2018 Subaru Crosstrek: Second-generation crossover gets massive improvements [First Look]

2018 Subaru Crosstrek (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

There was a split second when I felt the 2018 Subaru Crosstrek start to slide that I was tempted to slam on the brakes.

Then a voice in my head, said: “Let the car do the work.”

So, while my foot hovered over the brake pedal, I refrained. The rear tires slipped. The vehicle shimmied a bit. Then the tires caught, and the Crosstrek slowly inched its way down the gravel mountain.

A vehicle I would largely classify as a wagon just managed to do an excellent job of clearing a slippery obstacle.

And that’s just one of the reasons the all-new Crosstrek is a great vehicle.

During the press preview we spent a lot of time on dirt roads – a lot of time. And I have to think the folks at Subaru did that on purpose to showcase how competent and smooth it is.

The 2018 Crosstrek is the second vehicle on Subaru’s new global platform, and one of the benefits is increased rigidity, which affects everything from ride comfort to noise, vibration and harshness. My driving partner and I consistently remarked about how quiet and comfortable the new Crosstrek was as we turned down one rutted road after another.

It’s also a smooth operator on the highway with a planted feeling on the road and much less road noise creeping in.

The 2018 Crosstrek is equipped with a 4-cylinder Boxer engine that delivers 152 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque.

When I took my first turn at the wheel, I was slightly disappointed with the perceived power output. It felt a little sluggish and not quite as peppy as I was hoping for. But then I realized it wasn’t quite an engine problem, it was a transmission problem.

Our first vehicle was equipped with the continuously variable transmission, and I have to say I’m not a fan. Acceleration was flat, and the engine seemed to be working too hard for the speed we weren’t going.

We swapped into the manual transmission later in the day, and there was a marked difference in perceived power. Plus I just appreciated the control you get when you can manually operate the gears.

Yes, the CVT does have paddle shifters, but only at the Premium or Limited trims. And, yes, I did play around with them, but it still wasn’t quite the same.

While I would certainly like to see more power in the Crosstrek (perhaps turbocharged?), I think the real key for my enjoyment was the manual transmission.

One thing to note with the manual is that there was a weird release point with the hill stop assist. When you were ready to accelerate out of the stop, the brake didn’t release immediately, which causes the engine to rev and gives a bit of a lurch when the brake does release.

The win with the CVT, however, is fuel economy. It gets an estimated 27 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway – as opposed to 23 and 29, respectively, with the manual.

I will say that my drive partner and I consistently got decent numbers in combined driving through mountains on both vehicles. On the CVT we averaged 29.6 mpg, and in the manual we got 31.1 mpg. Seems like those numbers should be reversed – but they weren’t. This also speaks to how hard we tried to make the CVT go faster, and it just wouldn’t.

The 2018 Crosstrek will come in three trims, all of which are standard with all-wheel drive. The 2.0i and 2.0i Premium both come standard with a manual transmission, and new for 2018, you can actually get a CVT in the base trim. The trim breakdown is as follows:

2.0i ($21,795): This trim comes standard with a rearview camera, cruise control, 17-inch alloy wheels, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, auto up/down front windows and active torque vectoring. No options or packages are available.

2.0i Premium ($22,595): This trim adds paddle shifters to the CVT option, heated front seats, tonneau cover, auto on headlights, Starlink Connected Vehicle and illuminated vanity mirrors. Options include: moonroof, blind spot monitoring and EyeSight. Note: EyeSight is not available with the manual transmission.

2.0i Limited ($26,295): At this top-tier trim, Crosstrek adds leather seats, auto HVAC, blind spot monitoring, rear cros traffic alert, power driver’s seat, passive entry, push-button start, 18-inch alloy wheels, and a color multi-function display. Options include: moonroof, EyeSight, rear automatic braking and navigation.

During the press preview, my drive partner and I focused on the Premium trim because Subaru expects this to be the volume seller with 56 percent of Crosstreks sold being at this level.

I found it to be really nicely equipped with attractive cloth surfaces that had orange stitching. Plus, I fully appreciated the standard heated seats – even though it was 90 degrees as we were driving through the Black Hills of South Dakota. What’s great about this trim is that with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, you won’t really miss the navigation – assuming you have cell service. We tried to access Apple Maps at one point during the drive, and it was a blank screen of nothingness due to lack of a connection.

The ride and handling manages to be sporty and fun – which is why it was a bit of a surprise it also handled really well on gravel mountains and rutted, dirt roads. The cabin is nice and quiet, with minimal road noise seeping in at highway speeds.

Subaru considers Crosstrek’s primary competitors to be the Jeep Compass ($22,495), Nissan Rogue Sport ($22,770), Mazda CX-3 ($21,210) and Honda HR-V ($21,565).

That’s kind of an interesting mix. Though all have all-wheel-drive availability (as priced), not all of them are as capable or functional. CX-3 is more fun to drive, but I wouldn’t take it off road. Jeep Compass is certainly more capable – but only if you upgrade to the pricey Trailhawk model ($28,595), and HR-V, Rogue Sport and C-HR are more for city driving than outdoor fun adventures.

And, Crosstrek bests all of these vehicles in fuel economy when they’re equipped with AWD (and most of them when they’re front-wheel drive).

There is a lot more I could say about the 2018 Crosstrek – all of it positive. But the main takeaway is this is a very functional, flexible and fun vehicle. With standard all-wheel drive, it gives you a little more capability to get to off-the-beaten-path locations with bikes, picnic baskets and other gear. But with the content additions, you also have a vehicle that makes a great, safe daily driver. And finally, with an affordable price tag (the incoming base model is just $100 more than the 2017 model), Crosstrek is a nice starter vehicle that can turn into a long-term daily driver.

Editor’s Note: Driving impressions in this “First Look” review are from an invitation-only automaker launch event that allowed special access to the vehicle and executives. Subaru covered our accommodations, meals and transportation costs.

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