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2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek, stretching into a familiar pose: Motoramic Drives

July 18, 2012

I sat in a private pavillion on an immaculate lawn, enjoying the temperate evening. There was wine, and a carving station, and hand-rolled sushi. A guy I've become friendly with on the car circuit approached our table.
"Last time I saw you was in Austin," he said to me, and then went around the table, pointing, "I saw you in Montana, I saw you in Traverse City."

Here we all were again, hail and well met, enjoying, as another writer once said to me, another "luxury vacation with people you hate."

This time it's Oahu. Subaru was rolling out its new 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek, a compact utility vehicle to serve as a replacement model for its Outback Sport. Competitive cars include the Nissan Juke, which looks and drives like a Timberland boot, and the Mini Cooper's exceedingly precious Countryman. Subaru is a smaller car company than its adversaries, but they've got the market for all-wheel-drive tall wagons cornered tighter than a Live Strong wristband.

In return, Subaru idealizes its customers as young, active, educated, and upwardly mobile, a segment  the company calls "Youthful Explorer." Subaru imagines they like to hike, bike, snowboard, and often go beachside camping with their attractive girlfriends who are gainfully employed in the tech sector. This ideal seems alien to car writers, a notoriously pampered subsection of humanity, whose main life's activity is walking through the airport to catch a connecting flight.

Then again, they do know a lot about cars. That's how, over an Oahu sunset, I found myself in a spirited discussion about the efficacy of continuously variable transmissions (CVTs), a conversation I'd started. It's not how I'd always imagined my first-ever evening in Hawaii. But it was definitely good enough.

The next morning, we got into the cars. Many were an embarrassing bright orange, and with their high backs and their stubby front noses, these XV Crosstreks kind of looked like tangelos. They kind of drove like tangelos, too.

Driving on Oahu isn't much fun. There are few roads and eternal traffic; the island now has a million residents and seemingly as many cars. Though you see a lot of convertible Mustangs and Corvettes, those belong to tourists, who don't come to Hawaii for the speed. You're constantly going about 42 mph, even off-peak.

The Crosstrek XV is the perfect car for such conditions. It has about as much power as a UN advisory committee on environmental affairs. The 2.0-liter engine (the same as the Subaru Impreza) only generates 148 hp; trying to accelerate it out of a stoplight is almost comical, as though the road had suddenly turned to glue. During our talks with Subaru executives, when someone asked how quickly the car goes from zero to 60, one said: "Nine seconds? Ten? It gets there eventually." However, it does get 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway, which is quite good for this class of vehicle. Decent gas mileage forgives a multitude of accelerative sins.

As far as handling, the Crosstrek felt nimble enough, not hard to manage in traffic, low-key and unfussy. The steering and brakes were unremarkable. The CVT transmission, designed to mimic shifting gears without the actual effort of operating one, worked hitchlessly, but emphasized the lack of speed.

Inside, the interior was similarly laid back. The comfortable seats came in a cool breathable fabric, though my drive partner seemed concerned that the latticework would gather a dastardly amount of dog shed. The dashboard, pretty much directly copied from the Impreza, didn't do much, just some basic LED displays and few buttons -- which was a kind of relief given the needlessly elaborate shipboard computers in many contemporary cars.

It didn't have a luxurious backseat, but the legroom was road-trip adequate. As for the trunk space, Subaru told us that it could hold "three golf bags, a medium-sized dog cage, or a mountain bike without removing the rear wheel." Since we didn't have any of that stuff ourselves, we just had to assume that was the truth. The car can hold an additional 150-pound roof load, with a rack, and has a 1,500-pound towing capacity.

Overall, because of its fruit-like appearance and somewhat odd road performance, something about the Crosstrek felt a little off. This can happen with Subaru, a company known for eccentric cars. There's a "Lost In Translation" quality to them, as though they weren't exactly meant to be experienced in a Western context. The Crosstrek, in particular, was a bit Mr. Sparkle for my taste.

But then we took it off-road, and things got better.

We entered the Kualoa Ranch from the back, giving us the impression that, despite the cheesy plaster Polynesian statue and the sign that said "Jurassic Park," we'd somehow been ushered into a kind of secret game reserve, augmented by the sight of a wild pig rooting around in the brush alongside the road. This illusion ended when a line of chubby Japanese teenagers approached, riding gas-hogging ATVs at the speed of shopping carts in a crowded supermarket. The Ranch is in fact a massive, if stunningly beautiful, traveller's trap fronted by a hellish gift shop. But Subaru had arranged a slightly higher-end "active lifestyle" experience for us than the usual tourist fare.

I drove a 35-minute off-road course on a tight trail meant for horses or mountain bikes, stopping often so my partner could take goofy pictures of me doing yoga poses, and the Crosstrek's all-wheel-drive strengths began to manifest themselves. It had a stiff suspension and reinforced pillar support that would make a sports-stadium architect proud. We went over rocks and rough patches with enough jostling to make the route fun, but not enough to make it uncomfortable. The car handled tight turns and down slopes with skill and vigor. It felt like I was piloting it through some sort of megafun jungle-themed amusement-park ride. However, when we turned uphill for any length of time, I couldn't see over the hood, and I'm exactly average height for a man. In an amusement-park ride, this would be awesome, but for an actual car, it struck me as a potentially dangerous design flaw.

Clearly, I'm not the target market for this vehicle. I'd only willingly go off-roading if there were an awesome fried-chicken shack at the end of the drive. But, I thought, if I were a 30-year-old software engineer named Evan, who was living in Seattle, making 70 large a year, and backpacking on the weekends, I could totally see myself enjoying the Crosstrek. I even found the orange color kind of alluring, though I may very well have bad taste.

By 3 p.m., we were at a private beach, where Subaru had arranged "a variety of water-based activities" for us. For me, this meant paddling around in a sea kayak looking for sea turtles, and then trying to catch some waves with my private guide, Ryan, who did this for a living while also dealing blackjack on Waikiki, at a country bar called Nashville. "I'm living my dream," he said.

Later that night, I lived my own dream as Subaru threw us a dinner party on that very same beach, with lanterns hanging from the palms and red cel lights illuminating the sands. By 5:30 a.m., less than 48 hours after I'd arrived, I was at the airport. The dream was over. Until the next time the car companies send me on a luxury vacation with people I hate.

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek

CLASS Four-door, all-wheel-drive compact SUV
ENGINE 2-liter boxer four-cylinder
TRANSMISSION CVT or 5-speed manual
POWER 148 hp
TORQUE 145 ft-lbs
0-60 MPH 10 seconds
EMISSIONS 5.2 tons of CO2/year
MILEAGE 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway (CVT); 23/30 (manual)
BASE PRICE $21,995
CONS Poor acceleration.
PROS All-wheel drive system makes for fun offroading, good MPG for its class.

Subaru provided transportation, lodging, and beachfront views for this review.