Over the years, the Subaru Crosstrek has earned a reputation based on its pillars of rugged capability and impressive value. As the successor to the Outback Sport, the go-anywhere attitude has always been a hallmark of its design but not the sole mission of this compact SUV.  

“The idea was to create a vehicle that could handle more adventurous activities,” says Subaru of America Carline Planning Manager Todd Hill. “But at the same time, we also wanted the car to be fun. It’s not purely a utilitarian workhorse, and I think the styling and the cool colors that our customers tend to gravitate toward really speak to that. There’s a sense of character and charm here which is unique to the Crosstrek.” 

It’s a theme that has been taken a step further with the debut of the 2021 Crosstrek Sport. New for 2021, the Crosstrek Sport pairs the rugged good looks of this popular model with more power, new off-road tech and exclusive aesthetic tweaks. 


Subaru of America offered the keys to this Plasma Yellow Pearl model, and I ventured out to Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area, about an hour north of Los Angeles, to experience what the new Crosstrek Sport brings to the table when the highway turns to the dusty trail. But before hitting the road, let’s take a closer look at the elements that make the Crosstrek Sport special.  

Elevated Style and Performance 

As the Sport moniker implies, enhanced style and performance take center stage here. In terms of aesthetics, Horizon Blue Pearl joins Plasma Yellow as the two new colors among the nine different hues that are available in total. The wheels are a unique dark gray finish, while the front grille wing, side mirrors and badging are all finished in gunmetal.  

Beefed-up wheel arch moldings – another Sport-exclusive feature – complete the look and provide added protection from the elements.   


Inside, the Crosstrek Sport features StarTex® upholstery, a material that’s designed to offer the look and comfort of leather with greater durability, water and stain resistance, making it perfect for treks that take you beyond where the pavement ends. While yellow stitching, carbon fiber-style trim accents and floormats with 25 percent of their backing made from recycled PET plastics help to bring a sense of occasion to the cabin, perhaps the biggest news is under the hood.  

2.5-Liter SUBARU BOXER® Engine 

“We knew that some of our customers, particularly younger folks, wanted a bit more performance,” says Hill. “So, thinking about what the car is and where the Sport factors into lineup, the 2.5-liter engine made an incredible amount of sense.” 

under the hood of the 2021 Crosstrek Sport
Photo: Bradley Iger


Originally launched in the 2019 Forester and now standard in the 2021 Crosstrek Sport and Limited trims, the new engine offers 30 horsepower and 31 lb-ft of torque more than the 2.0-liter mill found elsewhere in the Crosstrek lineup. 

Yet despite the significant increase in power, Hill says that drivers won’t have to compromise efficiency. “Not only is it punchier, the fuel economy it returns is very similar. In fact, you actually get a 1 mpg improvement on the highway. A lot of different factors contribute to that, but at the end of the day, if you have more torque, you can turn a lower rpm and maintain the same speed.” 

The new engine isn’t the only big news on the performance front, though – the Crosstrek Sport also debuts a new dual-function X-MODE® system that with Hill Descent Control enhances the SUV’s already-impressive off-road capability with a new level of technical sophistication.  

“What I really love about the Crosstrek Sport is that these are all great additions to the vehicle, and they really come without any trade-offs,” Hill says. “While things have been amped up a bit, they don’t come with compromises.”  

On the Highway and On the Trail 

A 60-mile stint on LA’s freeways on the route to Hungry Valley gave me a feel for the Crosstrek Sport in everyday use. Here, the benefits of the new engine are immediate and obvious, as the newfound grunt makes merging and passing effortless and the cabin quieter at speed.  

close shot of X-mode buttons in 2021 Crosstrek Sport
Photo: Bradley Iger


The 2.5-liter engine is paired exclusively with the Subaru Lineartronic® CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), which features an 8-speed manual shift mode function with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters that allow the driver to select eight preset ratios. 

The transmission sorts everything out on its own by default, of course, but it’s a great feature to have in performance context: “Downshift” with the left paddle and bump the shifter on the center console to left to lock it into manual mode, and you have the same level of control over the transmission’s behavior as you’d find in a contemporary sports car.  

And that can come in handy out in the dirt where responsiveness is especially important. Hill also notes that altering how the drivetrain responds to driver inputs is an integral part of the new dual-function X-MODE system. “There are situations where you might find yourself on a surface that is very slippery, and you either want to get the car going or easily maintain your pace,” he explains. 

“With the standard X-MODE feature, you hit that button and it essentially changes the software calibration of the engine, transmission, the all-wheel drive system, the brakes, the Vehicle Dynamics Control system, and so on. All of those features are integrated together in the car. So when you push that button, all those systems are specifically optimized to make the vehicle easier to control on very slippery surfaces at lower speeds.”  

To that end, the X-MODE system’s standard Snow and Dirt setting is designed to minimize wheelspin, employing behaviors like less-aggressive throttle response to provide the driver with more nuanced control over the vehicle’s acceleration, in turn improving overall traction.  


The Crosstrek Sport introduces a new Deep Snow and Mud setting to X-MODE as well, which utilizes a different strategy to maximize control in the most demanding terrain. “Another common situation you can encounter is that you’re not in something slippery – you’re in something kind of mucky,” Hill says. “Deep snow, thick mud or even sand – those are scenarios where you actually want to allow your wheels to spin a little bit to kind of let the car wiggle its way out of a tough spot. So in this setting, the system’s priority is to get torque to the wheels.” 

He points out that both X-MODE settings also automatically engage Hill Descent Control, which senses downhill movement and maintains the vehicle’s speed on its own. “It will detect that you’re going down a slope, and when you take your foot off the accelerator, it will maintain that speed going down the grade. Basically, all you have to do is steer the car – it will descend at a constant speed, no braking or throttle required.”  

Hill adds that the system is designed to make getting to one’s destination as easy and hassle free as possible. “The idea was to keep it simple – if you need a little help, push this button.” 

Although I used both X-MODE settings among the steep ascents, descents and varied terrain at Hungry Valley, the Crosstrek Sport never felt like it needed extra help – point the nose down the trail and you’re on your way. Automatic Hill Descent Control came in handy on more than one occasion, though, allowing me to focus on the line rather than splitting concentration between the trail ahead and pedal inputs.

“The truth is, this Crosstrek Sport will venture farther off-road than the vast majority of drivers would ever be willing to go,” Hill says. “But it’s nice to know the capability is there in case you need it.” 

2021 Crosstrek Sport in the mountains
Photo: Bradley Iger