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2020 Subaru Crosstrek PHEV First Drive: This Time’s the Charm?

Auto123 reviews the 2020 Subaru Crosstrek PHEV

Lafayette, IN – Today, on January 16, at 10.10 AM sharp, Subaru Canada is putting on the big premiere of its 2020 Subaru Crosstrek PHEV at the Montreal International Auto Show. This means the embargo that has held on my driving impressions of the highly anticipated plug-in Crosstrek – drive that dates back to before the 2019 holiday period – is over!

Subaru had attempted a hybrid Crosstrek before. That version was available at Canadian dealerships between 2014 and 2016, but success was elusive. The light hybrid system that model was equipped with produced fuel economy only marginally superior to that of the regular Crosstrek, which made it hard to justify to consumers the substantial price difference between the two versions.

Now the Japanese automaker is back at it, except this time it’s a hybrid Crosstrek you can plug in and recharge. A PHEV, in the parlance…

Photo: M.Crépault

To say this new version has been hotly anticipated is an understatement. The Canadian division has been promising it since two Christmasses ago, and given that the American market has had it for a year already, we would be forgiven for thinking we’d been very bad boys and girls indeed north of the border.

So why not us? “Because between the time when Japan asked us if Canada was interested in the PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) and the time we were ready to say yes, the small window of time given to us to decide had already closed. Subaru thus went ahead, but produced just enough units to satisfy the U.S. market”, explained Ted Lalka, Vice President, Marketing & Products for Subaru Canada.

A few visible differences
Looking at it from the outside, The Crosstrek PHEV is distinguishable from its “regular” sibling in a few ways if you care to look for the differences. On the door that covers the charging outlet, you’ll find an embossed “plug-in”, and there’s badging on the hatch and on the sides of the vehicle. This version rides on 18-inch alloy wheels and its nose is accented in silver. Plus, if the Crosstrek you’re examining has a very pretty pearl blue finish, it’s a PHEV, since that colour is only available with this version. It can also be had in black or grey (which leans heavily towards charcoal).

Photo: M.Crépault
Photo: M.Crépault

Other than that, you’re dealing with the same old likable Crosstrek, at once city slicker and weekend country warrior. Charm, this car has in some supply. The front end is just as rugged, the lines as bold, the roof as aerodynamic as ever. And you still have the 220-mm ground clearance to get you safely over most humps and bumps.

The interior, it’s worth noting, plays the luxury card right off the bat (Starlink, Eyesight, oh my!) since the only trim that gets the PHEV configuration is the equivalent of the Crosstrek Limited trim. And so it has two-tone leather seating with blue cross-stitching, gauges displainyg hybdir-specific data, a transmission lever with a B position if you want to maximize energy recovery when braking, and a Save/Charge switch that I’ll touch on again in a moment.

Photo: M.Crépault
Photo: M.Crépault

The mechanics
Under the hood, the Crosstrek PHEV borrows the Impreza’s 2.0L boxer engine, but that unit has company in the form of a 118-hp electric motor and a 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery (which is guaranteed for 8 years/130,000 km, by the way). As a result, this Crosstrek gets more vigorous torque than its conventional sibling. While that version does the 0-100 km/h in 9.7 seconds, the PHEV can do it in 0.4 seconds less, this despite 204 more kg in weight to drag around and total output that’s actually reduced by 4 hp (to 148 hp in all).

A Lineartronic CVT (no clutch, no switching gears) harnesses all the muscle from Subaru’s renowned symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, while the 4-cylinder now adopts the Atkinson Cycle, which is a favourite of engineers because it reduces fuel consumption. Subaru estimates that for the PHEV that will be a combined 6.7L/100 km.

On startup, you’re in EV mode by default. But of course, maybe you don’t want to use up all your precious electrons right off the bat. If that’s so, you can active Save mode, which holds the existing charge in reserve for when you’re zipping around town instead of cruising on the highway.

Or, activate Charge mode, and the combustion engine endeavours to charge the battery while it operates the vehicle. In 30 minutes, you can expect to get back about 80% of your battery pack’s charge.

Photo: M.Crépault

Otherwise, in comparison with the regular Crosstrek that can pull 682 kg (1,500 lb) in weight, the Crosstrek PHEV doesn’t dishonour itself with a 453-kg (1,000-lb) towing capacity. But as you probably suspected before even opening the trunk, cargo capacity is compromised there by the presence of the battery pack below the floor of the trunk. Precisely, you lose 139 litres, going from 589 to 450. Also, no spare tire, sacrificed in the name of exigency in favour of a repair kit.

Range
And now, the question on everyone’s lips: what is the all-electric range of the new 2020 Subaru Crosstrek PHEV. Subaru’s official figure is… 27 km. Okay, that won’t blow anyone’s socks off. The North American edition of the Mitsubishi Outlander, though it’s older than the more-modern, more-powerful version on the market in Japan beats that with its 35-km range. The new Ford Escape PHEV (coming this spring) gets 50 km to play with before the gas engine comes into play, and the upcoming Toyota RAV4 Prime will be able to go for 60 km without using up a drop of gasoline.

So the follow-up question really has to be this: why did the company not go for the gusto and pleasantly surprise consumers with a PHEV all-electric range that’s worthy of 2020?

Again, from Ted Lalka: “The Crosstrek’s plug-in hybrid system comes from Toyota (ed. note: from the Prius Prime). Because our engineers had to fit it with our boxer engine and symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, we preferred not to complicate things any more than necessary for them. In any case, the current system is more modern than the one in our old hybrid model, which used a nickel metal hydride battery”.

Photo: M.Crépault

Thusly, instead of trying to outdo everyone else in terms of range, the 2020 Crosstrek PHEV will make the case that it’s better than every other Tom, Dick and Harry PHEV in a very specific area: off-roading.

Performance
At our first-drive event in Indiana, we were therefore invited to point our test vehicles in the direction of a rugged trail set up behind the Subaru Indiana Automotive plant in Lafayette. We shook, rattled and rolled (not literally) our vehicles as best we could. The verdict? Tons of fun, zero worry.

Subaru’s global platform exhibits an exemplary rigidity, even when one of the wheels is, well, not touching the ground. The surplus of available torque made available by the electric motor provides the impetus required to clamber over big rocks and such. And when you engage the X-Mode, a hill descent control-type function comes into play to render the most menacing downward ride into a gentle, controlled slide.

Photo: M.Crépault
Photo: M.Crépault

A share with you now a little anecdote: my cousin Gilles and his wife Paulette have a 2013 Crosstrek Limited, now up to 179,000 km. They love it for its ease of access, ideal format, SUV qualities, AWD and kinder, gentler (because simpler) dashboard. “We don’t want to feel like we’re piloting a plane!,” explains Gilles.

When they heard about the PHEV version, they didn’t hesitate to lay down a deposit at their Subaru dealer so they could be among the first to get one (from the moment the Subaru presentation ended at the Montreal Auto Show, the model was officially for sale!). When they learned I was heading to Indiana to test out their future plaything, they declared their impatience at hearing my verdict.

I told them this: folks, I won’t burst your balloon. You’ve already explained why you like your Crosstrek so much. It’s sure that the PHEV you’ve reserved will give you the same satisfaction. True, you won’t be able to get quite as much in the trunk, but the rear seats do fold down. True, also, that the range is a little disappointing. But the battery recharges quickly when you drive, and besides, you’ll have committed a good, green deed by buying a hybrid vehicle (and will save at the pump, no doubt). In short, in relation to the product you already own and like, you won’t be disappointed.

Photo: M.Crépault

Pricing
Last point involves the pricing. The price range for the regular Crosstrek sits between $26,000 and $36,000. The 2020 Crosstrek PHEV retails starting at $42,495. You’ll have to do some math to figure out how long it will take for it to be money-saver for you.

There’s also this little detail, which could cause some serious consternation in many parts of Canada: the Crosstrek PHEV will be sold at first only in Quebec!

Why? First, Subaru Canada sold 57,524 vehicles in all in 2019; 15,184 of them were Crosstreks (it was the top seller in the lineup). And 5,448 of those were bought by residents of La Belle Province. Over one third!

Second, the PHEV is eligible in Quebec for that province’s governmental EV discount ($4,000, in its case) and for the federal government’s discount ($2,500), for a total kickback of $6,500. That’s not counting the cost of installing a charger at home, however.

And so, the fate of the 2020 Subaru Crosstrek PHEV depends, at least in the short term, on you, Québécois!

Photo: M.Crépault
Photo: M.Crépault
Photo: M.Crépault
Photo: M.Crépault
Photo: M.Crépault
The 2020 Subaru Crosstrek PHEV in Lafayette, Indiana
Photo: M.Crépault
The 2020 Subaru Crosstrek PHEV in Lafayette, Indiana