Buyers looking for a small crossover or sport utility vehicle are spoiled with choices, whether they are looking to buy new or lightly used. Every major automaker doing business in America has at least one little ‘ute on the market, and in many cases, more than one. And it’s easy to understand why: they just keep selling.
One of the most popular vehicles in the rapidly expanding subcompact crossover segment is the Subaru Crosstrek. It first went on sale in the United States for the 2013 model year, originally carrying an XV prefix to its name. There was an update in 2015 that added desirable upgrades like a better infotainment system, a backup camera and Subaru’s EyeSight-based safety equipment. The first-generation Crosstrek ran through the 2017 model year. We’d suggest looking for a 2015-2017 model if it fits within your budget.
Is the Subaru Crosstrek right for you?
The Crosstrek is basically a lifted Subaru Impreza hatchback with some styling revisions that include bodyside cladding to make it look a bit tougher and to offer at least some protection from the elements when venturing off the beaten path. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine sends 148 horsepower to all four wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
We’ve long praised the Crosstrek for its carlike ride and handling and standard all-wheel drive. It’s a reasonable size, with more interior space and cargo room than many of its competitors. That said, the first generation of the Subaru Crosstrek isn’t without its share of flaws. We wish it were a bit more powerful, and we’ve never been particularly fond of CVTs like the one used in the Crosstrek.
So, is a used Subaru Crosstrek right for you? Two of our editors recently debated the merits of the Crosstrek, particularly whether its underpowered engine is a deal breaker. Their discussion could help a potential buyer decide if the Crosstrek is the right fit for their needs.
Consumer Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski: The Subaru Crosstrek is certainly not perfect, but the same qualities that made it desirable when new still apply on the used market. For starters, very few little CUVs can match its excellent 8.7 inches of ground clearance. And while the Impreza-on-stilts isn’t going to win any races down a winding road, it handles fairly well when judged against its small crossover peers. It also has very good visibility, a reasonably roomy interior and gets decent gas mileage.
For most buyers, I’d argue that its benefits outweigh its drawbacks.
Senior Producer Christopher McGraw: I like the Subaru Crosstrek. A lot. In fact, in 2016 my wife and I bought a 2014 XV, largely for the reasons you listed: all-wheel drive, high ground clearance, reasonable room, and good gas mileage. Sure, 148 horsepower isn’t a ton, but it is enough, assuming that’s what you’re really getting. At the time we bought the XV my wife and I were living in Michigan, making weekend jaunts up north where the unpaved country roads were home for our new crossover. Little did I know that within two years we would be moving to Colorado, a state where the XV would struggle.
Last year my wife and I hopped in our Subaru and headed to Aspen for a week of camping. As we approached the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70, the XV, weighed down with a tent, cooler, fly-fishing gear, clothes and food for a week in the mountains, gasped for air, hitting high rpms just to stay at the speed limit. Before we got to the tunnel our Crosstrek sputtered and refused to rev higher than 3,000 rpm. I pulled over on the side of the road, turned off the car, waited 10 minutes, and then continued on about 20 miles per hour below the speed limit.
This may sound like an isolated incident, but sadly it’s not. Naturally-aspirated engines like the one in the Crosstrek make substantially less power at high elevations than they do at sea level. My Crosstrek is rated at 148 horsepower at sea level, where the air is much thicker than where I live at roughly 6,000 feet. Therefore, the car makes less power — about 27 horsepower less, according to this simple online calculator — leaving my vehicle with 121 horsepower. Not great.
What about the Eisenhower Tunnel, which sits at 11,158 feet? At that elevation my Crosstrek loses roughly 50 horsepower, leaving it sitting right around 98 total. I don’t need it to win any races, but it would be nice if it could maintain the speed limit on the interstate without redlining.
Korzeniewski: That’s a totally fair point, and one that I concede. The Crosstrek’s naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine is just adequate at sea level, or close enough to it. But, as you know as a Crosstrek owner, Chris, as the air gets thinner at high elevations, there’s less power to be squeezed out of every cycle of combustion, thereby drastically reducing horsepower. Less than 150 ponies isn’t great, but less than 100 is a low-down dirty shame.
The simplest solution would be a turbocharged engine — something that Subaru already has at its disposal but has chosen not to offer in the Crosstrek. The Subaru WRX is similarly based on the Impreza platform and has featured turbocharged engines for as long as it’s been offered for sale in America. Problem is, the WRX is pricier, sportier and often harder to find in good, unmodified condition.
I still maintain that for a large percentage of buyers (who don’t live at high elevation), the Crosstrek is a solid choice, like it was for you in Michigan. Besides the WRX, Chris, what other options would you recommend to potential Crosstrek buyers?
What competitors should you consider?
McGraw: This is going to sound counter to my earlier point, but honestly, for most potential Crosstrek buyers, I would recommend… a Subaru Crosstrek. Sure, the power isn’t there, but as long as you’re aware of its limitations, it is a fantastic car. I have driven all of its competitors, and we even did a subcompact crossover comparison in 2019. Had we been able to schedule a Crosstrek for that test, I’m almost certain it would’ve won. But let’s say for argument’s sake that the horsepower isn’t enough for you. As a buyer, you still have a few options. Let’s throw down some parameters for this search: used vehicle, roughly the same size, under $20K, all-wheel drive. If you’re a Subaru fan and you don’t want to stray from the brand, two options come to mind, both with turbos. One you mentioned, Jeremy, is the WRX.
“But Chris, I want a hatchback,” I get it. I really do. Other than Subaru not offering a turbo on the Crosstrek, getting rid of the hatchback WRX is my biggest gripe. That said, the WRX did feature a hatchback version before 2015, and a quick search in our car finder tool brings up a few, and I mean only a few, 2013 and 2014 WRX hatchbacks for sale in my area for right around $20K. Those cars have seen a few more miles than a Crosstrek of the same price, but the size of the vehicle is similar and the power is much better, at 265 horsepower, and because of the turbo, you don’t need to worry so much about elevation. You better hope you don’t need that 8.7 inches of ground clearance though, because the WRX only has 6.1 inches.
Another Subaru option is to go one step bigger and get a Forester XT. You can find more of these around (depending on the area in which you live), and they aren’t as modded as the WRX tends to be. In fact, I was able to find a clean one-owner 2015 example with 55K on the odometer right at the $20,000 price point. From 2014-2018, the Forester XT was powered by a 2.0-liter turbo that made 250 horsepower. If I could go back to the Subaru dealership on the day I bought my XV, I would certainly buy a Forester XT instead.
Jeremy, what would you recommend to those who don’t care if they have a Subie sitting in their driveway?
Korzeniewski: That’s a difficult question. For all the reasons we’ve covered, the Subaru Crosstrek is my go-to suggestion for buyers shopping for a used vehicle in the subcompact crossover segment. But if its lack of power (and a turbocharged engine option) take it off the list of contenders, I’d steer potential buyers toward the Hyundai Kona. It finished second in the comparison test you mentioned, Chris, behind the front-wheel-drive Kia Soul. But if I’m offering alternatives to the Crosstrek, which comes standard with all-wheel drive, I’m going to compare it with other all-wheel-drive offerings.
The Kona offers a peppy 1.6-liter turbocharged engine with 175 hp and 195 lb-ft in its Limited and Ultimate trim levels. The back seat is tighter for occupants than the Crosstrek, there’s less cargo room and it doesn’t offer the ground clearance of the Subie. But if gumption and driving dynamics are more important to a buyer than utility, the Kona is a solid choice. A 2018 or 2019 Hyundai Kona Ultimate with the turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive should go for around $20,000 (as of April, 2021). That makes it directly comparable to a 2017 Subaru Crosstrek Premium or Limited, which is the final model year of its first generation.
McGraw: Ultimately, it’s hard to argue with the Crosstrek. I’ve driven one throughout Patagonia on roads that were barely there (as you can see in some of the very dirty images above), and spent a week sleeping in the back of it on a road trip throughout the American West. With a hitch installed it can easily carry mountain bikes, and I routinely fill it with climbing and fly-fishing gear and equip it with a cargo basket so that it’s easy to strap luggage and stand up paddleboards and hit the road. My two dogs seem more than content with the room in the back seat, and while the wind noise can be a bit irritating (I blame most of that on my roof basket), it eats up miles on road trips. I don’t regret my purchase, and we plan on driving this Subaru as long as she lasts. Just not in the fast lane.