Anyone who lives where an 8-inch dump of snow doesn't raise a frost-covered eyebrow knows that all-wheel drive isn't enough: If you want to get through deep snow you need ground clearance, too.
That is the point of the 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek, which is basically a modified Impreza compact hatchback operating at, well, a higher level. While the Impreza has 5.7 inches of ground clearance, the Crosstrek SV has 8.7 inches. That's nearly as much as the Chevrolet Tahoe, a conventional SUV.
Those extra 3 inches seriously reduce the chance of bogging down in deep snow, whether on an unplowed road or while clambering over the mounds left by snowplows in front of side roads and driveways.
The Crosstrek isn't intended for serious off-roading, but its higher stance gives it a better chance of handling rutted, rough roads without damaging the parts down under.
While the XV is based on the Impreza, it has a different body style with jaunty, assertive styling. The biggest mechanical changes, Subaru says, involve borrowing some components from the Forester SUV for the higher-riding suspension.
The Crosstrek's cabin is virtually identical to the Impreza's in appearance and dimensions. The interior has an economy-car look but is practical and comfortable enough for four adults — assuming nobody is much over 6 feet tall or feels entitled to stretch-out legroom. Subaru says there's 22 cubic feet of space behind the back seat. Plop that seat down and you create a huge 52-cubic-foot cargo hold.
I spent about a week with a Limited with the continuously variable transmission, followed by a Premium with the manual.
The manual allows more involvement, but there are two downsides. One is a mileage rating that's 2 mpg lower in town and 3 lower on the highway.
The other is noise. At highway speeds the engine — working hard just to maintain 70 mph — adds to the already considerable racket from the road and the wind. Life is quieter with the variable automatic, which allows the engine speed to drop considerably, reducing the racket. And the CVT comes with some underhood soundproofing that isn't in the manual. A spokesman said soundproofing would be made available for installation on the manual Crosstrek.
Of course, you pay a price in performance for the good fuel economy. Acceleration is just acceptable, at best, with either the manual or the variable automatic. The testers at Consumer Reports clocked a CVT model at a leisurely 9.7 seconds from a stop to 60 mph.
While the manual shifter is slightly notchy, the CVT works well. And because the transmission lets the engine operate at peak efficiency most of the time, it's a big factor in fuel efficiency.
The Crosstrek makes up for its casual approach to velocity with an energetic demeanor on a two-lane road. Despite the high ride height, the Subaru changes direction quickly and the body lean is nicely controlled. It is also possible, by lifting off the gas in the middle of a quick turn, to get the tail to move slightly to the outside, helping to change direction. On rough surfaces, the ride can be a bit jolting. One question for potential buyers is whether the Crosstrek is worth its price premium over the Impreza.
For the budget-minded who don't need the extra ground clearance, yet want all-wheel drive and good fuel economy, the cheapest Impreza with a manual transmission is about $3,600 less than the entry-level Crosstrek. But that's a misleading comparison because the Crosstrek has a lot more standard equipment.
The closest apples-to-apples comparison would be the XV Crosstrek Premium with the Impreza Sport Limited, which has similar upscale features like heated seats. Those two models are each just under $24,000.
Buying the XV Crosstrek also means a slight loss in fuel economy. The Impreza hatchback with the automatic is rated at 2 mpg more in town and 3 more on the highway. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the Impreza would consume $100 less in gasoline in a year, based on 15,000 miles of driving with a fuel price of $3.36 a gallon. The Crosstrek comes with all of the important safety features, including electronic stability control. It is rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for its performance in front and side-impact crash tests and for roof strength.
A thoroughly likable and practical crossover, the XV Crosstrek is impressive not for its speed but for its ability to adapt to driving conditions, whether meandering along a mountain road or slogging through deep snow. And wherever it travels, it goes easy on the finances.