2014 Subaru Forester AWD Review
2014 Subaru Forester Review: Now with even more whole-grain goodness.
By Ron Sessions, Car and Driver
We will admit to having been so smitten by Subaru’s first-ever rear-drive performance coupe, the BRZ, that we haven’t paid much attention to the carmaker’s organically grown, high-fiber AWD wagons and crossover SUVs of late. It isn’t that we don’t have the occasional need for something suitably demure to take the golden retrievers to a quilters’ convention or retrieve a Victorian-era Ottoman for an installment of Antiques Roadshow. It’s just that the relationship had grown so cozy and familiar we’ve begun to take each other, you know, for granted.
Well, lace up your L.L. Bean Storm Chasers, because Subaru is introducing a new, fourth-generation Forester early next year as a 2014 model. Casual observers might not immediately notice what appears to be a nip here and a tuck there, but the Forester faithful – some 80,000 or so buyers annually in the U.S. alone – should be simpatico with the all-new sheetmetal. Adding a little testosterone is a blockier, more-SUV-like nose that’s an inch and a half taller – to meet pedestrian protection requirements – even though a squat boxer four still lives under that hood. A swept-back windshield and a gently arching roofline restore some caloric balance. Turbo models lose the WRX-inspired hood scoop, supplanted by a fluted and flared front fascia.
We’ve commended the previous-generation Forester for its trim size, great sightlines, comfortable seats, and carlike agility, choosing the 2006 model as the top small SUV and a Car and Driver 5Best Trucks winner. For 2014, Subaru says it’s taking the Forester more mainstream, upsizing it slightly to play in the middle of the compact-crossover segment. Overall length increases by 1.4 inches, making it about two inches longer than the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5. Almost an inch is added to the wheelbase, as is 0.6 inch of width, upping shoulder room by almost an inch. Cargo space is up a claimed 12 percent. Sightlines don’t really suffer from the raised nose because the seats rise by 1.3 inches. Hiking the hemline also helps get some of the Forester’s all-wheel-drive business out of the way, allowing designers to lower the rear-seat floor-tunnel 2.7 inches, adding footroom. Despite the expansion, Subaru claims no increase in mass, thanks to, among other measures, more use of high-strength steel.
But what does the upsizing do to this small SUV’s fun-to-drive attributes, where bigger isn’t necessarily better? To help determine that, we sampled preproduction Foresters at Subaru’s test track hidden away in the mountains near Tochigi, Japan.
Like all automakers, Subaru tightens the screws on fuel economy for 2014 through improved aerodynamics (claiming the Cd drops from 0.37 to 0.33), reduced parasitic losses (electric power steering replaces hydraulic), and powertrain updates. The good news here is North American Foresters get a new direct-injected, turbocharged version of the naturally aspirated 2.0-liter boxer used in the BRZ; a six-speed manual replaces the moldy five-speed; and the Forester is finally rid of the four-speed automatic (soon to make its own appearance on Antiques Roadshow). The not-so-good news: That new six-speed manual can only be served with the base, carry-over, 170-hp, 2.5-liter boxer four; shiftless drivers get the fuel-stingy Lineartronic continuously variable automatic from the current Legacy. To its credit, this iteration of the CVT is largely free of whirring noises, due, according to Subaru, to a short-pitch chain. The CVT in the uplevel XT model we drove is equipped with Si Drive, which features three selectable shift modes (Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp) and simulates up to eight paddle-selected ratios when in Sport Sharp mode.
Subaru didn’t make a six-speed manual Forester available to drive, but we can say that the 2.5-liter boxer four with CVT vehicle had no trouble keeping up with a Honda CR-V or out-drag-racing a Mazda CX-5 brought along for competitive purposes. But the larger mission is to put big EPA highway numbers on the Monroney sticker, which Subaru estimates will be 32 mpg on the base CVT-equipped model, up 5 mpg from last year’s Forester 2.5-liter with four-speed auto powertrain.
Wild Hickory Nuts
Considerably more fun around the track was the XT, its new turbocharged 2.0-liter producing 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque (versus 224 and 226, respectively, in last year’s 2.5-liter turbo). Even with the CVT doing its own thing, the turbo’s deeper well of low- and mid-rpm grunt promoted richer part-throttle responses. Quicker than you could say wild hickory nuts, Subaru wheeled out a Japan-spec 305-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 Mustang for an impromptu quarter-mile grudge match against the Forester XT. Okay, so the more powerful Mustang took both runs, but the 250-hp Subie put up a good fight. (We can’t wait to see how long it takes Subaru to tuck this engine under the hood of the considerably lighter BRZ.) We estimate a 0-to-60-mph time of 6.7 seconds for the Forester XT.
We’ll have to wait until a production Forester is available to test here in the States, but the preproduction examples sampled on the Tochigi “handling course” (more like a paved goat path) showed greater structural stiffness and improved body control compared with the outgoing model. The Forester felt more of a piece over undulating surfaces and during our single off-pavement demonstration. Observed spring and damping rates were higher. The electric-boosted steering, while not hugely communicative, nevertheless was reasonably weighted, quick enough for Pier 1 runs, and linear in its response.
Subaru’s new EyeSight driving-assist system, already available in the 2013 Legacy and Outback Limited models, rides shotgun on the optional precollision braking, dynamic cruise control, precollision throttle management, lane departure, and sway warning systems in the new Forester as well. Another handy shopping gadget is a power liftgate with memory function that can be opened, closed, and stopped at any point with the keyless remote. A new high-end Harman/Kardon surround-sound entertainment system is both iPhone- and Android-friendly and has voice recognition. However, its unshrouded touch screen is the same small, six-inch (measured diagonally) unit found in the new BRZ, which forces users to deal with aspirin-tablet-sized Chiclets, multistep station tuning, and screen washouts in bright sunlight.
Trail Mix and Other Gorp
Of course, the Subaru Forester is an all-weather, all-road shopping machine, and all-wheel drive is a part of its appeal. To that end, the new model gets X-Mode, claimed to provide better traction in low- and split-friction situations. Engaged by a switch on the console, it adjusts CVT calibrations and the throttle map and enables set-it-and-forget-it hill-descent control with autobraking. When selected, X-Mode activates traction control and the continuously variable hydraulic transfer clutch more proactively. All important stuff when you’re navigating to the Pottery Barn – okay, we’ll stop. Suffice it to say that this vehicle nails all its intended targets.