OAHU, HI – In the olden days, things were simple: Cars were cars and trucks were trucks.

Things are different now. Consumers don’t want a simple cup of coffee. They want a triple shot, grande, sugar-free vanilla, 2% milk extra-white, mocha latte with no foam.

When it comes to personal transportation, they want trucks that do everything cars do and vice versa.

In the case of youthful car buyers who hike, bike and surf, they want comfortable, fuel-efficient compacts that can navigate remote dirt roads like mountain goats on weekends.

At least, that’s what Subaru marketers say as they introduce the new XV Crosstrek at the epicenter of surfer culture here on Oahu’s famous North Shore.

Subaru should know. It has had more success selling cars with SUV-like features than just about any other auto maker.

It is one of the few to get the formula right with the Outback tall wagon, based on the Legacy sedan, which has been a strong seller since Bill Clinton was president. 

Subaru looks like it has hit the mark again with the new XV Crosstrek. The Japanese auto maker is succeeding where others failed by giving the vehicle some real off-road capability while not going overboard with superficial body cladding and other macho design cues.

The XV Crosstrek features big, boldly styled 17-in. wheels, beefed-up suspension, brakes and chassis, a bright, cheerful color pallette and a few bits of judiciously placed exterior plastic. These changes make the XV Crosstrek look different from the Impreza hatchback but not to the point it will be mistaken for a Transformer ready to battle for galactic freedom.

The interior is the same as the Impreza’s, though, aside from a few different fabric and color choices.

However, a high hip point for driver and passenger, combined with narrow A-pillars and a low vehicle shoulder line and low side sills, provide a CUV-like high seating position with good visibility, but car-like ease for entering and exiting. 

The XV Crosstrek is 3 ins. (7.6 cm) taller than the standard Impreza hatchback and features 8.7 ins. (22 cm) of ground clearance, among the highest in the small-CUV segment.

The tall stance, combined with a low center of gravity provided by the low-slung boxer engine, relatively light weight and Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system make it fun to take the small Subaru off the pavement and onto narrow, muddy roads on the Kualoa Ranch here, where some scenes from the original Jurassic Park movie were shot.

Billed as the most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive compact CUV, with a 33 mpg (7.1 L/100 km) highway rating, main competitors are the Mini Countryman and Nissan Juke, followed by more truck-like CUVs such as the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage.

Power is provided by a 148-hp FB 2.0L naturally aspirated engine with a long stroke that provides 145 lb.-ft. (195 Nm) of torque at 4,200 rpm.

Engine power is adequate because the XV Crosstrek is relatively light at 3,197 lbs. (1,450 kg) fully loaded with options. Nevertheless, we are getting spoiled by the large number of similarly sized engines that feature turbocharging combined with direct gasoline injection and provide more power and oomph at low rpms.

The port-injected Subaru FB is more powerful than the 121-hp base engine in the front-wheel-drive Countryman, but less potent than the turbocharged 188-hp DIG 1.6L in the FWD Juke or the optional turbocharged DIG 181-hp Mini engine.

The standard AWD system works well with both the 5-speed manual and continuously variable transmission, but we did bog down a couple of times on steep muddy climbs and would have liked more torque. That said, we neared an indicated 37 mpg (6.4 L/100 km) on the highway section of the test course, well above Subaru’s touted rating.

We also bottomed out the shocks a few times on some deep ruts, but kudos to Subaru for actually providing an off-road course. Many press previews for CUVs never venture off pavement. 

The XV Crosstrek won’t win any boulder-crawling contests with the Jeep Wrangler or other serious off-roaders, but it definitely is more confidence-inspiring in the dirt than the Mini Countryman or Nissan Juke. But both competitors are more nimble on the road, where CUVs spend almost all their time.

With deliveries last year of 266,989 units, Subaru is not a big player in the U.S., but it expects to sell 320,000 units this year and has ambitions to sell 400,000 vehicles annually down the road.

As Subaru’s current-generation Forester cross/utility vehicle (37,096 sales through June) has increased in size, the Crosstrek (XV is part of a global designation that Subaru parent Fuji Heavy Industries does not want to give up) now is a slightly less-expensive alternative, starting at $21,995 plus a $795 delivery charge.

Creating trucks with smoother rides and more car-like handling has been fairly easy for auto makers, but developing cars with the ground clearance and ruggedness of an SUV that still are attractive has proven difficult. Too often the results have looked cartoonish and a bit silly.

This isn’t the case with the XV Crosstrek. It’s a nicely integrated package of carefully priced features and benefits for young-ish consumers who really do plan to do mild offroading and who frequently pack their vehicles with mountain bikes, dog cages, and yes, surfboards.

Its design is modern, but conservative, unlike its immediate competitors which have polarizing styling. With modest U.S. sales goals of 12,000 to 15,000 units, the XV Crosstrek should have no trouble carving out its own niche in the fast-growing CUV market. 

dwinter@wardsauto.com

’13 Subaru XV Crosstrek
Vehicle Type 5-Passenger 5-door CUV
Engine 2.0L DOHC H-4 Boxer
Power (SAE net) 148 hp @ 6,200 rpm
Torque 145 lb.-ft. (196 Nm) @ 4,200 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 84 mm X 90 mm
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 103.7 ins. (263 cm)
Overall length 175.2 ins. (445 cm)
Overall width 70 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height 61.8 ins. (157 cm)
Curb weight 3,197 lbs. (1,450 kg)
Base price $21,995
Fuel economy 25/33 mpg (9.4-7.1 L/100 km)
Competition Mini Countryman, Nissan Juke, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage
Pros Cons
Tasteful design Needs more power
Bright exterior palette Drab interior colors
Great for surfers We can’t surf