2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid: First drive of 17-mile, 35-mpg plug-in crossover

To understand the complicated path for Subaru’s first plug-in hybrid, first we needed to hike a mile in the automaker’s shoes.

OK, more like 10 miles, actually—driving the 2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid gingerly up a dusty, bouldered, steep trail, past signage cautioning: “off-road vehicles only,” most of it without the gasoline engine running.

Tenacious all-weather, all-wheel drive capability are the foundation for Subaru’s success in the U.S. So in its first plug-in vehicle for widespread sales, Subaru wanted to provide the same driving behaviors and basic traction ability whether operating on its all-electric plug-in mode or in hybrid mode, with the combustion engine off or on.

And they wanted to make clear that the car doesn’t have to be plugged in.

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To achieve that Subaru resorted to Toyota’s proven hybrid system, used in its front-wheel-drive vehicles like the Prius and Camry, and adapted it for its flat-4 engine, mounted 90 degrees differently (lengthwise vs. crosswise). Then fighting Toyota convention—which would have been adding an e-motor to the rear wheels, as in the RAV4 and Highlander hybrids—Subaru gave the Crosstrek a propshaft to the rear wheels (with an electric coupling to divvy it up front-to-rear) and made it part of a tough, mechanical all-wheel-drive system.

Hybrid synergy all-wheel drive

It’s a setup that closely echoes the approach used with the automaker’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) vehicles, with Toyota’s entire hybrid transmission—its dual motors and wizardry of planetary gearing intact—transplanted in place of the CVT.

Cross a CVT Crosstrek with a Prius Prime, add more dynamic spark that’s missing in the Prime (but forgo the option to lock out the gasoline engine), and you end up with the Crosstrek Hybrid. Since the torque and power peaks don’t match up, the net result is greater than what the powertrain’s total system output of 148 horsepower suggests.

2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid - First Drive, Santa Barbara CA, Nov. 2019

2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid – First Drive, Santa Barbara CA, Nov. 2019

As Subaru pointed out, the last Crosstrek with a Hybrid badge had a 13-hp electric motor. This one has an 118-hp motor. And that’s just the one that provides the main tractive power and assistance. This Crosstrek Hybrid can be on electric power often, and it actually feels quicker, more refined, and more “premium” than the standard Crosstrek. So it’s more than a feel-good badge.

The 2019 Crosstrek Hybrid is about a second quicker to 60 mph than the 2019 Crosstrek and the difference feels even more pronounced quick passing maneuvers. As the Subaru flat-4 rises in and out of the mix in hybrid operation, the Crosstrek Hybrid has  a familiar Boxer-thrum sound, but one that feels mostly disconnected from the power flow.

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