published Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

Test Drive: Crosstrek hybrid adds economy, punch

The new Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid has more horsepower and better fuel economy than the non-hybrid version.
The new Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid has more horsepower and better fuel economy than the non-hybrid version.
Photo by Mark Kennedy.

FAST FACTS

* Model: Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid (Touring)

* Exterior color: Ice Silver Metallic

* Interior color: Black

* Engine: 2.0 liter, four-cylinder

* Horsepower: 160 hp, 163 pound-feet of torque

* Transmission: CVT

* Fuel economy: 33 highway, 29 city

* Dealer: Kelly Subaru

* Price (as tested): $30,760

Bad weather is good news for Subaru.

Consequently, the harsh American winter of 2014 has turbo-charged the company’s sales. Subaru sales were up 34 percent in February over the same month last year.

But it’s not just slick roads driving the Subaru sales surge. Two years in a row the company has won Motor Trend’s SUV of the Year Award, first for its redesigned Outback and then for the new Forester.

Meanwhile, the new Subaru Crosstrek compact SUV (reviewed in this space February 2013) is back in the news with a mild hybrid version for 2014. The gas/electric drivetrain simultaneously boosts horsepower and fuel economy.

We swung by Kelly Subaru on Riverfront Parkway earlier this week to check out the new Crosstrek Hybrid, and got the keys to an Ice Silver Metallic copy in Touring trim from internet sales consultant Keith Aviles. Touring trim includes such upgrades as leather seating surfaces, power moon roof and navigation.

Crosstrek Hybrids start at $25,995, and our well-equipped tester has an MSRP of $30,760.

STYLING AND COMFORT

Many buyers may find the Crosstrek the perfect vehicle for singles and couple with, say, a Labrador retriever and an active lifestyle. Its generous 8.7-inches of ground clearance and resulting off-roading capabilities make it perfect for Tennessee Valley rock climbers and paddlers. If you pack a lot of gear, though, the Forester might be a better fit because of its bigger cargo area.

Even though its dimensions are compact, the Crosstrek Hybrid packs quite a bit of muscle. I was amused by an online account of a Crosstrek Hybrid towing a snowbound UPS truck in Atlanta last month.

Although the Crosstrek can carry five passengers in a pinch, it’s a better fit for four. The cabin is rather Spartan, a Subaru trademark, but the minimalist design is a welcome change from today’s over-stuffed, over-designed cabins. Subaru hasn’t forgotten the simple virtues of big windows, straightforward dials and switches, ample rear-view mirrors and an uncluttered dash. Competitors take notice: The formula is obviously working for sales.

Still, our tester came with many of the standard features buyers expect is a modern hatchback: push-button ignition, a power moon roof, privacy glass, heated front seats, chrome door handles and navigation.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The Crosstrek’s hybrid system combines Subaru’s trusty 2.0-liter, horizontally opposed Boxer engine with a nickel-metal hybrid battery, for a maximum total system power rating of 160 horsepower. That’s a 12 horsepower bump from the 148 horsepower in the non-turbo Crosstrek.

It doesn’t sound like much, but the boost is especially noticeable in the middle of the power band. The Crosstrek Hybrid also makes use of a continuously-variable transmission, which pours out the power in a smooth arc. Driving through hilly terrain around Chattanooga the power difference is meaningful.

Meanwhile, the Crosstrek Hybrid also gets marginally better gas mileage: 29 mpg city, 33 mpg highway. By contrast, the non-hybrid Crosstrek is rated at 25 mpg city, 28 mpg highway.

The Crosstrek Hybrid is Subaru’s first entry into the green-machine category, but it manages to maintain its robust all-wheel-drive dynamics, solid steering and incredible balance. I find that most four-cylinder Subaru’s drive like less-powerful BMWs. There’s no slop in the steering and the car radiates the sensation of being planted.

There’s almost no other passenger vehicle on the market as trusty in snow and ice, which makes Subarus double-handy for anyone with a mountain address who simply must get to work sometime — docs, are you listening.

BOTTOM LINE

The Crosstrek Hybrid takes a good little hatchback and makes it better. That’s how auto manufacturers go from good to great.

You can do the math on whether the fuel savings will justify the added cost for the hybrid Crosstrek. In the meantime if you self-identify as a outdoorsy environmentalist, you’ve probably been waiting for a vehicle badged “Subaru Hybrid.” Well, now it’s here.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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