What It Is
Subaru's redesigned Forester SUV is fun, functional, and fuel-efficient
All-wheel drive versatility with no ding to fuel economy
Smallish navigation screen and hard-to-use display buttons
The Forester is rugged, sporty, efficient, and it's now a front-runner in the compact SUV segment
Americans love SUVs. It's a cultural phenomenon not shared by the rest of the world. After all, compared to cars and wagons, SUVs are big, heavy, inefficient, and oftentimes dull. Sure, they have tons of cargo space, but they tend to also drive like garbage trucks. Not Subaru, though, and not its Forester SUV.
Subaru has always done things differently, and that has given the brand a perception of quirkiness. It's a beloved outlier to its fans, either the boy-racer types who love turbocharged engines and hood scoops, or the active, outdoorsy mountain types who require standard all-wheel drive. And while that will continue to be the case, the redesigned 2014 Forester is Subaru aiming for the mainstream.
But can the 2014 Forester compete with the compact SUV segment's heavy hitters? Honda's CR-V, Toyota's RAV4, and Ford's Escape have all been recently redesigned, and they're fantastic. And so have the Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, and Mazda's CX-5. Plus, there's an all-new Jeep Compass on the way, and even though the Chevy Equinox has been around a while, it still sells like crazy. It's a crowded field, and one dominated by fuel-efficient, front-wheel drive grocery getters.
"We don't think the market has changed very much," said Michael McHale, Subaru's Director of Corporate Communications. Which is why Subaru thinks it can compete. In Subaru's record-breaking 2012 sales year, 60-percent of its buyers were new to the brand, and it managed to retain 71-percent of its previous owners. Those numbers are unheard of in today's market. And so, with general consumer intrigue for the brand, a record sales year, Subaru's commitment to standard all-wheel drive, very competitive pricing, and a promise to more fun, near or best in-class fuel efficiency, and top functionality in the segment, the 2014 Forester could conceivably usurp the compact SUV crown.
If it's as good as Subaru says. Subaru thinks so highly of its new Forester, it flew us to Tucson, Arizona, for a chance to drive it before goes on sale to the general public in March, 2013. On that note, the author is not an SUV fan, and in fact, owns two Subaru station wagons, falling squarely in the "boy-racer types who love turbocharged engines and hood scoops" camp.
WalkaroundThe 2014 Subaru Forester is big for the segment. Tall, too. And it mostly looks like a refresh, infusing the look of the new Subaru Impreza--upon which the Forester is based--onto the Forester's tallboy aesthetic. But it's not until you glove the headlamps, or crouch at the bottom of the front grille, that you realize at least one thing is different. Something very un-Subaru-like has happened with this redesign, and it's one of those "ohhhhh!" moments that alert you to the clever change. It's the hood scoop, and it's an evolutionary deletion.
This is relevant for a number of reasons. Subaru engineers claim the biggest advantage, along with the thinner front pillars, is increased driver visibility. Secondly, and equally important, Subaru achieved greater aerodynamic efficiency. Why does that matter? Because fuel mileage has been significantly improved for both the base and turbo models. Lastly, from a design standpoint, the Forester finally looks normal.
Like most of the compact crossover/SUV segment, Forester is cut/copy benign. It has four doors, roof rails, sculpted headlamps, and a chrome grille, and a near vertical backside. But look closer. The traditional boyish charm is revealed in Forester's sport and lifestyle details. Study the grille and pop the hood. Underneath, you'll find an intricately designed lower front bumper in place of the hood scoop. Then open the hatch. The backside has a low entry height for easy loading, and it also has one of the widest hatch openings we've yet seen in any vehicle. It's not as noticeable, but Forester is easier to step into, too. No ducking, no climbing.
These are the thoughtful elements of a successful redesign. It's not too far of a departure from the previous model to alienate fans, yet it's familiar looking, too. And that's important; the Forester is Subaru's second best-selling vehicle, and it's coming off a banner sales year. In a segment that is quickly becoming a hotbed of sharp, showy styling, Forester looks playful. Maybe condescendingly well dressed, too.
Sitting DownSubaru interiors have long been hit-or-miss. Some people like the simplicity, others think they're too simplistic. The 2014 Forester is, in this regard, a hit. It's Subaru familiar, but arguably the classiest, and best-constructed interior of any Subaru vehicle sold.
Stepping into the cabin is easy, despite Forester's best-in-class ground clearance. With the door closed, the driver finds a comfortable balance between too much leg and knee and shoulder space with appropriate support and bolstering. The seats in our XT Limited were covered in soft leather. The wide, accommodating seatbacks feature a comfortable lumbar support, and an easy to use, multi-adjustable headrest. And holy headroom, Batman! Twist around and check your blind spots. No encumbrance whatsoever. The steering wheel is a traditional tech-laden "T," with buttons at each thumb--the left for infotainment volume and mode/channel selections, and the right for cruise control and drive mode selection--and the gauge cluster is well-lit, organized, and easy to read at speed.
Subaru retained the familiar three-knob approach to the center stack's climate control. One knob controls temperature (turn right for hot, left for cold), one knob controls fan speed (turn right for more, left for less), and the third knob controls temperature for the front passenger; buttons on the hubs of the knobs turn the air conditioning on or off, control fresh or recirculated air, rear window defrost, and so on. The mode selector is an hourglass button between the first and second knobs, and it controls air to your face, feet, or both. It's stylishly designed, but so easy a kid could figure it out in seconds. The navigation screen rests above the climate control knobs. Above it are two horizontal vents, and at the top are two smaller, additional screens. On them are displayed climate control information and vehicle information, such as average fuel economy, outside temperature, and engine temperature. Fit and finish on our Forester was typical of an advanced pre-production model. There are soft touches at the leather-wrapped wheel, the shifter, on the dash, and at the elbows. Material edges and joiners meshed attractively.
And that's just the front. The 2014 Forester is well apportioned in the backseat, too. The biggest notable change is the ground-to-seat height underneath the front seats. Go ahead, wear combat boots. They'll fit easily. Even with a six-footer driving, there is ample room for two adults, at the knees and at the head. For children, especially those in booster seats, Subaru has finally gotten rid of the center console-mounted cup holders. They're now in the pull-down armrest.
On paper, the 2014 Forester has the most cargo space in the segment. That number, if it means anything to you, is 74.7 cubic feet with the seats down. With the seats up, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 best it by an inconsequential amount. To prove the point on functionality, Dominick Infante, Subaru's national manager for product communications, grabbed a large wagon wheel, the horse-drawn Old West kind. He tried to stuff it into the new CR-V. It wouldn't fit through the hatch. Next, he opened the Forester's hatch, and--no surprise--it fit right in. The powered-rear gate closed just fine, too. Furthering this train of thought (best in class functional space is better than best in class cubic feet), Infante uncovered two nearby stacks. One, a crate of hemp twine, to illustrate how many bundles would fit into the hatch with the rear seats up, and two, a crate of rolled-up yoga mats, to illustrate what 74.7 cubic feet looks like with the seats down.
DrivingIt only took ten miles in the dirt before we were driving the Forester like it was a rally car. It was part of an elaborate but loosely monitored drive route orchestrated by Subaru to test the Forester's on- and off-road capabilities. Yes, off-road: make no mistake, the 2014 Forester's symmetrical all-wheel drive is one of the best in the game.
Our first test included deliberately jerking the wheel at the transition of pavement to dirt. There, the Forester predictably slid a bit, then instantaneously straightened out before our heart palpitations could even register. Cool! On the dirt, with rooster tails mushrooming behind us, the Forester drove confidently at 60 mph. The electric steering system felt firm and fluid in our hands. The suspension--stiffer than most other SUVs in the segment--handled ruts and dips with aplomb. We even ascended and descended a steep, rocky mountain trail utilizing Subaru's new X-MODE, a low-speed, slippery surface low gear mode. Subaru promises it can creep and descend with the best of 'em. Certainly better than the rest of the pavement-only queens in its market segment anyway.
Back on the pavement, the Forester was more car than truck. The steering was linear, tight, and controlled. The brakes in the 2.5i handled business adequately, and those in the XT were good enough to halt the Forester from 80 mph with one firm leg drop. At highway speeds, the base model 2.5i's 170-hp, 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder engine whined under hard acceleration, but the continuously variable automatic transmission felt as smooth as any we've ever driven, including the excellent new CVTs from Honda and Nissan. Road and wind noise were apparent at 75 mph, but subdued well enough below that. The XT and its 250-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged boxer and high-torque CVT were noticeably quieter.
Though the 2.5-liter engine is carryover, it does get a brand new fuel injection system that, with the new transmission and aerodynamic efficiencies, Subaru was able to improve highway fuel economy numbers from 28 mpg to 32 mpg. The XT receives the high-output turbocharged engine, larger wheels, stronger brakes, a stiffer suspension, noticeably different front end (it's sportier looking), a high torque CVT, and rates 28 mpg highway. Best of all, Subaru claims the XT can achieve freeway speeds in as little as 6.2 seconds from a standstill.
After driving it, we believe it.
SummaryThe 2014 Subaru Forester is a dark horse contender for best in class SUV. These labels aren't thrown about loosely, though neither are they confirmed without an actual comparison test. Simply put, Forester has a foot in every subjective and measurably objective category in the segment, including fuel economy, safety, driving enjoyment, and functionality. Most importantly, it's comparably priced with the segment's best vehicles.
"We believe that Forester is the best value in its class," said McHale.
It's hard to argue the point.
Ultimately, it will take a proper comparison--and more wheeltime among the rest of our staff--to see how well the interior plays with the rest of the field. Will the small buttons on the steering wheel and navigation screen prove too difficult or confusing at speed? And, though the performance and fuel economy numbers are among the best in the class, is the rest of the vehicle a large enough leap ahead? Will consumers look beyond the stalwarts from Honda, Toyota, and Ford? Is Forester still too expensive, even with standard all-wheel drive?
If money is no object, and if our needs warranted it, we'd opt for the turbocharged XT Touring--even if it surpasses the $30,000 mark. There's no better performer in the class, and certainly no performer that can also sniff 30 mpg with all-wheel drive, and Subaru's safety record. For our own money though, it's hard to find a compact SUV that offers more than what the 2.5i Premium and XT Premium can deliver.
Basic Specs2.5-liter boxer-4, six-speed manual transmission, or continuously variable transmission; all-wheel drive; 22 city/29 highway, 24 city/32 highway; $22,820 - 30,820
2.0-liter turbocharged boxer-4; high-torque, continuously variable transmission with paddle shifters; all-wheel drive; 23 city/28 highway; $30,820 - 33,820