First drive: 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport inspires rallycross dreams

On trips out to the country as a kid, I’d daydream about four-wheelers running over rutted muddy hills or spitting up chalk dust clouds on gravel roads. I was surprised to revisit that fantasy on Appalachian Ohio’s country roads in the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport.

Typically, the Subaru WRX STI takes flight in rallycross dreams, but with two kids and all the detritus of family living, I’ve aged into practical things like the Crosstrek small crossover and shoe inserts. 

Since its launch for 2013, the Crosstrek has paved the way for small crossover SUVs to follow, from the Jeep Renegade and Ford Ecosport to the Kia Seltos and Hyundai Venue. Most of those vehicles have all the body cladding of the Crosstrek but very little of the actual off-road capability characteristic of Subaru. 

The Crosstrek’s capability has been overshadowed by a ho-hum 152-horsepower 2.0-liter flat-4 with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that hummed along to get from here to there and back again. It was boring. 

The new Crosstrek Sport trim corrects that by using a 2.5-liter flat-4 from the larger, heavier Subaru Forester and Outback. Standard on the 2021 Crosstrek Sport and Limited, it generates 182 hp and 176 pound-feet of torque. It pushes the Crosstrek to a  60 mph time 1.5 seconds quicker than the smaller engine. With a 0-60 mph time of 8.2 seconds, it’s not going anywhere fast, but it’s better. 

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

The 6-speed manual is not available on the Sport or Limited trims and it shouldn’t be missed. It’s 5 mpg less efficient and doesn’t come with the standard safety features that you get with the CVT, such as automatic emergency braking, active lane control, and adaptive cruise control.

The CVT has evolved. When driving normally it hovers around the 2,000 rpm range, optimizing efficiency in place of power. Under heavy throttle, however, it offers stepped gear ratios that approximate gear shifts like an 8-speed automatic. Press the S button to tweak the throttle mapping for more responsive acceleration, gun it on a hilly country road, fiddle with the paddle shifters, and the Crosstrek Sport transforms from ho-hum into four-wheeled fun. 

Subaru’s charted route took me on hilly climbs and serpentining descents that eschewed highways for off-the-map county routes. The path traversed valley creeks through covered bridges onto gravel paths stitched together by barns spaced out on hillsides like geological social distancing. 

The Crosstrek was perfectly suited for the narrow, shoulderless roads. Three inches longer than the Impreza wagon and, at 176.5 inches, a half a foot shorter than the Forester, the right-sized ‘ute felt neither too small against the occasional oncoming gooseneck trailer nor too large for S curves that larger crossovers would have rolled around like a marble. 

An updated four-wheel independent suspension keeps the cruising comfy, and the upgraded coil springs and dampers reduce the harshness of rougher roads. The Crosstrek stays planted, partly due to the heavier weight of standard all-wheel drive but also due to its smaller stature. It’s safe and secure but with flashes of fun. Grabbing the paddle shifters to downshift in Sport mode let me kick up those clouds of dust on gravel roads, and some modest fishtailing around curves brought a smile to my face before the Crosstrek’s stability control corrected my overly aggressive inputs. 

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

Before one covered bridge, a rutted, rocky path descended about 20 feet before bottoming out alongside a bubbling creek, like the kind of trail I’d see as a kid. In any other small crossover except for the Jeep Renegade, I would have avoided it. With the Crosstrek Sport and its 8.7 inches of ground clearance, I pressed the X-Mode button into the Snow/Dirt setting and let the nose dip down. Sport has two settings for X-Mode, while Premium and Limited trims have just one. X-Mode remains activated at speeds up to 20 mph, and automatic hill descent worked as designed, automatically braking the Crosstrek as it rocked down through the ruts. Some buzzing and clanging from behind the footwell announced the work of the traction control system. At the bottom, I switched to Deep Snow mode and waded like a duck through a big mud puddle. The only thing that stopped me from going deeper off road was a large gate and a no trespassing sign with a bullet hole in the middle.

The cockpit tends to the busy side, with a hooded vehicle info display recessed high into the dash, and a 6.5-inch touchscreen that is more perfunctory than remarkable. It’s underscored by a CD player, same as my 2006 Forester; Subaru says its customers appreciate the standard CD player. Audio and tuning knobs complement real climate controls, but at the bottom of the center stack, recessed between the gear shifter and the climate controls, are USB ports and a phone shelf that would only be easy to reach if you had a clamp instead of a hand. 

The leather-wrapped steering wheel features redundant controls so you don’t really need to play with the touchscreen. It’s all very clearly marked to limit confusion, and there’s a distinct button for both phone pickup and hangup, but the 19 buttons and levers would benefit from some streamlining. 

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

The Crosstrek Sport trim comes with lime-colored contrast stitching and accents, and the Limited trim has orange. They both look good, but I preferred the synthetic leather upholstery in the Sport trim compared to the real deal leather in the Limited. Subaru calls it StarTex, and the water-repellent vegan material is softer with a little more give than Subaru’s leather. It looks and feels good, both physically and metaphysically. A 6-way power front seat is enough to keep it comfy, but other small crossovers have more seat adjustments. 

The rear seats fit two adults in comfort but add a third and you’ll be smelling each other’s deodorant or lack thereof. Rear-seat leg room of 36.5 inches is average for the class, but the Honda HR-V has nearly 3 inches more. The same can be said for the 20.8 cubic feet of cargo volume with the rear seats up: It’s about average, less than the HR-V, more than the Jeep Renegade. The EPA-rated fuel economy of 27 mpg city, 34 highway, 29 combined is very good, however, for an all-wheel-drive crossover. 

More powerful and modestly more stylish, the Sport trim adds some pluck to the Crosstrek lineup. Its capability lets drivers mix in a little fun with Subaru’s winning reputation for safety, and lets you be a kid again, for the briefest of moments. 

Subaru provided room and board to bring you this firsthand account.

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