The original – but no longer the best. Subarus are past masters of the tough-as-old-boots high-riding crossover, and their DNA has been cloned by most other manufacturers in the compact SUV sector. As a result, the Crosstrek looks unremarkable – dated, even – both inside and out. It’s not offensive, but your eyes almost seem to slide off the exterior, especially since many of its design elements have been seen on Subarus before.

Step inside, and there’s the same sense of utility without sparkle. The interior is so robustly assembled it makes a Toyota feel flimsy, but it’s monochrome to a fault and the monochrome information display strip above the touchscreen is a throwback to the Nineties. The same is true of the physical handbrake, which also obstructs access to the front USB ports. But who needs those when you’re going to party like it’s 1999?

It won’t let you down. Not only are Subarus legendarily reliable and durable, but the Crosstrek is also impressively safe. Effectively a high-riding sibling of the Impreza hatchback, it benefits from black body cladding and 8.7 inches of ground clearance. Permanent all-wheel drive gives superb off-road coverage, while well-tuned independent suspension ensures a comfortable ride on-road. CVT models are equipped with an off-road support system called X-Mode, whose hill descent control simplifies slippery surfaces; Sport trim also receives an additional mode for tacking thick snow or mud.

We’d skip the base 152 hp flat-4 engine, which makes a lot of noise but doesn’t really go anywhere. Far better to specify the lazy 2.5-liter engine fitted to Sport and Limited models, which is much faster and offers far superior in-gear acceleration. Speaking of which, Subaru might be synonymous with rally-spec manual transmissions, but we’d favor the more fuel-efficient CVT. Not only does it do a good job of mimicking eight conventional gears, it’s bundled with standard automatic emergency braking. This is optional on manual models – a big black mark. At least every Crosstrek has adaptive cruise and active lane control.

2023 Subaru Crosstrek Interior

Choose your trim carefully. We’ve already mentioned that lower trims come with a rather asthmatic engine. They’re also pretty spartan inside. You get a 6.5-inch touchscreen (which does at least have smartphone mirroring), but the seats are cloth and manually adjustable. Premium adds heated front seats and fog lights, but we’d move up to Sport. For less than $30,000, it brings the bigger engine as well as water-repellent upholstery with yellow accent stitching, keyless entry, and a superior off-road system.

We certainly wouldn’t bother with the Hybrid, which is only available in a handful of states anyway. It costs north of $40,000, weighs 500lb more than the standard model despite only offering 17 miles of electric-only range, and falls short compared to most other plug-in hybrids at this price point.

Room with a view. There’s plenty of room inside the Crosstrek’s cabin, which seats four in comfort or five at a pinch. The front seats are heavily bolstered and firm, but supportive and comfortable. There’s over 36 inches of rear legroom while dropping these seats increases cargo capacity from 20 to 55 cubic feet. Best of all, Subaru’s legendary build quality means nothing should snap or fall off, no matter how harshly you treat the cabin.

As you’d expect from a jacked-up Impreza, outward visibility is generally good in the Crosstrek. The only real exception is at oblique junctions, where the thick C-pillars and rear headrests get in the way.

Final thoughts. The Crosstrek range requires careful navigation to find a genuinely good model. The Crosstrek PHEV is rarely available and not particularly efficient anyway; base trims feel too much like a Nineties tribute act; the two-liter engine couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding and the manual transmission misses out on key safety features.

That basically leaves you with the Sport CVT, and that’s fine with us. If you’re going to buy a Crosstrek, this is by far the best option. It’s well priced and generously equipped, safe and faultlessly reliable. There’s a comfortable cabin and a generous cargo area, go-anywhere mechanicals and a reasonably sprightly engine. You’ll have fun driving it thanks to a supple ride and positive handling, and it’ll still return almost 30mpg combined. Our overall rating is for this model – knock between five and ten marks off for other configurations.

Check prices for the 2023 Subaru Crosstrek »