Pretty much everyone loves the Subaru Crosstrek. It’s a vehicle that can do moderate off-roading while still offering decent fuel economy, affordability, and safety — and that’s a huge deal for many people. Plus, the Crosstrek is small enough to be parked without being impractical, and above all: It looks cool. The Crosstrek can do it all, and now for 2024, Subaru is offering an even more capable version called the Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness. And while overall the Wilderness is an incredible product that will win your heart over, the actual machine itself is objectively… just OK. If that doesn’t make sense, read on and allow me to explain.
What Is The Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness?
The Subaru Crosstrek has been around since the 2013 MY, quickly becoming Subaru’s best-selling offering, in large part due to its affordability. Last year Subaru sold 155,142 of the things in the U.S. alone — that number beats the hot new Ford Bronco Sport, and it even defeats the Jeep Compass and Renegade combined.
People want small, they want efficient, they want practical, they want all-weather-capable, they want safe, they want reliable (and to some, the fact that it’s Japanese provides comfort on that front), they want cool, and they want all of that for cheap. That’s a lot to ask, but for years, Subaru has been delivering it.
There’s a new third-generation Crosstrek out for 2024, and it’s not a huge departure from the last one. Having made its North American debut at the Chicago Auto Show this past February, the 2024 Subaru Crosstrek sadly ditched the manual transmission but kept the 152-hp, 145 lb.-ft. 2.0-liter boxer engine as well as the also-not-particularly-powerful 182 hp, 178 lb-ft 2.5-liter boxer — both hooked to Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVTs). Subaru’s summary of the new Crosstrek’s changes includes the following:
- 10-percent stiffer chassis for improved dynamic performance and ride quality
- 11.6-inch SUBARU STARLINK® center information display available
- EyeSight® Driver Assist Technology is standard across the model
- Available wireless Apple CarPlay® and wireless Android Auto™
- Starting MSRP of $24,995* (Same as 2023 Crosstrek)
So the 2024 Crosstrek has the same engines, the same automatic transmission offering, a few basic chassis changes, a new interior with a big screen and available Wireless Apple Carplay/Android Auto, new standard safety features, and a similar asking price.
So the new Crosstrek isn’t really that new, but it’s new enough. Subaru isn’t here to fix what isn’t broken.
The new Wilderness model — the third in Subaru’s lineup behind the Outback and Forester (Subaru says it would have been first had it not been for the fact that the old Crosstrek was near the end of its life-cycle) — also isn’t that different. It takes the Crosstrek and adds — well, let’s just let Subaru tell you in another bulleted list:
- Upgraded suspension and all-terrain tires
- 9.3-inch ground clearance
- Unique exterior and interior design
- Standard EyeSight® Driver Assist Technology
- Standard 2.5-liter engine and improved 3,500 lb. towing capacity
- Starting price of $31,995
You’ll notice that the standard EyeSight driver-assist technology exists on both lists, meaning this is not actually new for the Wilderness model (Subaru listed that feature just to emphasize its importance, I’m assuming). Subaru breaks some of that list down a bit further in its press release, mentioning a retuned CVT and a new transmission cooler (which cranks up the Wilderness’s towing capability by over 2,000!):
Subaru engineered the Crosstrek Wilderness drivetrain for better off-road performance by installing a revised differential gear ratio and retuned Lineartronic CVT. The 4.111 final drive ratio (vs. 3.700) improves the SUV’s climbing ability and the new tuning for the CVT optimizes traction at low speeds and on slippery surfaces. Additionally, maximum towing capacity more than doubles to 3,500 lb. thanks to the addition of a transmission oil cooler.
Subaru also mentions a skid plate and a new grille:
To visually communicate the more capable off-road performance, the Crosstrek Wilderness adds exclusive styling with all-new front and rear bumpers, bold hexagonal front grille, larger wheel arch cladding, metal front skid plate, unique hex-design LED fog lights and an anti-glare hood decal in matte-black finish.
Here’s a look at the grille on a new Crosstrek Sport:
And here’s the one on the Wilderness:
You’ll notice the auxiliary transmission cooler on the Wilderness and not on the Sport. Here’s a closer look at the Sport:
And here’s the Wilderness’s stacked-plate style cooler:
The Wilderness’s cooler is accompanied by a new rear differential, and an overall final drive ratio of 4.1 versus the standard Crosstrek’s 3.7 (this, along with the CVT’s 4.066 lowest gear ratio, brings the crawl ratio to about 17:1, which is numerically lower than that of the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk’s 20:1 or the Ford Bronco Sport’s 18:1, but not by a whole lot).
Here’s the Crosstrek Sport’s rear differential, in case you’re curious:
And here’s the Wilderness’s rear diff; notice significantly more cooling fin area
All these changes come together to crank the Crosstrek’s tow rating from 1,500 pounds to 3,500 pounds — a huge jump, and one that means one could easily tow their average side-by-side to the off-road trailhead.
So that’s the gist of the changes for the new Crosstrek Wilderness: a skid plate, new exterior and interior touches (including “anodized copper” accents inside and out), revised rear differential and differential gearing, revised CVT tuning, a lift, a transmission cooler, and some all-terrain tires on unique matte-black wheels.
The Wilderness model costs $1,100 over the Limited, but does not get leather powered seats, making do instead with manual “StarTex” synthetic leather seats. When compared to the cloth-seat-equipped Sport model, the Wilderness is a $3,000 premium. Here’s a look at some of the aesthetic tweaks that the Wilderness brings over the Sport:
That “SUBARU” text in the rear bumper cover looks great.
How Does It Look And Feel?
As shown in the photos above, the Crosstrek Wilderness looks a bit more aggressive than the Crosstrek Sport, with extra black plastic body cladding, all-terrain tires, a unique grille, and a slight increase in ground clearance, but honestly: They both look fantastic. Subaru does a great job of making cars look legitimately special, using ground clearance, short overhangs, cladding, roof racks, and especially color to give the vehicles true soul. And make no mistake: That — along with a competent all-wheel drive system — is what sells cars like the Crosstrek Wilderness. It certainly isn’t the interior or the way the vehicle drives on the street.
To be sure, the 2024 Crosstrek’s interior is decent given how inexpensive the car is (the non-Wilderness starts at about $26,300). Here’s the outgoing Crosstrek’s cabin, which could be had with either a 6.5-inch or 8-inch infotainment screen (the one shown is the 8-incher):
And here’s the new Crosstrek Wilderness’s, which features an 11.6-inch screen (the base Crosstrek gets twin seven-inch screens instead, and looks pretty rough). Sadly, the HVAC controls are now accessed via the touchscreen; that is a step backward as far as user interface is concerned, though luckily the HVAC buttons are permanently present when the screen is on. Also a sad deletion? The manual park brake, which has been replaced with an electric one; so to everyone who enjoyed ripping that hand brake in the snow and kicking their Subaru’s tail out: It’s a sad day.
Here’s a closer look at the 2024 Crosstrek Wilderness’s big screen equipped with wireless Apple Carplay and Android Auto. It worked great during my test drive:
You’ll see in the image above a nice, big trip computer reset button just to the right of the steering column. I appreciate that. You may also notice a weird plastic panel on the steering column. That’s there to cover where the keyed ignition cylinder would go on base-model Subaru Crosstreks.
Does it look a bit cheap? Sure. And so do the heated seat switches on the center console, which could have come straight out of 2001:
The shifter is a basic PRNDL, not unlike what’s been found in cars since the 1980s. To be sure, plenty of other vehicles use PRNDLs, though my point is that there’s really nothing special going on in the Crosstrek Wilderness’s cabin. It is thoroughly fine.
There’s plenty of space, the seats are comfortable enough, and visibility is decent.
I was actually impressed by how much legroom there was in the back seat. I’m five-foot-eight (on a warm day), and had a ton of space to stretch my legs when seated behind myself. The cargo area, too, is OK, though the floor is a bit high off the ground (I’d definitely want a ramp for a dog):
There are USB charging ports for front and rear passengers, and there is a wireless charger below the screen. Can you get a much, much better interior in a similarly-sized vehicle that costs the same price as the Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness? Absolutely. See the Mazda CX-5, which, though all-wheel drive, can’t off-road like the Crosstrek can, but surely drives much better on the road. Speaking of…
What’s It Like To Drive?
My drive began early last Wednesday at a Utah glampsite, and took me through beautiful Zion National Park’s twisty and well-maintained roads. Red rocks abounded, with plateaus, canyons, mesas, and riverbeds sliding across my Subaru’s side windows and growing ever-larger in its windshield.
The Crosstrek Wilderness was fine in the turns; I won’t pretend that I threw it through the twisties at ten-tenths, so I can’t tell you how it handles at the limit, but I did notice on loose surfaces that the vehicle did like to rotate and step the tail out when I turned the wheel at any rate other than “slow” — so that could be fun if that’s what you’re into.
A Subaru rep called the Crosstrek Wilderness “the best handling car with 9.3 inches of ground clearance,” and I bet that’s true, even if that’s not exactly a high bar. There wasn’t excessive body roll, the car didn’t struggle with grip, and overall it was competent in the corners.
With that said, the 182 horsepower 2.5-liter Boxer engine felt slow connected to a rather unpleasant Continuously Variable Transmission. Many journalists these days say “You know, Subaru’s modern CVTs aren’t that bad,” and maybe that’s true in the eyes of most Subaru buyers. I, a car enthusiast, however, think the Crosstrek’s CVT is bad enough. It — along with the moderately-powered engine — leaves the Crosstrek Wilderness feeling lethargic and rather coarse and loud when making passing maneuvers. The powertrain doesn’t get the car up to speed in any hurry whatsoever, and when you’re approaching a turn, I found that the CVT sometimes made it hard to know exactly how much pedal to give, as the T was V’ing its ratio…C. The relationship between the accelerator pedal and the vehicle’s acceleration wasn’t easy for me to predict, though I suspect in time I might be able to figure it out. Of course, I could always use the “manual” mode that locks in discrete gear ratios, though those weren’t exactly the quickest shifts I’ve ever seen.
Here’s a little clip of me punching it. It’s not particularly exciting:
The car’s ride quality is what I’d call “tolerable.” It seemed a bit bumpy on what looked like glass-smooth roads, but I don’t think it was so bad that a typical customer would forgo a purchase. While at high speeds, the CVT did do a good job keeping the engine revs down, meaning road trips should be relatively quiet outside of the totally acceptable road and wind noise.
So yeah, acceleration isn’t great thanks to a frustrating CVT, handling seems OK, ride seems mostly fine, and with a good 25 MPG city, 29 highway, 27 combined, I’m sure consumers will buy these machines in absurd quantities.
Was I entirely satisfied? No, the cabin and overall driving experience seemed fairly unimpressive, but I know that’s not what this vehicle is all about.
How Is It Off-Road?
When it comes to off-roading, geometry is king; it’s a refrain that I, a seasoned off-road vet, have been saying for years. No amount of gearing or skid plating or traction control-ing will get you over an obstacle that your front bumper rams right into. For a vehicle to be capable off-road, it needs ground clearance, short overhangs, and a small belly — all of which contribute to approach, departure, and breakover angles. Only once you’ve got favorable geometry do other doodads make much of a difference.
You can see the Crosstrek Wilderness’s angles in the image above: Longer springs and dampers yield a 0.6-inch ground clearance increase; along with some tweaks to the fascias, this brings the Wilderness trim’d breakover angle up 1.4 degrees, its departure angle up 2.9 degrees, and its approach angle up two degrees. Here’s a look at a Crosstrek Sport and Crosstrek Wilderness; the difference isn’t huge:
Of all the angles, approach is the most important, as you can often drag your belly and rear end over and down crests/obstacles. Unfortunately for the Crosstrek, its 20-degree approach angle is rather low. Even the similarly-priced base Ford Bronco Sport and Jeep Renegade Trailhawk trounce it by nearly two degrees and by over 10 degrees, respectively.
The front of the car is hardly the part that you want as your limiting factor, but alas, that’s how it is with the Crosstrek. A Subaru rep told me that “[Subaru does] end up with more of an overhang up front because of the drivetrain layout,” though I suspect a number of factors play into that — perhaps aerodynamics, the layout of the front crash structure, and/or issues related to pedestrian safety.
In any case, the nose is long, as you can see in the image below; notice how the front tire is in a small divot, and how as a result that front fascia is rather close to the ground:
A look at the vehicles after they’d been on the off-road course showed some scrapes to the front chin:
If you look at this picture, you can see a plastic clip falling out (it’s in the shadowy area on the right):
Behold some missing clips:
The image above shows a “skid plate,” which I’ll be writing about in a separate article , as it is unlike any skid plate I’ve ever seen.
Still, despite the ho-hum approach angle, I had a blast off-roading the Crosstrek Wilderness. The Yokohama Geolandar A/Ts offered a great balance of on-and-off-road capability, and thanks to the excellent ground clearance, I was able to take the vehicle down some pretty rutted-out dirt trails (we tried to straddle the ruts, but that wasn’t always possible):
The big obstacle at Subaru’s off-road course in Utah was a steep, loose dirt hill that was being dug out more and more as journalists spun their tires trying to power their way up. The grade was gradual enough to not tax the Crosstrek Wilderness’s approach angle, but the ruts put the vehicle’s limited articulation to the test, often leading the Crosstrek to lift a tire. The vehicle spun that tire up and struggled to get enough torque to the wheel with traction to help propel the vehicle up the grade. The only way to really conquer that hill was by getting a nice run-up, and by maintaining momentum as well as a right foot firmly on the skinny pedal. Here’s a look at the hill:
Here are a few photos of the obstacle:
On the back side of that grade was a steep decline, a trough, and then another steep incline. Crosstreks narrowly got their chins over rocks at the bottom of the trough, and though they sometimes struggled a bit with the loose grade, they eventually made it up:
I actually had a blast hammering that skinny pedal up those loose slopes. No, it wasn’t the most hard-core off-roading I’d ever done, but it certainly was the most hardcore off-roading I’d done in a vehicle that gets 27 MPG combined.
I don’t love the hill descent control that’s set to the speed with which you approach a decline, I did notice quite a bit of ABS noise even when I didn’t expect it (often around turns), I’d have loved a front-facing cameras for the steep ascents (see photo directly above), and the ride quality over washboard roads was pretty rough (we didn’t air down the tires), but I still had a fantastic time taking this machine through terrain that would have left sedans and lesser crossovers stranded.
The Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness doesn’t have an amazing interior, its on-road ride and handling are only so-so, its engine is only adequately powerful and I wouldn’t call it the most refined, its CVT transmission leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s good off-road but not incredible. On paper, even with its solid fuel economy and good safety and reliability scores and impressive towing capacity, the Crosstrek isn’t amazing, and yet when you factor in emotion, it is phenomenal.
Check out my friend Alex’s Subaru Crosstrek above. I asked her why she bought the car, and she said in part due to branding (the badge, in this case, spoke to her), in part due to the fact that she respects Japanese cars, and largely due to the color (and Subaru absolutely nails colors, offering all sorts of solids like the awesome green I drove on my test drive). Alex is far from alone when it comes to reasoning for buying a Crosstrek. Branding, styling, and the good reputation of Japanese cars are key players in making a Subaru so compelling.
Oftentimes automakers will begin their presentations to journalists by revealing what they don’t want us thinking. When the Jeep Gladiator debuted, for example, Jeep’s number one point was to tell journalists that it’s not just a Wrangler with a bed on it (it is just a Wrangler with a bed on it), and during the Crosstrek Wilderness presentation, a Subaru rep began with: “We don’t start out with a lifted version of a cheap economy car.”
With its modest interior and engine/transmission options, the Subaru Crosstrek kind of is a lifted, all-wheel drive cheap economy car, but the way Subaru has brilliantly branded it makes it so much more. For $31,000, the Crosstrek Wilderness is a machine that you can do almost anything with; you can tow, you can off-road, and you can drive on the street while getting decent fuel economy. And all the while that you’re doing that, you’re part of the Subaru community. That’s these folks:
That’s people who love going off-road:
That’s people who love camping:
That’s people who are big fans of dogs:
That’s people who appreciate safety:
That’s folks who love roof racks:
And that’s owners who love protecting the outdoors, something that Subaru made sure to tell us it has spent $70 million doing:
The Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness is a jack of all trades and a master of none, and yet its image — carefully crafted by one of the most impressive automotive marketing operations, possibly ever — is one of the coolest out there, especially for the price.
So while the vehicle may not have impressed me with its hardware, it won my heart over with its soul.