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BBC Autos

Review

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek versus blizzard

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

HIDE CAPTION

It was, by any standard, an ill-advised road trip.

Forecasters predicted a snowstorm of historical magnitude for New England, arriving on winds that could tear the Atlantic Ocean from its moorings. Ideal conditions, in other words, to drive 300 miles from New York City to Maine in the XV Crosstrek, Subaru’s downsized complement  to the long-running, hot-selling station wagon in a snow suit, the Outback.

Like all Subarus aside from the rear-wheel-drive BRZ sports coupe, the XV Crosstrek is equipped with all-wheel drive, a quality that has long endeared the Japanese automaker’s machines to New Englanders. A Subaru on snow tires, it has been said, is the unofficial animal of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Beginning sales late last year, the Crosstrek is certainly doing its part to uphold that reputation, even as it feeds the brand’s broadening appeal. Subaru spokesman Michael McHale said demand for the Crosstrek in the US and Canada “has far exceeded expectations”, with temperate regions like the Southeastern United States fuelling much of the automaker’s overall growth.

Subaru’s engineers are masters of squeezing multiple personalities out of a single vehicle platform. The funky Crosstrek shares its systems and architecture with the more understated Impreza compact hatchback – a vehicle that nevertheless can effect rally-driver aggression as the Impreza Sport or WRX hatchbacks, or commuter anonymity as the Impreza sedan. And if the WRX STi is the hard-nosed hooligan of the Impreza clique, the Crosstrek is the hacky-sack-kicking Outward Bound student, possessed of a laconic free-spiritedness and a bit of backwoods know-how.

What really gives the Crosstrek presence, though, is its ride height – 8.7 inches of it, equal to that of the Outback, a vehicle that is also more than a foot longer than the Crosstrek. From the driver’s seat, down-the-road visibility is better than anything else its size.

That is, when there is visibility to be had.

The blizzard arrived 12 hours earlier than forecasters predicted, biting into the highway around Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with blinding fury. The Crosstrek’s external-temperature gauge, housed in an unobtrusive, dashboard-top row of ancillary digital instruments (clock, fuel-economy gauge, passenger airbag light), seemed to drop a degree for every mile travelled. Of the few motorists foolhardy enough to be on the road, only truckers dared to overtake, leaving maelstroms of snow in their wake.

Through it all the Crosstrek, fitted with Yokohama Geolander all-season tires, was sure-footed and predictable, holding steady at a borderline-reckless 55mph. Equipped with an all-weather package, which ensured the windshield wipers did not freeze and side mirrors remained fogless, the Crosstrek steered true amid the calamity, eventually coming to rest in Portland, Maine, where two to three feet of snow were expected to fall over the next 24 hours.

What the Crosstrek was not, be it on New York streets or New England interstates, was quiet. As with all Subarus running horizontally opposed 4-cylinder engines and continuously variable transmissions, the drivetrain can be noisy even under light acceleration. The whine produced by this engine-transmission combo is, however, a defining characteristic of Subaru vehicles, which traditionally are eager to explore the outer reaches of their tachometers. This thrashy, high-revving character can put off the uninitiated, but for the converted, it is a trait that, to borrow the automaker’s tagline, makes a Subaru, a Subaru.

Twenty-four hours later, with the storm having moved out to sea and the Crosstrek ensconced in 32 inches of fresh snow, powers of suggestion took hold. Surface streets evoked bunny slopes at a ski area. It seemed foolish to not use the Crosstrek as a ski-trip conveyance.

The following day, en route to a mountain roughly 45 miles west, the Crosstrek, a flawless performer to that point, began to exhibit some unsavoury family traits. Breaching 50mph on a major east-west thoroughfare that had been salted and plowed bone-dry, a curious shudder travelled through the steering column above 50mph.

In 2011, Subaru issued technical service bulletins to its dealers and made changes to its production processes to correct a similar condition afflicting some Outback and Legacy models. Asked later about the Crosstrek’s vibration, Dominick Infante, head of product communications for Subaru of America, emphasised that neither the Crosstrek nor the Impreza share architecture with the Outback and Legacy, and that he was not aware of any owners reporting such issues with their vehicles.

Anomalous as the tremor may have been, it was not, given the automaker’s recent history with the shakes, comforting. Yet on its return trip to New York, the Crosstrek had no such problems, and as it barrelled past snow banks worthy of the Swiss Alps, it gobbled miles while returning a favourable 32mpg.

Throughout, the Crosstrek was a supremely enjoyable, capable machine, but some deficiencies shined through. For roughly $27,000, as this model in Limited trim cost, niceties like a glare-reducing rearview mirror would be expected, and it is surprising that Subaru’s new EyeSight collision-avoidance system is not on the options list. Applications of hard-to-the-touch interior plastics also betray the Crosstrek’s economy-car roots. But perhaps the most damning challenges to the Crosstrek come from within Subaru’s own showroom.

Based on the larger Legacy, the Outback can be nicely configured for $27,000. Also within a dealership visitor’s line of vision is the more refined Forester crossover, redesigned for the 2014 model year. Priced on a virtual par with the Crosstrek, the Forester can be specified with a new turbocharged 2-litre engine producing 250 horsepower, 102 more than the Crosstrek. For a premium of roughly $1,500 over the tested Crosstrek Limited, a buyer gets 102 extra horsepower. That is difficult arithmetic to ignore.

But vehicles like the Crosstrek have a way of deflecting value arguments. It is why Mini can charge a customer nearly $40,000 for a well-equipped Countryman, when the same shopper could visit BMW, Mini’s adoptive parent, and drive away in an X1. Personality has its price, a truth that the Crosstrek’s builders – if their latest tagline is anything to go by – understand keenly: “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.”

From the driver’s seat, down-the-road visibility is better than anything else its size. That is, when there is visibility to be had.

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