by: SUBARU OF AMERICA, INC. - The 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid could be the ideal car for the Pacific Northwest.All-wheel-drive is a great feature on any vehicle for people who live, work and play in the Pacific Northwest. Regardless of which system a manufacturer uses, the additional traction increases safety in wet conditions and allows a little off-road exploring — or a lot of off-road exploring in vehicles built for that.

The downside is, all-wheel-drive increases the price and reduces the fuel economy of the vehicles that come with them. That's because of the cost and weight of the necessary components, like the transfer case, second differential and additional driveshafts. This is especially true for vehicles with even a limited amount of serious off-road capabilities, because they frequently have skid plates to protect the undersides and ride higher, which disrupts the aerodynamics.

So at first glance, the new 2014 hybrid version of the Subaru XV Crosstrek would seem to be a great idea. Subaru has many years of experience with all-wheel-drive. All of their vehicles except the BRZ sports car come standard with the company's patented Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system. That helps them hold prices down.

And the Crosstrek, which went on sale last year, is based on Subaru's compact Impreza, already one of the most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive vehicles on the road today. The Crosstrek version is raised three inches to give it an impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance, making it reasonably off-road capable.

But as it turns out, adding an electric motor only increases fuel economy about three miles per gallon to an EPA estimated 31 average miles per gallon. That's not much an improvement, considering the hybrid system adds several thousand dollars to the price. But it does make the Crosstrek Hybrid the only small AWD SUV to crack the 30 mile per gallon barrier on the U.S. Department of Energy's fuel economy rating website.

Before you write Crosstrek Hybrid off, however, consider this — the electric motor adds 13 horsepower and an impressive 48 foot pounds of torque to the standard 2.0-liter "boxer" four-cylinder engine, making it a lot more fun to drive. While the non-hybrid Crosstrek is slow off the line and feels underpowered on freeways, the hybrid version is practically zippy and makes freeway passing easy.

So look at the Crosstrek Hybrid this way — it's like Subaru dropped their larger 2.5 liter boxer four-cylinder engine into the Crosstrek and gave you better mileage at the same time. Now the price difference doesn't sound so bad after all.

We first tested the Crosstrek last year and were a little disappointed with its rough edges. Although a five-speed manual transmission is available, the Continuously Variable Transmission that came in our test car with noisy and unresponsive. But although the Crosstrek Hybrid is only available with the CVT, the driving experience is much improved. Our test vehicle was much quieter than last year's model, partly because Subaru got the message and added more insulation. We also think the additional power means the CVT doesn't have to work as hard to get up to speed and pass other vehicles.

The Crosstrek Hybrid is Subaru's first hybrid and, as expected, it is not as sophisticated as those offered by some companies with more experience. Like all hybrids, the gas engine shuts off at stops and restarts when the gas pedal is pushed beyond just a light touch. Until then the Crosstrek Hybrid creeps forward on electric power alone, which increases mileage in city driving. But the gas engine shudders slightly when it restarts, a characteristic that most — but not all — other hybrid manufacturers have figured out how to all but eliminate.

The shuddering is not a serious distraction, just a little annoying at first. We got used to it and hardly even noticed after the first few days of driving. And we suspect Subaru will catch up with the other hybrid manufacturers in the future, especially of they start making hybrid version of some of their other vehicles to meet the increasingly stringent fuel economy standards mandated by the federal government.

We did not get used to the bright green color, however. Called Plasma Green Pearl on the build sheet, it is otherwise known as "Look at me, I'm saving the world" to the everyone else. Some hybrid owners apparently want to attract to themselves. We prefer to be less obvious.

Other than the hybrid system, about the only other difference with a conventional Crosstrek is the special alloy wheels, which are not as rugged looking. Everything else was pretty much the same. The only body style is the boxy Impreza hatchback, which we like. But we liked the Dodge Caliber, too, and not everyone else did. The interior of a test model was pretty basic. It included a lot a black plastic which at least would be easy to clean. The seats were covered in tough black cloth that looked like it would last for the life of the vehicle. Leather seats are available on the Touring models, which also comes with a sunroof and such advanced technologies as a touch screen navigation system with voice control, smartphone integration, and HD and satellite radio.

An additional three miles per gallon may not sound like much, but the 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid is the most fuel efficient gas-powered all-wheel-drive vehicle with a semblance of off-road capabilities we're aware of. And the added power from the hybrid system makes it a lot more fun.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid

• Manufacturer: Subaru.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door hatchback.

• Engines: 2.0-liter "boxer" 4 (148 hp, 145 lbs-ft); 2.0-liter "boxer" 4 and electric motor (163 hp, 1192 lbs-ft).

• Transmissions: Five-speed manual; Continuously Variable Transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 23/30/26 (2.0/M); 25/33/28 (2.0/CVT); 29/33/31 (Hybrid).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $22,000 ($26,820 as tested).

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