REYKJAVIK, Iceland—Seven years ago, I smashed my $400 camera on a stone floor. That story shouldn’t matter anymore, but as anyone who has dropped an expensive object knows, a break like that haunts you. I found the body dented and split open on one side. But out came the lens, the flash fired, and a perfectly ordinary photo appeared on screen. I put the camera away for good last year, only when the zoom mechanism finally quit and impelled me to upgrade.
The Japanese are known for engineering great, complex things that can take heavy abuse. My Canon PowerShot was one of those things, and the 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid you see here is another. I should know, because I smashed it on the ground, too.
Here’s the scene: Instead of frolicking in New Hampshire, where all of these lifted little wagons will end up, Subaru planned a test drive in Iceland, a tiny island with half the population of Boston. Most Icelanders live in Reykjavik, a capital city so clean and safe you’re allowed to walk up to their president’s mansion and wave to him from his lawn. But driving here would have been too easy. So, Subaru hired some stiff-armed men in wooly sweaters and jacked-up trucks to lead us, a convoy of American journalists with Illinois license plates, into Iceland’s frozen netherworld.
We pass pale green lakes splashing onto black beaches and lime-colored moonscapes where nothing but moss survives, a barren land that has never and will never be inhabited. All I can hear are the tires rumbling over black volcanic shards, my fingers clicking the steering wheel paddles to prompt downshifts from the CVT automatic. Rural Icelandic roads are an entertaining mix, especially on the descent: those big shards, huge drop-offs and—of course—ice. For a Subaru, however, this is still too easy.
Our guides dive into a valley, a white void where the winds proceed to beat our cars sideways with 90-mph blasts and wipe away whatever path we were following. The snow thickens and rises past the Crosstrek’s 8.7-inch clearance—the same as a Forester—so the lead cars get stuck and towed out every few minutes. We finally stop after a few hours, shimmying through ruts and bouncing the fenders off snow banks, blind.
Quarter panels snap off. License plates bend in half. Tires pop. Bumpers bash.
“This is a really bad idea,” Car and Driver’s Dan Pund says to me, grinning.
The damage isn’t finished. Expecting a minor dip that might test the Crosstrek’s generous spring travel, I realize I’ve pitched headfirst into a crevice. The car slams against the packed snow, sending a violent shockwave through the chassis and ricocheting me and my belted passenger back in the air. Surely the steering has been destroyed and something important is leaking. Not so. I push on back to Reykjavik, ignoring the cracked bumper and dangling underbody trim, and the Crosstrek sails at 70 mph as if I’d just left the showroom floor.
The Crosstrek wasn’t made for these conditions. That only one car failed—after wading through nearly two feet of icy water—is more reason to celebrate New England’s eternal lovefest for Subarus.
By normal standards, the Crosstrek is the latest iteration of the Outback Sport, which is what Subaru used to call this spruced-up Impreza wagon. Compared to the regular Crosstrek, which we tested in Boston earlier this year, the Hybrid model’s extra cost brings more thrust at low speeds, despite the 280-pound bump in weight. A 13.4-hp electric motor bound to the transmission bumps torque to 163 lb.-ft. at 2,000 rpm (compared to 145 lb.-ft. at 4,200 rpm). Together with the 2.0-liter flat-four—engines with flat crankshafts, as in all Subarus, help lower the car’s center of gravity and tend to improve handling—the Hybrid makes 160 horsepower, an increase of 12. A small 0.6-kWh nickel-metal hydride battery replaces the spare tire under the hatch floor. Cargo space suffers mildly by less than one cubic foot, but the battery’s bulk cuts the fuel tank by two gallons.
Fuel economy isn’t spectacular. The EPA rating of 33 mpg highway stands for both trims, although the Hybrid boosts city mileage from 25 mpg to 29 mpg. This is a mud lover with a raised suspension and all-wheel-drive, so mileage, let alone aerodynamics, isn’t the first order of business.
Off-road in Iceland, without the stops and starts of suburban traffic, I doubt the Crosstrek Hybrid saved any fuel. (An LCD on the dash, cycling between several useless displays, said I saved a half-gallon. Believe that as you may.) But I’ll credit Subaru’s first hybrid powertrain for being smooth and quiet. Transitions from full electric (up to 25 mph, if you’re coasting) to gas-electric are barely perceptible. The Hybrid’s added insulation and thicker floor panels help, too, by further dampening wind noise and gravel pings hitting the undercarriage. Hybrids have come a long way from their sputtering, noisy beginnings, and the Crosstrek, with its natural-feeling regenerative brakes and electric steering, pulls it all off. On road, the Crosstrek rides soft without any wobbles, but handling is soggy. Part of that might have been due to the knobbier winter tires fitted to our cars versus the stock all-seasons. Sportier drivers should just get a Forester Turbo.
For $3,000 more than a base automatic Crosstrek, the Hybrid comes with LED tail lamps, chrome door handles and, if you’re in love with Iceland’s moss, lime green paint. The $26,820 price also packs automatic climate control, folding body-color mirrors with turn signals, push-button start, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the dash LCD display. The Hybrid Touring, at $30,120, adds leather seats, a moonroof, and a touchscreen navigation and radio unit, circa 1999 (Subaru must recognize this, as we all used Garmins). Either trim brings a simple, uncluttered interior with decent quality materials and ample space to stretch out. The heating system is fabulous, by the way.
If a hybrid Subaru was what you’ve always wanted, the Crosstrek Hybrid is, for now, your only choice. Uncanny traction and dead-serious durability are crowning achievements for a small car at this price, hybrid or not. Should you sink your own Crosstrek into a fresh pothole this winter, replace any flats and relax. Far worse has happened to this car. Remember that, in case you end up driving mine.