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Subaru XV Crosstrek: sporty and secure

Subaru drivers are some of the most loyal customers in the car business, the proverbial Golden Retrievers of the brand. And the more time I spend driving a Subaru, the more I come to understand why.

The warm and fuzzies often start with an agreeable starting price. The 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek I recently drove, for example, starts at $24,495 for the Touring model. That price included some decidedly sassy styling - an Impreza WRX on steroids, if you will - plus a sprightly 2.0-litre four-cylinder boxer engine and Subaru's symmetrical AWD system. It also came with 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels, heated cloth seats and some of the biggest side mirrors I have ever seen in small car.

Those mirrors only served to make the Crosstrek one of the easiest cars I have driven in a long while, its long, raking front windshield and plenty of side glass providing excellent visibility all around. And the raised height of the Crosstrek (70 millimetres higher than a regular Impreza five-door) made it not only easy to see traffic ahead but easy to climb in and out of - something all of us with sore backs can appreciate.

While the manual transmission might be better at a manipulating the Crosstrek's 148-horsepower 2.0-litre engine - and offer an infinitely more engaging drive - the second-generation, Lineartronic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) makes the car feel plenty quick off the line. The CVT also gets a so-called "manual mode" with paddle shifters. It's good enough that manual mode seemed redundant in spirited driving as the CVT kept the rpms mostly where they ought to have been, but it is still a CVT with an elastic feel and continuous drone. The other benefit of the CVT is that it gets coupled to AWD system that automatically and seamlessly adjusts the torque to the front and back according to need. The manual model gets a different, limited-slip centre differential that splits power 50/50 front to rear and can lock during wheelspin.

While the streets were snow-free the week I drove the Crosstrek, I did take it out on some gravel roads where it wasn't hard to feel like rally boss Sebastien Loeb ripping past the tall pines. Steering is quick with good feedback. The ride can feel firm and almost bouncy over rough patches, but the Crosstrek corners like a champ, much better than its higher ground clearance would suggest. There is a noticeable amount of engine noise under hard acceleration, and some wind noise at speed, but the car feels light and tossible, able to negotiate rough terrain without much fuss. The traction control system is sensitive, though, engaging with even the slightest wheel slip. Still, I have zero doubt this Subaru could handle a 30-centimetre snowstorm without as much as a shrug.

Stepping up to the Sport Package, which increases the cost by another $2,000, seems well worth the expense. The package provides a sunroof, leather-wrapped steering wheel and Xenon HID lighting, among other things. While the base model we drove had headlights that proved exceptionally bright, the base model rubber steering wheel would itself make me want to spend more for the upgrade. It feels cheap and out of place with the rest of the car.

The rest of the interior is utilitarian enough. There's good storage space and most controls are easy to operate, with the exception of an overly complicated multi-function display registering fuel economy and other facts that's not easy to toggle through. The same display houses temperature and airflow settings in a less than sophisticated display. The standard audio system doesn't deliver spectacular sound either. The cloth seats seem exceptionally durable, however, and Bluetooth audio and phone is standard, as is automatic climate control, plus a media hub in the centre console for the iPod.

The cargo hold, while expandable to 1,470 litres with the 60-40 split seats folded flat, can be a bit snug with the seats up. While I was able to just squeeze in two kids' hockey bags, it took some shoving, leaving zero room for anything else. Roof rails are standard, though, so a Thule box would seem prudent for skiers and snowboarders given the limited cargo space. Rear seat room isn't terribly tight, and the front seats had ample travel.

Fuel economy was relatively good in city driving, not straying far from 8.8 l/100 km, while highway driving saw a sustained average of 7.8. While I was expecting a lower highway rating, the city rating showed the efficiency of the CVT - and I was not being overly gentle with the Crosstrek.

That's probably just how most Subaru owners would drive their Crosstreks anyway - putting them to work day after day under a variety of conditions and getting back an equally honest reward. No wonder their loyalty is so strong.

Derek McNaughton, Vancouver Sun

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