There is a significant portion of the market that is keen on some of the more city-oriented benefits that SUVs offer, like increased ride height and the perceived safety benefits a bigger car offers, without intending to venture off-road - or at least not into the real rough stuff where a true 4x4 is required. The Subaru Crosstrek, for example, is based on the Subaru Global Platform and is, at its core, an Impreza hatchback in a different form. It has the appropriate body cladding to give it a rugged look and appeal, but doesn’t it just remain a bumped-up hatchback? Well, not really - you see, like the vast majority of Subarus (with the exception of the rear-wheel-drive BRZ sportscar), the Crosstrek features symmetrical all-wheel drive, and that means that body cladding and raised ride height might actually come in handy should one want to venture off the beaten track with this thing.
Other small SUVs fall into this category too, such as the Mazda CX-3 and the Hyundai Kona. So the Crosstrek might not be an off-roader in the truest sense of the word, at least not in comparison to other Subaru SUVs such as the Forester, Outback and Ascent, but none of these vehicles are real rough-and-tumble off-roaders. They’re soft-roaders, vehicles naturally more at home in the city, but with the ability to handle obstacles a bit hairier than a dirt road should they encounter them.
But can it really trek?
As mentioned, the Subaru features the firm’s permanent symmetrical all-wheel drive, which immediately gives it a certain amount of off-road credibility. Add to that the fact that it has body cladding and increased ride height and that credibility improves further. But how capable is it off the beaten path when it comes down to it?
While all four wheels are driven, unfortunately the naturally aspirated flat-four boxer engine that drives them is somewhat underwhelming. It produces 152 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque which is just enough to propel it from standstill to 60 mph in a tardy matter of nine seconds when equipped with the six-speed manual transmission and a shade slower with the CVT (9.3 seconds). What’s more, the CVT ‘box is underwhelming, to say the least.
The softer option
The Mazda CX-3 is probably the Crosstrek’s closest direct rival, although there are still a number of key differences between the two, such as the fact that the CX-3, as with most cars in the segment, kicks of its range with a front-wheel-drive option. This, of course, doesn’t lend itself to much off-road prowess, but the Mazda has some impressive mechanicals under the hood - that is, barring the lack of a turbocharged option.
It is powered by a naturally aspirated 148-hp, 146-lb-ft naturally-aspirated two-liter four-pot engine that’ll take it to 60 mph in eight seconds before heading onto a top speed of 115 mph - which outperforms its naturally aspirated rivals, but isn’t quite up to scratch in comparison to force-fed rivals like the Hyundai Kona. The Mazda sends its power through a six-speed automatic transmission.
Off-road, of course, the soft-roader isn’t really at home, but in all-wheel-drive configuration, this is improved. That said, the CX-3 feels far more like a hatchback than an off-roader in spite of its pretenses and feels much more like a car that is at home in between the tall buildings of a city rather than in between rocks.
The new Hyundai Kona is one of the youngest entrants into this segment and features either an
NA two-liter four-cylinder motor that delivers 147 hp or a turbocharged 175-hp 1.6-liter motor under the hood. It sends its power through a six-speed auto ‘box and where the less punchy two-liter takes an age to hit the 60 mph at 9.2 seconds, the 1.6-liter dispatches the sprint in a nippy 6.3 seconds, making it the fastest of the three between traffic lights by far.
The Kona is also arguably also the most stylish vehicle here. Its design is slicker and more urban than the likes of the Crosstrek, which clearly aims to emphasize its off-road cred more than its street cred. The Kona takes the opposite approach, embracing city life more than life in the wild, at least visually.
As with the CX-3, the base model is a front-wheel-drive one, with AWD available as an option on each trim level. With an MSRP starting at $20,400, it is also the most affordable option of the three - that said, the most expensive of models peaks at $28,050 making it the priciest option if you go for the top-of-the-range model. By comparison, the Mazda ranges between $20,640 and $22,040, and the Subaru is a tad pricier, still, starting upwards of $22k and topping out over $27k.
Same but different
If a certain level of true off-road ability matters to you in a soft-roader there is only one real choice for you here, and that’s the Crosstrek. It is by far the most capable off the beaten track but it lacks the on-road performance to match the likes of the Kona, specifically the turbocharged version. The CX-3’s strength lies in its handling and dynamics and how it drives more like a hatchback than a small crossover.
Ultimately, which you chose will come down to what you want to get out of the car. Whether you’re after something more adventurous, something more focused on performance or a soft-roader with city-slicking dynamics, there’s something here for everyone.