Don’t call them crossovers or SUVs. And don’t call them wagons. The 2018 Subaru Crosstrek and 2018 Subaru Outback are a unique, often-imitated breed, and they’re worth cross-shopping within the same showroom.
At 7.8 out of 10 points, 2018 Outback rates higher on our scale, which isn’t surprising considering it’s roomier inside and more powerful. The 2018 Crosstrek comes in with a still respectable 7.2, and it’s priced considerably less when equipped about the same.
First, the similarities: both the Outback and the Crosstrek are regular cars with lifted suspensions and standard all-wheel drive. The Outback is closely related to the Subaru Legacy sedan, while the Crosstrek is a Subaru Impreza hatchback with fender flares and a taller ride height.
Then again, that may be relative since these two tall wagons outsell their “regular” siblings.. Consumers prefer the higher seating position and the rugged looks that help these Subarus straddle the line between car and crossover. Moreover, with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, power shuttled to all four wheels, and an off-road mode for their traction control systems, they’re both formidable four-wheelers on their own.
Outbacks are fitted with a larger, 2.5-liter flat-4 rated at 175 hp. A CVT is the only transmission available. Despite weighing more than the Crosstrek, the Outback is quicker, but still hardly a speed demon. The optional 3.6-liter flat-6 rated at 256 hp provides more robust acceleration at the expense of fuel economy.
Stick with the 4-cylinders and both Subarus are miserly: 29 mpg combined for the Crosstrek and a still impressive 28 mpg combined for the Outback, according to the EPA.
Over the road, both are smooth, comfortable cruisers that provide precise handling balanced with a soft ride. Neither is particularly sporty, but they’re confidence-inspiring and more fun to hustle through a curvy road than most crossovers and SUVs. The Outback is noticeably quieter, especially after Subaru added more sound deadening for the 2018 model year.
Neither is an off-road champ against true SUVs like the Toyota 4Runner, but these two Subarus are common sights on unpaved forest roads for a reason. They have plenty of ground clearance, big sidewalls for their tires, and a can-do attitude.
Creature comforts—for creatures, too
The Outback stretches more than a foot longer than the Crosstrek, which pays dividends in cargo space. Both Subarus have good room up front and plenty of space for rear seat passengers in outboard positions. The narrower Crosstrek can be tight for three in the middle and it doesn’t have quite as much rear-seat head room as its big brother. Also, only the Outback is available with rear-seat climate control vents and a heated rear bench.
The commodious Outback can haul more than 73 cubic feet of camping gear with its rear seat folded. With the back seat upright, that number drops to a still-respectable 35.5 cubes, but it’s worth noting that the cargo area isn’t as tall as some crossovers.
Similarly, the Crosstrek isn’t a big item cargo hauler, but its 55.3 cubic-foot maximum capacity is far superior to most other small crossovers.
With its low-sheen finishes and available matte faux wood trim, the Outback feels dressier inside than the Crosstrek. Still, Subaru has tried to give the Crosstrek a sporty feel with contrasting stitching and a standard fabric for the seats that’s more like outdoorsy clothing than typical inexpensive car upholstery.
Both share infotainment systems: a 6.5-inch touchscreen on base models and an 8.0-inch unit on higher-spec versions. Regardless of screen size, the infotainment systems are compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and they have fast-responding, logical interfaces.
Pile on the options and both Subarus can feel fairly dressy inside, but only the Outback is available with a power passenger seat, a heated steering wheel, a power tailgate, and saddle brown leather.
The two crossovers share a safety story for the most part, too. They performed well in independent and federal crash-testing and all but base trims can be fitted with Subaru’s right-priced, high-content EyeSight suite of collision avoidance tech that includes adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking.
Equipped with the kind of features most buyers want, the price difference between the two shrinks partly because of the extra-cost automatic transmission in the Crosstrek. An Outback 2.5i Premium with EyeSight and a power tailgate runs a reasonable $30,905. Build up a Crosstrek 2.0i Premium with EyeSight and you’re on the hook for exactly $5,000 less—$25,905. That’s no accident.
One thing we didn’t mention: only the Crosstrek can be ordered in an eye-catching orange paint scheme. For us, that’s a plus. For you, it may come down to what size is best. Carry passengers and gear often, and the Outback makes more sense. If it’s just you and one other—plus a furry friend—the Crosstrek is city-sized and might be just right.