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2021 Subaru Crosstrek: Back to the top of the little SUV mountain

The 2021 Subaru Crosstrek adds more power to the Sport and Limited models along with a refresh of the exterior. But the bonus lies underneath the surface.

The Subaru Crosstrek gets a refreshed look for 2021, but its real secret lies underneath the hood of the more upscale models.
The Subaru Crosstrek gets a refreshed look for 2021, but its real secret lies underneath the hood of the more upscale models.Read moreSubaru

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Limited and Crosstrek Sport: Crosstreks in a hurry?

Price: $31,440. The only options on the Limited model tested were power moonroof with 8-inch navigation screen and Harman Kardon stereo for $2,395.

Conventional wisdom: Motor Trend asks, “Has a class leader gotten even stronger?”

Marketer’s pitch: “182 horsepower with standard all-wheel drive. The competition can’t match.”

Reality: MT is asking the right question.

What’s new: The Subaru Crosstrek enjoys a refresh for the model year, and buyers will enjoy some more horses in the Sport and Limited models.

Double the fun: I had the chance to try the Crosstrek Sport during a socially distanced all-day event near Leesburg, Va., and then later added a weeklong test of a Limited at home. Subaru officials are probably not happy about the double dip, but I learned so much about the vehicle in both environments that you, the reader, should write to Subaru and tell them that it was very helpful.

Up to speed: The extra 30 horsepower really makes a difference. The upper end Sport and Limited models now use a 2.5-liter engine making 182 horsepower. The acceleration is remarkably spry and lively, and 0-60 takes 8.2 seconds according to Subaru. That’s compared to 9.7 seconds for the standard 2.0-liter four.

Shiftless: The CVT has been tweaked for the 2021 model year as well. Acceleration is delightful from a start and to about 40 mph, but that last 20 — because no one goes over 60 — is a little more plodding. Still, far better than before.

The up-and-down back roads of northern Virginia are a fun place to test out the Crosstrek, as it glides up the small hills and long grades easily.

Manual mode added nothing to my driving experience. The shifting was hard, and the vehicle didn’t seem to follow along with the driver’s input too closely, which is par for the CVT course.

A stick remains available with the 2.0.

On the road: The Crosstrek has grown far more smooth on bumps and potholes — thanks to upgraded coil springs and dampers — while at the same time adding more driving joy as well. Crosstreks seemed to lose their competent Subaru feel in the last design, the sensation that the car just seems to go right where the driver points it.

This time around, that sense is back. Mr. Driver’s Seat eased behind the wheel and felt like he was driving the car all day: It kept handling just as expected over two hours on country lanes and dirt roads, highways, and more.

Driver’s Seat: The StarTex upholstery is not as breathable as the Subaru people allege. I felt a little sticky after driving for a couple hours on a coolish late summer afternoon.

Play some tunes: The 8-inch Starlink system operates easily and intuitively. Dials control volume and tuning, and the touchscreen is easy to follow. Press and hold the tuning button for quick sound adjustments.

Sound quality is very good, probably a B+.

Keeping warm and cool: The vents are oddly shaped in the corners and vertical in the center, not ideal for good airflow. It seemed like Mr. Driver’s Seat was always getting blasted with too much air or sweating from too little.

But the operation is my favorite setup: A dial controls the temperature, another the fan speed, and a third the source.

Friends and stuff: The rear seat has good legroom and excellent foot room. Headroom is a bit tight, but not cramped. The center seat has a large hump, so that won’t be fun and also has a vinyl seat rather than StarTex.

The seat itself is actually short from front to back, so it could become tiresome for average-size adults like Mr. Driver’s Seat.

Cargo space is 20.8 cubic feet behind the rear seat, and 55.3 with the seat folded.

Night shift: It’s lucky I managed to snag this for a loan at home. There I found out that the headlights leave a lot to be desired, because night vision can be difficult. Like many LEDs, the lights just sit too low without the bit of diffusion that halogens provided. Subaru points out the Crosstrek gets a Good rating from the IIHS for the headlights.

The darkness will not be helped by the overhead lights, which should not be used while the vehicle is in motion. Period. Unless there’s a more subtly glowing upgrade.

Fuel economy: I averaged about 20 mpg in both versions of my testing, though neither one is anything like real-world driving, and my fuel economy always runs low. But I’m afraid it falls short of the estimates in any case.

Where it’s built: Gunma, Japan

How it’s built: Consumer Reports puts the Crosstrek back to 4 out of 5 stars, after a year in the 3s.

In the end: Those lights are a problem, but they’re becoming a problem in almost all the LEDs I’ve tested lately. It’s time this troubling shortcoming is addressed across the industry.

Otherwise, the Crosstrek is back to the top of my list in this category.