Electrified off-roaders are coming. Although we’re still a few years off from full-electric off-road vehicles like the Rivian R1T, some legendary off-road nameplates will soon be gaining plug-in hybrid variants, including the Jeep Wrangler Hybrid, Ford Bronco Hybrid, and the recently revealed Land Rover Defender, which also will have a plug-in hybrid variant.
While we await the arrival of those hardcore plug-in hybrid off-roaders, it’s worth remembering that a handful of plug-in hybrid SUVs with decent off-road chops already exist. The list certainly isn’t long: There’s the Land Rover Range Rover and Range Rover Sport Plug-In Hybrids and the Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid. With the coming Wrangler, Bronco, and Defender hybrids likely to be priced far closer to the 2020 Crosstrek Hybrid’s $36,155 starting price than the Range Rover Sport Plug-In Hybrid’s $80,295 base price, I snagged the keys to a 2019 Crosstrek Hybrid—which is otherwise identical to the 2020 model—and headed to our local off-road park to see if there are any lessons to be learned for Jeep, Ford, and Land Rover from the plucky little Subaru.
Although the Crosstrek Hybrid is bound to be less capable than the coming Wrangler, Bronco, or Defender, the little crossover is, like most Subarus, shockingly capable off-road for what it is. The hybridized Crosstrek is powered by a 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle flat-four making 137 hp and 134 lb-ft of torque and an electric motor good for a 118 hp and 149 lb-ft of torque, for a combined 148 hp paired with a CVT and a fully mechanical all-wheel-drive system. Backing that motor up is an 8.8-kW-hr lithium-ion battery in the Crosstrek’s trunk that gives the Subie 17 miles of all-electric range before the gas engine fires on, allowing you to drive for more than 450 additional miles while averaging an EPA-estimated 35 mpg.
Despite its looks, the Crosstrek Hybrid actually sports respectable off-road credentials for the segment. It has a solid 8.7 inches of ground clearance, a fantastic 28.6-degree departure angle, a respectable 19.3-degree breakover angle, and a less stellar 17.1-degree approach angle (in other words, watch your nose). The Crosstrek Hybrid backs this up with Subaru’s X-Mode off-road software suite, designed to maximize traction and power.
Off-road at Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area, in the mountains on the outskirts of northern Los Angeles County, the Crosstrek Hybrid stood out from the sea of lifted Toyotas, Colorado ZR2s, and Jeeps, but it proved itself more than capable of going anywhere (within reason) that the big boys were going—again, so long as you watch your nose.
The biggest takeaway from off-roading the Crosstrek Hybrid is how much better it is than the standard model, off-road. Thanks to that electric motor, the Crosstrek Hybrid has what the standard Crosstrek never has (because Subaru refuses to turbocharge it): torque. The more immediate availability of the system’s 149 lb-ft of torque when you step on the throttle is a godsend; it sends the Subaru scrambling up and over obstacles with far more precision and confidence than the standard Crosstrek is capable of.
The way Subaru tuned the two powertrains in the Crosstrek Hybrid is something worth considering for Ford, Jeep, and Land Rover as they wrap the development processes for their electrified off-roaders. Although Subaru could’ve perhaps chased a higher combined horsepower and torque number for the Crosstrek Hybrid, it instead used the electric motor to complement its flat-four’s low-end torque weakness. And when the motor starts coming out of its power curve, the engine begins to take the reins and keeps the Crosstrek’s momentum going. This sort of supplemental assist—not to mention the bonus off-the-line torque from the electric motor—is something drivers of those more serious off-roaders will love when on the trail.
Another Crosstrek Hybrid feature that the Jeep, Ford, and Land Rover hybrids no doubt will have is the luxury of silent off-roading. Heading down a trail with the windows down on nothing but electrons is like hiking on steroids. You can hear, see, and smell all the nature around you without the engine interfering, but you can also cover some serious ground.
Flaws? The Crosstrek Hybrid has a few that could be applied to the Wrangler, Bronco, and Defender hybrids. For starters, the Subaru’s battery eats up 4.9 cubic feet of precious cargo space (leaving 15.9 cubic feet remaining and getting rid of its spare tire), making a roof rack a must-have for any sort of serious weekend expedition. Having the battery incorporated into their platforms, thus preserving cargo space, will be key in keeping the Bronco, Defender, and Wrangler expedition-friendly. I’d also like to see those automakers take advantage of their big lithium-ion batteries in ways Subaru didn’t: a Hyundai-like jump-start button using the lithium battery to start the car in case your normal 12.6-volt battery dies in the middle of nowhere would be a killer feature. So too would plugs in the cargo area to charge and power devices one may need while off-road, such as an air compressor.
Ultimately, the Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid is a tantalizing taste of what’s to come in the off-road world in the coming years. The addition of an electric motor to the Crosstrek’s platform thoroughly improves both the on- and off-road experience in the Subaru. For Ford, Jeep, and Land Rover, the possibilities that the addition of an electric motor bring—better on- and off-road performance, better efficiency, and silent off-roading—ought to only make their legendary off-roaders even better.
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