Subaru’s joyful small SUV just got better, as we discover on the unheralded back roads of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

– Deadwood, South Dakota

The Black Hills of South Dakota are paradisiacal where roads and driving are concerned – a motoring playground, that, before I visited here with Subaru, lay completely under my radar. Unless you’ve lived here, or have made the ride up to Sturgis for a little motorcycle party they throw every year, there’s a good chance this area doesn’t spring readily to mind when you think of great driving regions of our country, either.

Even after you’ve switched off the ignition, there’s plenty to do in the area as well. The eponymous “hills” are more like mountains, sharp and lushly wooded, with lakes sprinkled around, all offering enough outdoorsy opportunity to animate one’s most REI-fueled dreams.

Add the two regional attractions together – throw in a drive-route stopover to see one very famous mountainside – and you get the perfect place to test Subaru’s claims for its all-new 2018 Crosstrek. Promised to be every bit as adventurous as the outgoing model, but with better refinement and potential for on-road fun, and you can see why South Dakota seemed just right for this introduction.

2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive

Designers have altered but not reinvented the looks of this very well-received small wagon package.

Casual observers would be forgiven for thinking the ’18 Crosstrek isn’t very much changed from the outgoing model – designers have altered but not reinvented the looks of this very well-received small wagon package. The front fascia and lighting elements have been reimagined, and the new car’s fenders have been re-clad, but the truth is the new car looks chunky, slightly rough and tumble, but very similar to the vehicle it replaces.

Under the familiar skin, however, this Crosstrek rides on a new architecture – the same Subaru Global Platform that debuted on the 2017 Impreza. “Platforms” aren’t exactly riveting conversation starters for normal car shoppers, but the new structure has created some very impressive improvements in this car.

Most impressive are the enhancements made to ride quality, noise reduction, and overall agility. My test route mixed up high-speed and often times curvy back roads, with long stretches on dirt and gravel. The in-cabin quiet I experienced during all of these conditions was excellent for the class, and things like wind and tire noise were quite a bit lower than what I remembered from driving the older Crosstrek. Transitioning from rough to smooth roads called out a really nice compliance in the suspension, with a very settled ride even when I got a little aggressive on some wide-open gravel roads out in the hills. And, though this is not a vehicle I’d feel pushed to drive near its dynamic limits, it’s not so soft as to bog down in corners with body roll or flex in the structure.

2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive

Transitioning from rough to smooth roads called out a really nice compliance in the suspension, with a very settled ride.

Subaru calls the 2.0-liter boxer-four-cylinder engine under the hood “80-percent new,” but output is only just increased to 152 horsepower (up from 148 hp) and torque staying steady at 145 pound-feet. Fuel economy offered with the continuously variable transmission has crept up, too. The ’18 car is rated at 33 miles per gallon highway, and 27 city, up 1 mpg on that in-town number.

Paired with that CVT, the engine is only just okay. There aren’t any real powerhouses in this segment to begin with, but off-the-line acceleration isn’t quick, and passing power nothing to write home about either. The CVT isn’t offensive, it just isn’t exciting.

For those looking to squeeze every ounce of joy out of the new Crosstrek and roads like those around this corner of South Dakota, the inclusion of a standard six-speed manual transmission for 2018 will be appreciated. Six is one more cog than was offered for the Crosstrek in the previous generation, and the light clutch and positive-feeling gear lever does make encouraging the car more fun, and less of a chore. I also appreciate that you can buy both the base model and the volume Premium trim car with this stick shift equipped – it’s a rare mass-market car these days that doesn’t force you to choose the poverty spec trim if you want a third pedal.

2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive

The interior is nice enough to live in, but not so nice that you should be afraid to track in trail mud or beach sand.

But the real reason this Subaru is likely to be such a fun vehicle to own is that it offers the freedom of utility, in a package that’s just entertaining enough, day to day. A vehicle that was already on the large size of this small SUV class has gotten a little bigger in most directions. About a half-inch longer and nearly an inch wider, the Crosstrek has improved front and rear legroom, along with a jump of 2.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity (to a total of 55.3). It’ll tow a respectable 1,500 pounds; comes with actual roof rails from the factory; and, of course, every one sold has Subaru’s Symmetrical All Wheel Drive and 8.7-inches of ground clearance. This little wagon was basically born and raised to go on impromptu camping trips.

I didn’t do any difficult off-roading on this test, but most buyers around this segment don’t, either. I can attest that driving over rutted roads, through a shallow creek bed, and up a sandy hill was all similarly dispatched with exactly zero drama. If you want to drive up a rock face, buy a Jeep Wrangler; if you want to grab the dogs and drive to the trailhead after work, this Subaru has you covered.

Oh, and a place where Subaru’s have traditionally gotten killed by reviewers – the interior – has become, at worst, class-average with this Crosstrek. The car has basically gotten the same cabin makeover as the Impreza did, meaning nicer, livable materials; a good infotainment system and touchscreen (at least the optional eight-inch unit); and inoffensive color schemes and textiles. Nice enough to live in, but not so nice that you should be afraid to track in trail mud or beach sand.

2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive
2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive

My only real gripe with the updated cabin is that, at least someone of my huge size (six feet, five inches tall), didn’t get any positive effect from the thigh and shoulder seat bolsters. I did have plenty of room though.

Pricing ranges from $21,795 for a base model with the manual, to $26,295 for the Limited model with niceties like leather seats (powered and heated), keyless start, auto climate control, and that CVT I’m lukewarm on. Subaru’s excellent EyeSight suite of safety systems – adaptive cruise control, pre-collision and reverse auto braking, lane departure warning, and lane keep assist, etc. – is a $2,095 option that can be had on the Premium and Limited models, but not the base.

Those prices are right in line for the segment (when corrected for AWD models), and feel like a fair value for a car that is both flexible and fun. For a daily driver that can dabble in the wild places, start your search here.

 

Photos: Michael Shaffer / Subaru

2018 SUBARU CROSSTREK PREMIUM 6MT

Engine 2.0-Liter H4
Output 152 Horsepower / 148 Pound Feet
Transmission 6-Speed Manual
Fuel Economy 23 City / 29 Highway / 25 Combined
Drive Type All-Wheel Drive
Weight 3,113 Pounds
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 20.8 / 55.3 Cubic Feet
Base Price $21,795
As-Tested Price $23,510

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2018 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive

Photo by: Michael Shaffer