2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek: First Drive

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Every auto journalist has biases; ours is a predisposition to Subarus, of which we've owned four.

So we were eager to test the 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek, a new model this year.

It's essentially the Impreza compact five-door hatchback, with larger wheels and tires, higher ground clearance (8.7 inches), more aggressive trim, larger front disc brakes, and a bigger gas tank.

That's more or less the same recipe that turned the meek Legacy wagon into the enormously successful Outback crossover in 1995, but applied to a compact hatchback.

And, of course, like all Subarus sold in the U.S. (except the limited-production BRZ sports coupe), the Crosstrek comes with standard all-wheel drive.

It nominally competes with high-volume compact crossovers, but it's smaller and easier to maneuver than the likes of the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, and Subaru's own successful Forester.

But in reality, it's more likely to be cross-shopped against the regular Impreza, the oddly styled but fun Nissan Juke, and the Mini Cooper Countryman--along with the soon-to-launch Fiat 500L.

Green AWD

Along with its Impreza sibling, the Crosstrek is one of the greener all-wheel drive cars on the market.

Both cars use a 148-hp 2.0-liter flat-four engine, with either a five-speed manual gearbox or Subaru's Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), which delivers better mileage.

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek

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Our 2013 Subaru Crosstrek with the CVT was rated by the EPA at 28 mpg combined (25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway). If you get the manual, that falls to 26 mpg combined (23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway).

The Impreza does better, at 30 mpg combined for the CVT and 28 mpg combined with the five-speed.

The Crosstrek comes in 1 mpg lower than the rating for the Juke with CVT, but we found that in real-world usage, the all-wheel drive Juke delivered disturbingly low fuel efficiency: about 22 mpg.

While the XV Crosstrek is also 2 mpg lower than the combined rating for the Mini Cooper Countryman with six-speed manual, it's better than the Countryman's automatic model, at 27 mpg, which is likely to be the better seller. (Gas mileage for the Fiat 500L hasn't yet been rated.)

Good CVT

Over a lengthy test drive of 700 miles, two-thirds of it at speeds of 50 mph or higher, our 2013 XV Crosstrek returned an average of 30.3 mpg under some hard driving.

That's impressive for a non-hybrid AWD vehicle. And with its larger 15.9-gallon gas tank, that gives it a range of almost 500 miles.

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek, upstate New York, Dec 2012

2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek, upstate New York, Dec 2012

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We also liked its around-town handling, the upright seating position (with a height-adjustable driver's seat), the good visibility, and the general mountain-goat adroitness of the small crossover.

Subaru has tuned its CVT to deliver punchy acceleration off the line, before letting the engine speed rise higher for best efficiency. This may be the least annoying CVT we've driven.

Given the small engine in a car saddled with the extra weight of a mechanical all-wheel drive, the Crosstrek runs out of steam on the top end--just as we found the Impreza did as well.

Nervous and noisy

What we hadn't expected, after two different test drives in the Subaru Impreza (including a First Drive last year), was the Crosstrek's radically different road feel at speeds above 60 mph.

The Subaru VX Crosstrek was, simply, one of the most nervous--and hence least enjoyable--cars we've driven at freeway speeds in the last few years.

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