While these days vehicle segments are as nebulous as they’ve ever been, there are still some vehicles that send a clear message as to their station in life, and which can be confidently categorized even if their manufacturers try to blur the lines a little.
For our purposes here, we speak of a car segment – a small one – that I like to call “compacts on stilts” (CoS) because, for all intents and purposes, that’s what they are. They offer the identical powertrain to the compact hatchbacks with which they share a common platform, but they may have a little more room inside and they often have some specialized chassis bits and body cladding to help them better traverse tough terrain.
The segment contains several models, but the two dominant players are the Subaru Crosstrek and the Mazda CX-30. They leave the Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross and Jeep Compass/Renegade behind in terms of sales; the Crosstrek is in fact the highest-selling Subaru in Canada, ahead even of the Impreza from which it’s derived. Meanwhile, the Mazda3 Sport that shares its platform with the CX-30 still outsells its newer sibling.
As it happens, both the CX-30 and Crosstrek received big upgrades for 2021, so a head-to-head comparison is a natural choice!
2021 Subaru Crosstrek
The Crosstrek got the biggest changes for 2021, notably with chassis and powertrain upgrades that make a world of difference. Indeed, this is a vehicle that Subaru is going to want to get right as it is such a big seller for them. You sure don’t want to alienate buyers and fans from your bread-and-butter models.
For 2021, pricing starts at $23,795 for the Convenience trim, but you’re going to want to look at the $29,995 Outdoor trim as that gets you two of the biggest add-ons for 2021: a 2.5L 4-cylinder Boxer engine and the latest evolution of Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system that now provides a two-stage X-Mode off-road system.
The Outdoor trim also gets the biggest stylistic change. All Crosstreks get plastic cladding around the wheels and rocker panels (the key stylistic differentiator between them and the Impreza), but on the Outdoor, it’s more prominent around the wheels and front bumpers. Dark-grey 17-inch alloy wheels and unique Plasma Yellow Pearl paint are also given with this trim. It is a very cool-looking thing and although many will lament the loss of the burnt orange shade from last year, this new yellow is a good replacement.
Power to match
Of course, it’s all well and good if a car looks the part, but can it walk the walk? This is especially important in the Crosstrek’s case because while it has been a big seller for the brand, its powertrain has been critiqued for being down on power. For 2021, that’s changed as the Outdoor trim gets the 2.5L as opposed to the 2.0L that used to be your only choice (and still is at base).
The 2.5L makes 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque, making it the second-most powerful vehicle in the segment, according to Subaru. The most powerful? The CX-30…
Count on a much more responsive takeoff thanks to the Outdoor’s CVT automatic (your only option; lower-spec models get a manual to start). CVTs tend not to deliver the most involved drive, but Subaru has tuned theirs to offer virtual “shift points” to at least make it feel like gears are being changed, and the acceleration is fine for this type of vehicle. It’s not neck-snapping like a WRX, but there’s enough to make freeway driving perfectly comfortable and distress-free.
Speaking of distress-free, that’s also how you’ll likely feel when off-roading the Crosstrek. I had the opportunity to put it through its paces on a gnarly course normally reserved for dirt bikes and it made short work of it, the excellent AWD system and increased ride height allowing a confident traverse of the many bumps and berms I was tackling.
A big part of that confidence comes from the new two-mode X-Mode AWD system. It adds a deep snow/mud mode to the terrain select system and also allows for a little more wheel slip so you can better clamber up certain surfaces. Better still is how the X-Mode2 also provides a hill-descent and -ascent system so when active, what you’ve essentially got is off-road cruise control so all you have to focus on are your steering inputs.
There’s also a handy supplementary LCD display atop the dash that can show the road below and ahead of you if you’re at such an angle that all you see through the windscreen is the blue sky above. It takes getting used to looking at the display instead of through the windshield, but once you do, it proves to be a great system.
The Crosstrek Outdoor also provides interior upgrades like grey synthetic leather seating (a little too taxicab-esque for my liking) brightened by yellow piping and stitching to match the exterior. There’s also a massive central display for the upgraded Starlink infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and the gauges get some cool yellow highlights as well.
It’s a more playful interior than before and while one doesn’t buy a compact hatch for its rear seat room, necessarily, it’s not bad in the back of the Crosstrek and it cleans the Mazda’s clock in that department. If you want to transport longer items, the seats split 60/40.
2021 Mazda CX-30 GT Turbo
What’s it a name? Well, in the Mazda’s case, quite a lot.
That nomenclature denotes the existence of Mazda’s 2.5L turbocharged 4-cylinder for the first time in the CX-30. This engine has proved itself in the larger CX-5 and CX-9 crossovers and it does wonders for the drive experience of the smaller CX-30.
Perfect turbo power
The engine makes 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque if you use regular gas, and 250 hp/320 lb-ft if you use 93 octane. Personally, I applaud Mazda for being transparent about this. There’s much debate as to how much difference an octane rating makes and Mazda just comes out with it: “If you want more power, use higher octane fuel”. Done, dusted, and appreciated.
If you do use 93, though, whoa do you feel it. Power delivery upon throttle tip-in deals with a bit of lag but after that it’s off to the races, the CX-30 spiriting you down the road at a proper pace, a very good facsimile of how the same powertrain feels in the Mazda3 Sport hatchback.
It was a great move for Mazda to put this engine in the CX-30 because it adds a layer of real performance and another dimension to a vehicle that sits in one of the more hotly-disputed segments. There’s even a bit of an exhaust note, which had I not already sampled the Mazda3 with the same powertrain, I would never had expected.
Power is fed through a 6-speed automatic which may seem a little old-school compared to the new(er)fangled CVTs found in the Subaru Crosstrek or the multi-ratio autos found in the likes of the Jeep Renegade, but Mazda has tuned the transmission and managed to get it nicely in-sync with the engine.
Indeed, if you ask Mazda – and I have – why they haven’t put a newer transmission inside, they’ll tell you that would hurt driver involvement with the CX-30. Too many gears being shifted means too many instances of power interruption, and in any case CVTs (which don’t actually shuffle any gears at all), tend not to be all that involved anyway. So the 6-speed auto it is. Plus, there’s always the manual mode if you want, with paddle shifters for an even more full-on effect because who wants to tap a shift lever back and forth to switch gears with an auto box?
Keeping the rubber on the road
Vehicles like the Crosstrek make much of the offroad-ability their AWD system provides, but I’m not so sure that’s what CX-30 buyers would be all about. To me, the CX-30 is the more urban car of the two, the more involved drive and so it’s the traction and performance the AWD system provides that’s the real take-home for me.
There’s no torque vectoring per se, but the brakes can be automatically applied to help rotate the CX-30 through turns and it – like every other AWD Mazda – has a neat little trick up its sleeve in addition. That is G-Vectoring Control Plus, which actually uses throttle adjustments to get more traction. Sounds backwards, but what happens is as soon as the system senses some steering input, it subtly reduces the throttle response to force the weight of the vehicle over the front axle. This smushes the tires more firmly into the road surface for a larger contact patch and more grip.
How aggressively the system intervenes (though it’s never so aggressive that you’ll really notice it) depends on whether or not you’ve activated Sport mode, one of two you can choose from, in addition to off-road which plays with the AWD system for better traction in adverse conditions.
Of course, there’s a caveat here in that the CX-30’s AWD system is a predictive one, meaning there’s always some power being sent to all wheels so they can respond quickly when slip is detected. This will hurt your fuel economy a little, but the peace of mind it provides is worth the sacrifice.
Style and (some) substance
Put plainly, the CX-30 is a great-looking vehicle. The added plastic cladding around the wheels and on the rocker panels, dark rims option, cool Soul Red Crystal Metallic paint seen here are all very nice touches that continue to give the CX-30 (and its Mazda3 siblings) some of the best styling in their segments.
In addition to the extra ride height, the CX-30 gets a taller roofline, ostensibly for more cargo and passenger space inside, though it’s the cargo room that benefits most. The front seat is fine, but the back seat is too cramped even for average-sized adults to sit comfortably – especially in terms of headroom, which is minute -- so this is not a vehicle to consider if you’re planning on moving three or four adults around regularly.
Up front, space is more generous; head- and legroom are fine, the seating position is tall enough for a good view outwards (though the bottom seat cushion is canted back more than I’d like) and the controls fall nicely in your hands. Plus, Mazda knows a thing or two about interior build quality and these days, their top trims – like the GT – are getting properly luxurious interiors finished in top-quality materials.
The CX-30 is also one of the only Mazdas in Canada to receive the brand’s latest infotainment tech and while it’s not all that flashy to look at, it’s solid and has both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support. No wireless charging, though, which is a pity.
Advantage Subaru Crosstrek
Two factors separate the Subaru from the Mazda – it has the more robust AWD system with that great X-mode feature and it has more room inside, especially in the back seat and trunk. The Crosstrek is slightly more fuel-efficient.
Advantage Mazda CX-30
The Mazda’s big game play here is its big power, plain and simple. There was a time not too long ago where 300+ lb-ft of torque was reserved for only the hottest of hot hatches but Mazda has turned that on its ear with the CX-30 Turbo. Much respect also both to the Mazda’s exterior styling and the quality of its interior fit and finish.
While there is a little more room on the Crosstrek’s back seat – at least it feels like there is – these two are similarly sized, offer similar ride heights and so they both offer a similar level of ease-of-use around town and when parking. Not to mention they’re both essentially lifted compact hatchbacks, as mentioned.
While these two are the top dogs in a small spinoff of a larger segment, the more you drive them, the more you realize they are actually quite divergent in their attitudes. The Subaru is – true to form – the outdoorsperson’s vehicle. It’s better for off-road backcountry trips trips – it just is. The Mazda is more the urbanite’s car, much more on-road than off.
It boils down to which lifestyle you want to espouse, as either one of these is a great choice in the segment.
2021 Subaru Crosstrek
Fantastic off-road chops
Outdoor trim a great sweet spot in the lineup
We like less
Slightly cheap-feeling interior bits
CVT transmission a bit of a drag
2021 Mazda CX-30
Powerful turbo motor
We like less
Cramped back seat
Adding turbo power brings cost of entry above $35,000
|...||2021 Mazda CX-30||2021 Subaru Crosstrek|
|Fuel consumption (city)||10.5L/100 km||8.8L/100 km|
|Fuel consumption (high)||7.9L/100 km||7.0L/100 km|
|Output||155 hp||152 hp|
|Torque||150 lb-ft||145 lb-ft|
|Output||186 hp||182 hp|
|Torque||186 lb-ft||176 lb-ft|
|Cargo space||572 l – 1,280 l||588 l – 1,565 l|
|Fuel tank||51 l||63 l|
|Length||4395 mm||4465 mm|
|Width||2040 mm||1800 mm|
|Height||1568 mm (1580 w/ antenna)||1615 mm|
|Wheelbase||2652 mm||2665 mm|
|Warranty||5 yr/unlimited km||5 yr/100,000 km|
|Pricing (as tested)||$36,081||$29,995|