From the driver's seat, the new Forester is no revelation, but it still feels a little more athletic than most models in this class, while making major gains in gas mileage. And if you go for the 2.0XT model, you get a turbocharged engine and some other enthusiast-oriented upgrades that altogether offer more on-road driving fun without sacrificing this model's rugged, all-weather capabilities.
The base powerplant—included in all 2.5i models—remains the same 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed ‘flat’ four-cylinder engine that was first introduced on the Forester last year, but a new 2.0-liter flat four in 2.0XT models has direct injection and turbocharging and produces a stout 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet at 2,000 rpm (on premium gas). 2.5i models can be had with either a six-speed manual gearbox or a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), while the 2.0XT comes only with the CVT. Additionally, a stiffer body structure and a completely reengineered suspension otherwise put the Forester close to the head of the class with respect to ride and handling.
We found the new Forester to have especially good body control, as well as very well-tuned and nicely weighted rack-mounted electric power-steering. 2.5i models aren’t quick, but they’re adequate. Meanwhile, 2.0XT models help make the most of the Forester’s capable chassis.
Several things—in addition to the extra power—contribute to a sportier driving experience in the 2.0XT. One of them is SI-Drive. Essentially the same system that Subaru’s used in some of its sporty models in the past, it offers three modes—Intelligent (I), Sport (S), and Sport Sharp (S#)—that tweak the way the accelerator and powertrain respond. Sport Sharp enables a transformation in the 2.0XT's CVT—essentially making it 'pretend' it's an eight-speed automatic transmission, with relatively snappy shifts and manual control via steering-wheel paddle-shifters (which are omitted on 2.5i models). In Intelligent or Sport, there are instead six simulated 'gears' available by using the paddle-shifters.
If you want to go with the greater performance of the XT, we think the CVT is quite livable and unobtrusive, and the simulated eight-speed mode really redeems it (although it can’t quite nail the downshifts quickly and make them smooth). If you’re going for the standard 2.5i model, the CVT will be just fine for most people, but our favorite remains the six-speed manual. The shift linkage is a little sloppy and the throws are long, but it’s the way to get the most power out of the torquey boxer engine—and the mechanical-split all-wheel drive system makes the Forester a little more fun, as well as a little more predictable in an enthusiast sense, whenever traction gets scarce.
The Forester retains all of its rugged trail prowess, including 8.7 inches of ground clearance and some approach and departure angles that even off-road purists wouldn’t be quick to dismiss. But perhaps inspired by systems such as Land Rover’s Terrain Response, Subaru has added something called X Mode. When engaged at low speeds, it electronically manages torque from left to right, supplementing the AWD system’s front-to-back distribution, and it automatically deploys Hill Descent Control at low speeds.