the flared fenders and chunky details suggests a rocky mountain pass lying in its future.
Inside, the Sport model gets an upgraded interior with yellow stitching and a larger infotainment screen. It’s the older, less fancy system from the previous generation of Subaru Starlink systems. This is the first reason I’ll miss the outgoing Crosstrek. The new car offers Subaru’s portrait-style touch screen, a large, impressive looking display that handles all of the core functions. Neither system is as smooth or polished as the best in the business, but the old one’s limited scope means you still get buttons for heated seats, HVAC fan speed, and to skip songs.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s more honest. An 11.6-inch portrait display looks like Tesla cosplay, like you’re trying to show off how sophisticated the car is. Base model cars get a dual-screen system instead, which appears cheap and seems designed to push you into the pricier, flashier trims. But that’s not what the Crosstrek is, or who it’s for. Subaru prints money because it builds cars for people who care about value, simplicity, and reliability over empty tech and flash. When you see the new system, with its painfully slow responses and reportedly buggy operation, it’s clear that Subaru is best when it sticks to what it knows.
For instance, the 2.5-liter boxer-four. It’s not a novel or exciting engine, but it is a good one. It makes 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque with a satisfying thrum, getting the crossover to 60 in 7.5 seconds during Car and Driver testing. That’s a marked improvement over the base engine, which takes over 9 seconds to get there. More importantly, it’s enough power to never feel overmatched by the Crosstrek’s weight. On tight mountain roads or wide open highways, the Crosstrek Sport is relaxed and never overburdened. Everyday driving is a cinch.
By opting for the 2.5, though, you give up the other advantage the ‘23 Crosstrek has over the redesigned model. Sport and Limited Crosstreks come exclusively with continuously variable transmissions. The six-speed manual is available only with the base engine, on the first two trims. It’s not my favorite gearbox, and that combination is even slower and less fuel efficient. But Subaru’s choice to offer it for this long was a welcome gesture to the enthusiastic, simplicity-minded buyers who made the brand a success.
After it’s gone, there will be no more manual crossovers. If any cultural renaissance is coming for the manual, it’s unlikely to reach the crossover market before everything is electrified. If you want a manual vehicle with all-wheel-drive, your options are all fast and pricey: the WRX, the GR Corolla, the Golf R, and the Porsche 911. None of them have the same utilitarian, simple mission as the Crosstrek.
And boy, does it nail its mission. The Crosstrek’s trunk and cabin space are both exceptional for the class, with comfortable seats all around. The suspension tuning is superb, the springs soaking up ruts and large impacts without real complaint. Whether you’re cruising at 80 or flying down a back road, the Crosstrek is relaxed, friendly, predictable, and comfortable. Push things even a bit hard on a mountain road and the squealing tires will remind you that this isn’t a canyon carver, but the chassis itself is balanced and predictable. It’s not exciting to drive hard, but it’ll take the heat.
You get the impression that the car will handle anything, because it mostly will, so long as you don’t seek out environments to flummox it. Stay off the track and the trails, but take those dirt roads as far as you’d like. You can do so for hundreds of thousands of miles, in a car that’ll rarely let you down or annoy you with frivolous technology. You’ll get good but not great gas mileage the whole time, you’ll have enough space but never too much, and you can feel engaged without ever being worn out.
It’s a perfect compromise, at a price that’s refreshingly reasonable in this insane market. I’m sure the new one will be better in a hundred ways that matter, but I doubt any 2024 model-year car will be as charmingly simple as the ‘23 Crosstrek was.