What a difference a bigger engine makes. Not just in a hot rod, where builders first embraced the phrase, "There's no substitute for cubic inches." But also in more economical vehicles whose engines are just a little too small.
The best example right now is the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek. Since it was first introduced in 2013, the compact all-wheel-drive crossover has been an almost ideal choice for Pacific Northwest residents who enjoy the outdoors on a limited budget.
Originally called the XV Crosstrek, it is a four-door Impreza hatchback that has been raised to provide 8.7 inches of ground clearance. Starting at under $25,000, the Crosstrek has always been more affordable than any other off-road capable family car.
The only drawback has been the relatively underpowered standard 2.0-liter flat four engine. Producing just 152 horsepower, it was more than adequate for most day to day driving, but struggled up steep hills and during freeway passes. Most buyers didn't mind, especially because it delivered up to 33 miles per gallon, a remarkable achievement for any AWD vehicle.
But auto writers (myself included) noticed and repeatedly said how much better the Crosstrek would be if it had just a little more power. Subaru finally responded last year by dropping the larger 2.5-liter engine from the Legacy sedan and Forester crossover into upper two trim levels of the 2021 Crosstrek — a new Sports model and the top-of-the-line Limited version. It produces 182 horsepower.
Subaru fans might be surprised by the decision. The company made a name for itself in the 1990s by turbocharging its engines in two performance versions of the Impreza, the WRX and WRX STi. Modified versions won off-road rally racing championships. Subaru also offered less powerful turbocharged engines in the Forester and Legacy over the years.
But Subaru has also offered a bigger engines to improvement performance. For example, a 3.0-liter flat six replaced the turbo four as an option in the Legacy until this year, when the turbo returned.
The high performance WRX and WRX STi engines also would not be appropriate for the Crosstrek, which is aimed at the recreational market, not street racers. The additional 30 horsepower in the 2.5-liter engine is more than enough to greatly improve overall drivability in all conditions while delivering even better mileage than before — up to 34 mpg in freeway driving.
The difference is immediately apparently, with the Crosstrek accelerating more aggressively in either Drive or Reverse. It also climbs hills and passes freeway traffic better, with much less noise coming from under the hood.
The new Sport model — this subject of our test — also comes standard with X-Mode, which optimizes the engine and all-wheel drive system to provide the best possible traction on low-grip surfaces. And it includes the Deep Snow/Mud setting and hill descent control for X-Mode, which makes it even more suitable for winter and outdoor driving.
Other than ride height and special gold interior trim and stitching, the 2021 Crosstrek Sport has all the strengths and weaknesses of an Impreza hatchback. On the up side, it is very roomy and practical, with a good amount of cargo space behind the rear seats. The ride is also very quiet and well controlled, despite the greater height. It also comes with Subaru's excellent EyeSight safety system that is among the best in the industry.
The Crosstrek Sport also includes an All-Weather Package that is perfect for the Pacific Northwest. It includes standard heated seats that are covered with special StarTex upholstery that resists water and cleans up nicely.
On the downside, the Impreza is not as sophisticated as most competitors. The interior design is best described as functional, with some leather trim offsetting the soft and hard plastics that would otherwise dominate it. The infortainment system is a little dated but works well enough. A 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system is standard, but you can option up to an 8-inch screen if you prefer.
The Crosstrek is still the most affordable off-road capable compact crossover on the market, and now — thanks to the optional 2.5 liter engine — it is better than ever. Although they cost a little more, the Sport and Limited models are hard to beat on a dollar-by-dollar basis.
2021 Subaru Crosstrek
Base price: $26,495
Price as tested: $29,145
Type: Compact SUV
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder (182 hp, 176 lbs-ft)
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission
EPA estimated mileage: 27/34
Overall length: 176.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,265 pounds
Final assembly: Gunma, Japan
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