HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Subaru Impreza-on-Stilts

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

One of my favorite Detroit restaurants is Mike’s Famous Ham Place. A tiny, ten-seat pillbox on Michigan Avenue. Its menu is just as compact.

Mike’s does one thing exceptionally well: Ham. And they do it over and over and over. Ham and eggs for breakfast. Ham sandwich for lunch. Ham and pickles sandwich. Ham and cheese sandwich. Ham and Navy bean soup. Ham and split pea soup (which I would walk across hot coals for). When I enter Mike’s I feel like I’m in a Monty Python skit (substitute “ham” for “spam”). I’d like ham, ham, ham, ham, ham, and split pea and ham, please.

Subaru is the Mike’s of autos. The all-wheel-drive Impreza its ham.

You can have the AWD Subaru Impreza sedan. The AWD Impreza Wagon. The AWD Impreza WRX. The AWD Impreza WRX STI. The AWD, Impreza-based Forester. Or this week’s review: The AWD, Impreza-based XV Crosstrek.

It’s delicious. Affordable. And essentially the same meat as everything else on the menu (including the AWD Legacy sedan and Outback crossover which are oversized Imprezas). What about the racy, rear-wheel-drive BRZ sport car, you ask? Um. I don’t know why that’s on the menu. It’s like Mike’s Ham started serving hot fudge sundaes.

But I digress. You know the XV Crosstrek is a crossover because it sits four inches higher than the Impreza, gains body cladding, and has an X in its name. Everybody’s doing it. BMW X5. Cadillac SRX. Mazda CX-3. Lincoln MKX. Acura MDX. And so on.

Otherwise the Crosstrek’s an Impreza. Insert my Impreza review from December, 2013 HERE.

Same console. Same all-wheel-drive system. Same instruments, seats, 2.0-liter, boxer engine, continuously variable transmission, special sauce, cheese, lettuce, on a sesame seed bun (OK, got carried away there).

In short ‘Trek is a crossover for ‘Ru fans who think Impreza station wagons are uncool. That cool factor is reinforced by blinged-out, daisy wheels and hip colors like Tangerine Orange Pearl. Dude, DUB did an Impreza!

Reserved Impreza owners would never be caught dead in Tangerine Orange Pearl — owners like my wife who prefers a proper Deep Sea Blue Pearl. Deep Sea Blue Pearl, by the way, is also why Mrs. Payne opted for the Impreza over the Lightning Red Subaru WRX. That and the WRX’s hood scoop and blaring exhaust.

Sitting high in the saddle does not appeal to Mrs. Payne, either. Indeed, the Crosstrek’s added height and softer “off-road” suspension setup is noticeable under hard cornering, making this a hammier sandwich than the Impreza despite their similar dimensions.

But if you do have a taste for sitting up high. . . but not in Tangerine Orange Peal. . . but with more room. . . . Well, then the boxier Subaru Forester would be your thing with a whopping 17 more cubic feet in cargo space over the Crosstrek/Impreza.

Not that that the ‘Trek’s 52 cubes is anything to sneeze at. The affordable Crosstrek is priced with youthful, subcompact crossovers like the Chevy Trax and Mazda CX-3 while offering more room. Meanwhile, the frumpier Forester is a $5,000-savings bargain compared to comparably-sized compact SUVs like the Chevy Equinox and Mazda CX-5.

Ham is still ham, though, and the Crosstrek — like Impreza — is pretty bland in the power department. With only 148 horses paired to a molasses-like CVT tranny, I got out-dragged by milk trucks. Subaru saves the mustard and onions for the Forester (optional, 250-horse turbo) and the tongue-scorching STI (305 turbocharged ponies).

Subaru repackages these options with stepped price hikes. The Impreza Hatchback Premium trim starts at $22,345, the Crosstrek at $23,145, and the Forester at $26,645. The winged, howl-at-the-moon, track-ready STI will set you back $35,490.

Throw in the hot fudge sundae – er, sporty BR-Z – for motor-heads like me and Subaru has a staggering menu of affordable small cars. The bargains don’t stop when you sign the check. The number crunchers over at Kelly Blue Book rank Subaru #2 – behind Mazda – in lowest cost of ownership over five years based on seven categories including depreciation, fuel costs, and insurance premiums. My wife keeps the family books and she’s been all smiles.

With such rave reviews the new AWD Impreza menu items aren’t pirating sales from one another – just bringing more customers to the counter. Introduced in late 2012, the ‘Trek sold 71,000 units last year while Forester ballooned from 76,000 in 2012 to 159,000 to become the brand’s best-selling vehicle. In a challenging market for sedans Impreza still gained nearly 2,000 in annual sales.

All this talk has made me hungry. I’m thinking ham and pea soup . . . and a tangerine.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com and Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at http://www.detroitnews.com/staff/27083/henry-payne.

2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport ute

Price: $22,445 ($25,440 2.0i Premium as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, Boxer 4-cylinder; Gas-electric hybrid 2.0-liter Boxer-4 with AC electric motor driven and nickel-metal hydride battery pack

Power: 148 horsepower, 145 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl)

Transmission: Five-speed manual transmission; Continuously Variable Transmission (as tested)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 10.2 seconds (Motor Trend estimate, CVT)

Weight: 3,186 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway/29 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: A head-turning Subaru; Bargain buy

Lows: Molasses-like CVT tranny; Softer handling is only a benefit if taken off-road

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★