2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek offroad first drive review: Playing dirty

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek

Although we haven’t driven the new 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek on the road yet, we did drive one on an off-road course carved through the woods at Monticello Motor Club, and put simply, we are impressed. Even though the XV Crosstrek is essentially a Subaru Impreza wagon with extra ground clearance, it was able to navigate a track we thought only a “Trail Ready” Jeep would be able to handle.

Look at the pictures.

The photographs of the 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek are not tilted to make the incline look steeper, evidence the trees in the background. They’re pointing straight up, so the camera is level. The Crosstrek is the real deal. It replaces the Subaru Outback Sport, which was nothing more than a standard Impreza with cladding that looked off-road worthy even if the car itself was, well, an Impreza in drag.

That’s not the case with the 2012 Subaru XV Crosstrek. The new crossover has a ground clearance of 8.7 inches. That’s a lot. It’s a full 2.4 inches more than the old 2011 Subaru Outback Sport. But compare it to SUVs, including the Ford Explorer at 7.6 inches, standard Jeep Grand Cherokee at 8.6 and the Chevrolet Tahoe at 9.0 inches even. The XV Crosstrek is in rather rare air.

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek descent

The 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek can handle steep descents offroad, even with street tires on. (Click to enlarge)

The suspension for the 2013 XV Crosstrek is the same as the Impreza, only taller, with MacPherson struts in front and a double wishbone arrangement at the rear. The suspension, other than the extra ground clearance, is the same as the current Impreza. However, to handle the extra demands of going offroad, the upper front strut mount is beefed up, the rear frame is stiffer and the chassis has stronger crossmembers.

Like all Subaru models, the XV Crosstrek has a horizontally opposed engine, in this case, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder also used in the new-generation 2012 Impreza sedan we tested earlier (the Impreza wagon is no longer available in the U.S). The naturally-aspirated four is rated at 148 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque. It’s not an overwhelming number, but as we mentioned in the Impreza sedan review, it represents a huge jump in fuel economy.

The 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek is available with either a five-speed manual or a CVT (continuously variable transmission) with paddle shifting which can be used to mimic the six ratios of conventional six-speed transmission. We drove the CVT.

Whether manual or automatic, there’s no low range for the transmission, as per usual of the modern SUV-crossover.  Nor does the XV Crosstrek have a downhill speed control system. The only thing keeping the Crosstrek in check going down hills are conventional anti-lock brakes and electronic brake-force distribution. The later reduces the need for the ABS to activate by putting the braking where it’s needed before slip begins. Nevertheless, on a steep, slippery and rocky downhill, even with standard highway tires, the Crosstrek was remarkably surefooted, enough so that we had to go around several times, just because it was fun.

Like all Subaru models (other than the Subaru BRZ coupe, which shares its rear-drive chassis with the Scion FR-S), 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek has all-wheel drive, and of course that’s what it takes to get through the muck. The Crosstrek doesn’t have a manual locking center differential, instead relying on Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system.

Depending on the transmission, one of two different versions of Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive is used. With the five-speed manual transmission, the AWD system has a viscous-coupling locking center differential which distributes power equally to the front to rear. If either either set of wheels begin to slip, the system sends more power to the wheels at the other end of the car.

The 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek interior

The interior of the The 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek has little evidence of the vehicle’s outer off-road competence. (Click to enlarge)

Continuously variable transmission-equipped car have the “Active Torque Split” version of Subaru’s AWD. A continuously variable transfer clutch is electronically controlled to distribute power to either end based on acceleration, deceleration, and available traction. Up to 100 percent of torque can be sent to the wheels with the best grip.

We didn’t have a manual transmission-equipped Crosstrek to try, but our Subie with the CVT slogged through bellypan-deep mud and only got stopped over the crest of a hill when one wheel was slipping at the front and its opposite was slipping at the rear. Backing up and trying again was all that was needed.