Subaru solves its small wagon’s biggest problem.

The Subaru Crosstrek has always been a lifted wagon that ticked almost every box. The high ride height made it easy to get in and out of, the body cladding offered a rugged aesthetic, and with the EyeSight active safety system, the Crosstrek was cutting-edge smart at a reasonable price. This was a very, very good car that executed its mission pretty much perfectly, right up until you asked it to, well, go.

Yes, the Crosstrek has always been slow. Languid in its acceleration. Tortoise-like, even. Clearly there was some mix up at the factory, because in place of the 2.0-liter flat-four engines that were supposed to power these cars, there were four hamsters running around a giant wheel, trying and failing to get the compact wagon moving. For the 2021 Crosstrek, Subaru has ditched the wheel and given the rodents a generous and well earned retirement package, replacing them with an engine worthy of the Crosstrek’s otherwise-excellent personality. Finally.

2021 Subaru Crosstrek front quarter action
2021 Subaru Crosstrek rear quarter action
2021 Subaru Crosstrek head on dynamic
2021 Subaru Crosstrek rear on dynamic

Slow-Mo No More

Subaru didn't go so far as granting our wishes for a turbocharged Crosstrek WRX, but the thoughtful addition of 30 horsepower and 31 pound-feet of torque via the new 2.5-liter flat-four is exactly what this vehicle needed. Borrowed from the Forester, Legacy, and Outback, the 182-hp, 176-lb-ft four-cylinder is a fine engine in those vehicles, made even better by the Crosstrek's lower curb weight.

With 3,265 pounds to haul about (272 less than an equivalent Forester Sport and 399 less than an Outback Premium), this engine is a natural fit for the small Crosstrek. From a standstill, the lifted wagon now pulls with significantly more confidence, its larger engine making good use of the extra half-liter of displacement. Stand on the gas at 30 or 40 miles per hour and the revs shoot up as the torque pushes the weight rearward on the soft suspension – a sensation previous Crosstreks could only dream of – and the numbers in the digital speedometer start to climb.

The thoughtful addition of 30 horsepower and 31 pound-feet of torque via the new 2.5-liter flat-four is exactly what this vehicle needed.

But it's at freeway speeds where this engine makes the biggest difference, granting more grunt for passing and merging. It will happily hold steady at 70 miles per hour and still serve up some speed when called for – sudden passes, for example, no longer require a committee hearing and a supermajority among the hamsters. This is not a fast car by any stretch, but the 2.5-liter gives the Crosstrek exactly what it needs to make life easier on the driver.

This new engine is easy on the wallet, too, with the 2.5-liter demanding just a single point from the 2.0-liter's impressive fuel economy – Subaru quotes EPA estimates of 27 city, 34 highway, and 29 combined miles per gallon.

2021 Subaru Crosstrek water

As with our experiences in the Forester and Outback, the 2.5 is also refined and quiet when cruising. It avoids buzzy harshness, instead opting for a pleasant soundtrack that only really wears on the driver when pushing too hard. Even under moderate acceleration, though, the Crosstrek keeps engine noise in check.

Automaker giveth, automaker taketh away, though. While the Crosstrek's six-speed manual transmission will soldier on in the base and Premium trims – which also retain the old, sluggish 2.0-liter engine – the 2.5-liter in the Crosstrek Sport and Limited pair only with a continuously variable transmission.

That said, Subaru's Lineartronic CVT is among the industry's best, exhibiting excellent manners in nearly every driving condition. We wish the 2.5-liter was available with the six-speed, but let's be honest, it's a minor miracle the six-speed Crosstrek even survived to 2021. As for that CVT, it's responsive and smart, managing the 2.5-liter's speed with ease and addressing sudden boots of throttle with predictable behavior.

2021 Subaru Crosstrek wheels
2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport badge
2021 Subaru Crosstrek water action

Trim A Little

The 2.5-liter engine is standard in the range-topping Limited, but the star of our drive was the new-for-2021 Crosstrek Sport. Thankfully, Subaru's designers weren't quite so exuberant in styling this as they were the Forester Sport – no orange accents here. Instead, the Crosstrek Sport adopts dark gray flourishes for the 17-inch wheels, grille, mirror caps, and badging. There are also trim-specific wheel arches, although these differences are subtle.

The Sport trim's cabin gets more expressive, adding the same water-resistant StarTex upholstery found in the Outback Onyx Edition, then tying the entire cabin together with bright yellow stitching. The stuff is on the dash, door panels, seats, and steering wheel – but while the shade itself is overwhelming, the designers exercised restraint. Sure, you get “CROSSTREK” stitched into the seats in a retina-searing color, but along with the metallic yellow accents on the steering wheel spokes, the degree of brightwork in this cabin is spot-on. You'll want to spend time here.

The new Crosstrek Sport adopts dark gray flourishes for the 17-inch wheels, grille, mirror caps, and badging.

But that's not just because of the design or styling. The cabin remains a comfortable place, with supportive seats and an excellent seating position. The second row is roomy enough for two adults on a modest road trip and is nearly as easy to get in and out of as the front seats, while the cargo hold is cavernous at 20.8 cubic feet with the rear seats up. On road, the ride is cosseting and quiet with the soft, lifted suspension shrugging off even large bumps and imperfections, while little road or wind noise reaches the ear. It's more of the same off-road, although the Sport is the trim for folks looking to go further into the wild.

That's thanks to its enhanced X-Mode off-road drive settings. Every automatic-equipped Crosstrek gets a version of this system, but the Sport's is the most capable, offering dedicated drive modes for dirt and snow or for deep snow and mud. Also featured as standard on the Outback and as an option on the Forester, the dual-mode setup works in the same manner as the standard X-Mode – tap a button and enjoy optimized throttle and transmission settings, as well as a different split for the standard Symmetrical all-wheel-drive system.

2021 Subaru Crosstrek steering wheel detail
2021 Subaru Crosstrek rear seats
2021 Subaru Crosstrek dash
2021 Subaru Crosstrek front seats

Our route included plenty of dirt and gravel roads, made muddier by dousing rains leading up to our drive, but little of what we saw challenged the Crosstrek. The wagon's overall behavior was, as expected, sure-footed and confident, with ample grip on wet sections and a willingness to get silly when pushed toward some drifty antics on tighter bends. And when it is time to slow down and take things seriously, the dulled throttle response and tweaked gearing that came with X-Mode's Dirt/Snow setting made the car very easy to manage at low speeds (X-Mode only works to about 25 mph, after all).

At the same time, when back on the beaten path, the Crosstrek impressed with its high-speed stability and predictable cornering behavior. This wouldn't be our first choice for a partner on a canyon road, but the Crosstrek still managed to put a smile on our face with its composed handling.

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A Fine Facelift

In a smart move, Subaru retained the 2.0-liter engine to keep the Crosstrek's price approachable – at $22,245, just $100 separates the 2021 vintage's starting price from the 2020's. As for the $26,495 Sport, it really hits a sweet spot in the Crosstrek lineup, featuring much of the same equipment as the mid-range Premium, with two notable exceptions – the EyeSight system and its prerequisite CVT are optional on the Crosstrek Premium, at $1,350, but both come standard here.

In other words, the $3,200 increase over the 2.0-liter, $23,295 Premium is effectively $1,850. When it comes to such a transformative increase in power, that's a screaming value that still saves $1,500 compared to the range-topping Limited trim.

It's rare that mid-cycle updates can so thoroughly address a vehicle's main problem, but that's what's happened with the 2021 Crosstrek. Horsepower and torque mean confidence, and in the Crosstrek's case, the injection of this extra oomph makes for a vehicle that's both easier and less stressful to drive on American roads. That the extra oomph requires such small sacrifices in terms of cash and fuel efficiency doesn't hurt matters. In fact, we'd say the trade-off is pretty much perfect.

Gallery: 2021 Subaru Crosstrek: First Drive Review

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport

Engine 2.5-liter H4
Output 182 Horsepower / 176 Pound-Feet
Transmission Continuously Variable
Drive Type All-Wheel Drive
Efficiency 27 City / 34 Highway / 29 Combined
Weight 3,265 Pounds
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 20.8 / 55.3 Cubic Feet
Base Price $26,495
As-Tested Price $29,145