I sat in a private pavillion on an immaculate lawn, enjoying the temperate evening. There was wine, and a carving station, and hand-rolled sushi. A guy I've become friendly with on the car circuit approached our table. "Last time I saw you was in Austin," he said to me, and then went around the table, pointing, "I saw you in Montana, I saw you in Traverse City."
Here we all were again, hail and well met, enjoying, as another writer once said to me, another "luxury vacation with people you hate."
This time it's Oahu. Subaru was rolling out its new 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek, a compact utility vehicle to serve as a replacement model for its Outback Sport. Competitive cars include the Nissan Juke, which looks and drives like a Timberland boot, and the Mini Cooper's exceedingly precious Countryman. Subaru is a smaller car company than its adversaries, but they've got the market for all-wheel-drive tall wagons cornered tighter than a Live Strong wristband.
In return, Subaru idealizes its customers as young, active, educated, and upwardly mobile, a segment the company calls "Youthful Explorer." Subaru imagines they like to hike, bike, snowboard, and often go beachside camping with their attractive girlfriends who are gainfully employed in the tech sector. This ideal seems alien to car writers, a notoriously pampered subsection of humanity, whose main life's activity is walking through the airport to catch a connecting flight.
Then again, they do know a lot about cars. That's how, over an Oahu sunset, I found myself in a spirited discussion about the efficacy of continuously variable transmissions (CVTs), a conversation I'd started. It's not how I'd always imagined my first-ever evening in Hawaii. But it was definitely good enough.
The next morning, we got into the cars. Many were an embarrassing bright orange, and with their high backs and their stubby front noses, these XV Crosstreks kind of looked like tangelos. They kind of drove like tangelos, too.
Driving on Oahu isn't much fun. There are few roads and eternal traffic; the island now has a million residents and seemingly as many cars. Though you see a lot of convertible Mustangs and Corvettes, those belong to tourists, who don't come to Hawaii for the speed. You're constantly going about 42 mph, even off-peak.
The Crosstrek XV is the perfect car for such conditions. It has about as much power as a UN advisory committee on environmental affairs. The 2.0-liter engine (the same as the Subaru Impreza) only generates 148 hp; trying to accelerate it out of a stoplight is almost comical, as though the road had suddenly turned to glue. During our talks with Subaru executives, when someone asked how quickly the car goes from zero to 60, one said: "Nine seconds? Ten? It gets there eventually." However, it does get 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway, which is quite good for this class of vehicle. Decent gas mileage forgives a multitude of accelerative sins.
As far as handling, the Crosstrek felt nimble enough, not hard to manage in traffic, low-key and unfussy. The steering and brakes were unremarkable. The CVT transmission, designed to mimic shifting gears without the actual effort of operating one, worked hitchlessly, but emphasized the lack of speed.
Inside, the interior was similarly laid back. The comfortable seats came in a cool breathable fabric, though my drive partner seemed concerned that the latticework would gather a dastardly amount of dog shed. The dashboard, pretty much directly copied from the Impreza, didn't do much, just some basic LED displays and few buttons -- which was a kind of relief given the needlessly elaborate shipboard computers in many contemporary cars.
It didn't have a luxurious backseat, but the legroom was road-trip adequate. As for the trunk space, Subaru told us that it could hold "three golf bags, a medium-sized dog cage, or a mountain bike without removing the rear wheel." Since we didn't have any of that stuff ourselves, we just had to assume that was the truth. The car can hold an additional 150-pound roof load, with a rack, and has a 1,500-pound towing capacity.
Overall, because of its fruit-like appearance and somewhat odd road performance, something about the Crosstrek felt a little off. This can happen with Subaru, a company known for eccentric cars. There's a "Lost In Translation" quality to them, as though they weren't exactly meant to be experienced in a Western context. The Crosstrek, in particular, was a bit Mr. Sparkle for my taste.
But then we took it off-road, and things got better.