Payne: Subaru Crosstrek spices it up with muscular Sport model

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Subaru designers modeled a hiking boot when they sat down to shape the latest Outback SUV. Rugged front end. Blocky, black side-cladding.

So it only makes sense that the Outback’s little brother, the 2021 Crosstrek, looks like a trail-running shoe.

The new Subaru has beefier black cladding all around. The front grille lattice is right off a New Balance shoe. The chunky, charcoal fenders mimic a running sole. Even the 17-inch wheels are wrapped in a higher-profile tire.

The 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport takes the  Impreza hatchback's profile -and basically jacks it up three inches.

All that is deliberate because, like sporty footwear, the Crosstrek itches to be taken off-road. I obliged, lacing up the Crosstrek and flogging it over the gravel and valleys of middle Ohio. Yes, Ohio. Turn south from the pancake flat terrain of Great Lakes Detroit and Toledo, and Buckeye country gets more hillier as it approaches the Appalachians.

This is familiar country to your hillbilly West Virginia-born reviewer who spent much of his youth trekking back and forth from Charleston to middle Ohio to autocrosses, race tracks and hill climbs in the right seat of my father’s sports car. Hurtling through the country, the road trip could be as thrilling as the race event.

For 2021, the Crosstrek offers a Sport trim for the first time, following the Impreza Sport hatchback and the Outback Sport (now called Onyx). The Sport comes after Crosstrek has spent the last eight years crushing it, selling over 750,000 units as America switched from sedans to utes. Crosstrek sales are now more than double that of stablemate Impreza hatchback.

New for the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport is X-Mode which allows pedal free, off-road cruise control so you can concentrate on steering through rough terrain.

It’s about time Crosstrek got a Sport option.

The idea behind the Sport/Onyx trims is to accentuate signature model features. The Impreza Sport amplifies the hatch’s sporty flavor with low-profile, sports car-like wheels, blacked-out grille and tightened suspension. It’s a hot-hatch wannabe.

The Crosstrek Sport (like the Outback Onyx) is a different animal. That shoe-like cladding tells the tale.

Barreling along between cornfields on gravel-strewn, pothole-pocked county roads, the Crosstrek Sport is a blast. Its standard all-wheel drive claws for grip, while the Global Platform architecture that underpins the Impreza and Crosstrek continues to impress. I became a convert in 2017 when I whipped the Impreza hatch over the challenging twisties of San Diego’s Cuyamaca Mountains.

The 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport comes with a 17-inch wheel to allow for better sidewalls for the rugged outback.

The Crosstrek is no less impressive despite hiking up its skirts to 3.5 inches higher off the ground. At 8.7 inches the Crosstrek Sport isn’t quite a Jeep Wrangler (10.7-inch ground clearance) but it is the best in class — two inches higher than my other subcompact ute all-star, the Mazda CX-30. Which looks nothing like a trail-running shoe.

The sleek Mazda would be just as happy if it never saw a gravel road. Its athletic stance is more suited for asphalt where it devours every other small SUV on the planet.

Still, the CX-30 got Subaru’s attention. The Mazda boasts a best-in-class 186-horse 2.5-liter 4-banger. Subaru looked in its toolbox and realized it had one of those, too. Its 182-horse, 2.5-liter has been a mainstay as the Outback’s standard engine. True to Subaru DNA, it’s also a compact Boxer engine (like that found in a Porsche Cayman) that helps lower the high-riding SUV’s center of gravity.

Stuff it in the Crosstrek — and voila! — more spring in the trail-running shoe’s step.

For 2021, the Subaru Crosstrek Sport and Limited models get an upgraded, 182-horse engine.

Subaru says this should satisfy its growing “overlander” customer base — folks who want to hit the trails but are looking for something more affordable (and more comfortable) than a Jeep Wrangler. The Crosstrek Sport still can’t match the Wrangler’s’ 270-horse turbo-4, but the 182 horses is a nice step up from the standard Crosstrek’s 152.

The Crosstrek’s improved looks and power are icing on the cake, because the base ute is so dang generous.

Crosstreks get a lot of love from consumers, which translates into the segment’s highest resale value. It’s easy to see why. This thing is loaded with standard goodies. The standard-features war is intense these days with rivals like Honda and Toyota offering pre-collision brake-assist and blind-spot assist standard. Subaru takes a slightly differ tack with its “Eyesight system” that includes daily essentials like pre-collision braking and then adds keyless ignition, adaptive cruise-control and lane-keep assists for 2021.

The 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport had a nice, signature yellow steering wheel insert - as well as standard adaptive cruise control, pre-collision brake assist, and lane-keep assist.

Readers of this space know I think adaptive cruise-control a must (and glaringly missing on some cars like the $78,000 Chevy Suburban I recently drove).

Managed with two cameras on either side of the mirror (no radar brick in the grille), the system is the best self-driver this side of a Tesla or Mercedes. I’m not making this up. In low-speed traffic or at cruise on the interstate, the $27,000 Subie self-drives with minimal input from the driver. Boosting its off-road cred, the Sport model adds X-mode which enabled me to concentrate on steering over steep terrain without touching the pedals — the car managing speed by itself.

I last used that on a Jeep Wrangler. Adventurous Subaru fans will flip over it.

Crosstrek and Mazda are both loaded in the standard features department, adding generosity to their abundant personalities. Subaru doesn’t try and compete with Mazda’s wicked luxury interior, but the Sport trim does step up its game with yellow-stitched, faux-leather seats embroidered with “Crosstrek.” (Subaru wants you to know no bovines were harmed in the making of this car’s seats.)

You'll know the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport by its yellow stitching and monogrammed seats. The Sport model - new for 2021 - is meant to accentuate the best qualities of the Crosstrek SUV.

The yellow theme is echoed by a gold insert in the steering wheel. The instruments are nothing fancy, but the essentials are all here – big knobs for navigating infotainment, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for navigation, and useful storage bins in the center console.

In parallel with its rugged ethic, Subaru also is proud of its 5-star NHTSA safety rating and green credentials. Reminders abound. When I turned off the Crosstrek’s default auto-engine shutoff, lane-keep alert and traction-control buttons, avatars for all three lingered in the instrument display — like nannies wagging their fingers.

Small bother. Above all, Crosstrek Sport wants you to have fun.

Pop the rear hatch and the rear cargo area is covered in a rubber mat, encouraging you to throw dirty stuff back there. The sturdy roof rails beg for a bicycle or kayak. The rear seat room is generous so you can bring along your 6-foot friends.

I bet they’ll will be wearing trail-running shoes.

With over 560 miles of range - and the best fuel economy oin class - the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport can take you anywhere.

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

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

Price: $27,545, including $1,050 destination fee

Powerplant: 2.5-liter Boxer 4-cylinder

Power: 182 horsepower, 176 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Continuously variable automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.2 seconds (mfr.); towing, 1,500 pounds

Weight: 3,265 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA, 27 mpg city/34 highway/29 combined (1.2-liter)

Report card

Highs: Off-road cred; more power

Lows: Lags Honda HR-V competitor in cargo/leg room

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.