It’s the subject of numerous Instagram accounts, the poster child for outdoorsy urbanites and even co-signed by Hobo Johnson after he wrote a song about it. A pioneer in its segment, it’s recently been feeling the pressure from newer competition. In response, Subaru’s given it a facelift and dropped a bigger 2.5-litre engine into two models, the fully-loaded Limited and the one people will actually buy, this 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Outdoor.
From the outside, the Crosstrek Outdoor is little more than a jacked-up Impreza, mostly because that’s what it is. That’s certainly not a bad thing, as it shows a degree of honesty behind the cladding. Subcompact crossovers are primarily jacked-up hatchbacks and the Crosstrek is quite open about its roots and design purpose. All models receive a new grille and front bumper for 2021 whilst Outdoor models gain some extra plastic surgery to showcase their outdoorsiness.
Up front, the unpainted plastic cladding around the fog lamps grows from mere accents to entire slabs and along the sides, the wheel arch cladding looks like one of Marcello Gandini’s arch designs viewed through a funhouse mirror and copy-pasted onto a car never meant for them. Some may find it outdoorsy, others may find it garish.
Speaking of garish, let’s talk about this Plasma Yellow colour. An unusual blend of yellow and green, it’s exclusive to Outdoor models and absolutely unescapable. That’s because it’s also on the steering wheel and on just about every stitched surface as contrast stitching. For people who don’t like this colour on the interior trim but want the 2.5-litre engine, they have no choice but to spend an extra $4,500 on the top-spec Limited trim.
Another questionable trim choice that comes on Outdoor-trim Crosstreks is faux-leather seats that feel like neoprene. Cloth seats would feel significantly more premium, although it’s hard to deny that pleather is rather easy to clean. Two nice touches for Canadians are that the heated seats retain their last setting upon restarting the car and that the Outdoor trim comes with a reasonably strong heated steering wheel. Both are godsends for the months of the year that our streets turn into skating rinks.
The Crosstrek’s in-cabin ergonomics seem to be determined by some guy named Kevin who comes in to work on occasional Thursdays. The multi-function display above the infotainment screen is operated by a button on the steering wheel marked “info” whilst throttle mapping is also controlled by a steering wheel button, this time marked “S/I.”
Don’t bother trying to adjust the multi-function display using the “view” button on the steering wheel, that just turns on the front-facing camera, which is actually a nice touch in this segment. To turn off lane-keep assist and automatic emergency braking there are buttons by the front map lights and to turn off blind-spot monitoring and stability control there is a bank of buttons to the left of the driver.
The Crosstrek Outdoor’s stereo is a bit of a mixed bag. While bass is severely lacking, it’s a fairly clean stereo for a non-premium setup and overall amplification is quite good. It still lags behind the system found in Mazda’s CX-30 but it’s leagues better than what most competitors offer as standard. More good news, Subaru offers a Rockford Fosgate speaker and DSP system through their accessory catalogue for $799.95. Getting warranty-approved premium sound without having to pop for the top trim is a nice thing, especially when it comes from an established, esteemed aftermarket brand.
Most drivers will notice is that the bigger 2.5-litre doesn’t exactly transform the Crosstrek into a rocketship. Granted, 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft. of torque is sufficient but it’s not the lifted, five-door WRX that Subaru fans have been craving. The continuously-variable transmission may also not be to the taste of all drivers as it exhibits the drone and RPM-hunting that poorly-tuned CVTs are often criticized for.
There isn’t much in the way of weight or feedback in the steering which is good for maneuvering around tight car parks but not fantastic for freeway driving or slippery conditions. However, Subaru has made a name for itself with its symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, but in its current form that system is actually a bit of a double-edged sword. While all Crosstreks are still all-wheel-drive all the time, CVT-equipped models like this Outdoor don’t use a viscous limited-slip centre differential to keep front to rear power distribution even at all times.
Instead, their all-wheel-drive systems employ a multi-plate clutch that by default sends 60 per cent of the torque to the front wheels and 40 per cent of the torque to the rear wheels. The other downside of being all-wheel-drive all the time is a sacrifice in fuel economy. We averaged 10.1L/100km over our week of testing, a decent tick behind what we averaged in Mazda’s CX-30 with a similarly-sized 2.5-litre engine.
It’s not all bad news though. The Crosstrek Outdoor still offers plenty of traction in slippery conditions and has a very tight turning radius, a boon for navigating tight cottage trails or the confines of suburban drive-thrus. What’s more, suspension tuning is very comfortable without being floaty. In fact, the Crosstrek offers markedly smoother ride quality than leading competitors such as the Mazda CX-30 and Kia Seltos.
For those seeking a comfortable driving experience, the Crosstrek should fit the bill nicely. The Crosstrek starts at $23,795 for the base model, and the Outdoor is the cheapest way to get into the up-level 2.5-liter engine, at $29,995. The top-trim Limited is just shy of $35,000, which is competitive within the segment.
As part of Subaru’s commitment to safety, the Crosstrek Outdoor comes equipped with their EyeSight active driving assist suite. It’s a primarily camera-based system that does a decent job of keeping drivers on the straight and narrow and out of the rear bumpers of the cars in front, although we found the lane-departure warning system on our test car to be slightly overzealous.
Overall, the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Outdoor is one of the better subcompact crossovers on the market. At $29,995, it isn’t bad value either considering it comes with pleather seats, chunky tires and more screens than Madison Square Garden. A comparably-equipped Buick Encore GX or Jeep Renegade would cost significantly more and be worse options. For those who don’t need the most rugged subcompact crossover on the market, the Seltos and CX-30 are where the smart money is.