DEADWOOD, SD – Wild Bill Hickok, a folk hero of the lawless American frontier, was a gunslinger, stagecoach driver, soldier, spy and showman before being shot dead in a poker game here in Dakota territory in 1876.

So it’s appropriate Subaru would choose this remote, rugged outpost to stage the media launch of the all-new second-generation ’18 Crosstrek, which already is on sale in Japan and arriving now in U.S. showrooms.

Like Wild Bill, the Crosstrek has many unique abilities, and the new model is destined to stand its ground in a showdown with rivals that is becoming increasingly fierce.

The new CUV represents a massive improvement over the previous model in just about every way, from interior styling to off-road readiness.

Competitors should keep a watchful eye on the Crosstrek because the outgoing version, which had been in the market since 2012, has remained a top-seller. Through the first half this year, only the Jeep Renegade, Hyundai Tucson and Honda HR-V have outsold the previous-gen Crosstrek among 16 vehicles in WardsAuto’s Small CUV sector.

If the new Crosstrek should close in on segment leadership by the end of this year, it will come as no surprise, and not only because the redesigned model carries a $21,795 base price that is only $100 more than its predecessor.

Subaru’s new CUV now delivers first-rate interior comfort, a roomier cabin and more cargo area with a wider opening. A more rigid body and brake-based torque vectoring make for excellent ride and handling (aided by a lower center of gravity and quicker steering response), and the fully re-engineered user interface and infotainment system set a new benchmark among competitors.

Stylistically, the design team left much of the exterior form intact, and the wider, horizontal taillamps protruding from the back end are the easiest way to identify the new arrival. As an alternative to the bright Sunshine Orange that was popular with the first Crosstrek, Subaru now offers a new shade, a muted sky-blue marketed as Cool Grey Khaki.

For the first time, Crosstreks equipped with a Lineartronic CVT come standard with X-Mode, which can be activated with a button in the center console to electronically control the brakes, engine, transmission and all-wheel drive system for steep downhill grades that can be conquered without the driver ever touching the brake pedal.

Disconnecting AWD systems are arriving in certain luxury vehicles as a method to reduce fuel consumption, but the technology is not offered in the Crosstrek and is not likely to appear on other Subarus launching in the near future, a company engineer tells WardsAuto.

For those wanting more control of the drivetrain, the new Crosstrek also comes available with a 6-speed manual transmission. The previous model offered a 5-speed manual, and less than 2% of customers opted for it. But X-Mode comes only with the CVT.

Subaru’s CVT is fairly smooth, avoiding the familiar groans as pulleys constantly adjust the gear ratios depending on the driver’s throttle inputs. The transmission was significantly redesigned to reduce weight and achieve wider ratio coverage, and a new lightweight torque converter helps quicken engine response, the automaker says.

AWD is standard with either transmission. Mated to the manual, the AWD system apportions torque equally between the front and rear wheels; the CVT continuously varies how much torque is transferred to the front and rear axles.

Subaru says 80% of the parts comprising the 152-hp 2.0L 4-cyl. “FB” boxer engine are new, and it now incorporates direct fuel injection, has a higher compression ratio and is 26 lbs. (11.8 kg) lighter than the one it replaces. Engineers say the engine’s 37% thermal efficiency leads the segment.

And yet, despite all these upgrades, the new FB makes only 4 hp more than its predecessor and produces the same 145 lb.-ft. (197 Nm) of torque. The FB gets the job done, but it struggles uphill, which is par for the course in this pass-averse class of vehicle.

The Crosstrek’s poky nature results in impressive fuel economy, approaching 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) on winding rural roads here, according to the trip computer. On paper, the fuel-economy ratings for the old and new engines are nearly identical: a gain of 1 mpg (0.4 km/L) in the city with the automatic transmission, while losing 1 mpg on the highway with the manual.

The EPA fuel-economy rating for the CVT is noticeably higher with the automatic (27/33 mpg [8.7-7.1 L/100 km]) than the manual (23/29 mpg [10.2-8.1 L/100 km]).

An electrified powertrain is on the way for the Crosstrek, but Subaru engineers aren’t revealing details. Subaru sold more than 16,000 hybrid version of the previous Crosstrek beginning in 2013.

Subaru’s Impreza compact car was redesigned for ’17 and sets the template for what the new Crosstrek would become. Both vehicles share Subaru’s new global platform, which will underpin the next generation of the automaker’s lineup.

That’s an excellent starting point, as the Impreza earned a Wards 10 Best Interiors trophy earlier this year. What we loved about the Impreza interior (great ergonomics, a user-friendly StarLink multimedia system with crisp graphics and a full suite of EyeSight driver-assistance technologies for collision avoidance) is even more appealing in a bigger package.

​Crosstrek customers tend to be young and adventurous (hence the available bird-watching app), so a black cloth interior has been the most popular. But the new model also comes available with a handsome High-Contrast Grey leather-trimmed upholstery, punctuated with bright orange stitching.

One of our test models came with that bold interior (a fully loaded Limited with CVT) and carried an attractive sticker price of $30,655, including $915 destination charges. Certain sport luxury CUVs could take styling tips from this interior.

Besides the underpowered engine, the Crosstrek has a few other shortcomings, such as no available cooled seats and a climate-control system that, although improved, still fails to properly chill the cabin on a hot summer day. There’s also only one USB port in most models, but the range-topping Limited trim level gets a second.

Fit-and-finish in the preproduction models driven here was impeccable. Subaru assembles the Crosstrek in Gunma, Japan, while the Impreza now comes from the automaker’s plant in Lafayette, IN.

Subaru remains one of the fastest growing brands in America and this year plans to sell 650,000 vehicles, and that’s even before the 3-row ’19 Ascent CUV goes on sale next year. For context, the Japanese brand sold 336,441 vehicles in 2012 in the U.S., according to WardsAuto data. That’s a 93% increase over five years.

The market for compact CUVs is like the Wild West these days, with every automaker on the planet rushing to stake its claim while shoppers pan for gold in this rapidly expanding sector.

The Crosstrek is more than a nugget.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com