In its latest incarnation, the Subaru Forester nudges its performance needles gently in the right direction, especially when it's compared to some of its head-to-head competition. It's quicker than a Honda CR-V or a Rogue and better planted, too, though it lacks the athletic ride and steering of a Ford Escape (and the compromises that brings).
The Forester simply blends a pleasing amount of driving fun into its all-weather-wagon recipe, and that's more true of the turbocharged XT than of the base, normally aspirated wagon. That standard powerplant is a 2.5-liter, horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine with 170 horsepower, coupled to either a six-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). These 2.5i models aren’t quick, but they’re adequately powerful for a vehicle weighing in at about 3,300 pounds.
In the turbocharged 2.0XT, the power equation's much more favorable. It turns in a stout 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet at 2,000 rpm (on premium gas)--though it comes only with the CVT. Weight on top trims creeps up to about 3,600 pounds, but the Forester 2.0XT can tow up to 1,500 pounds.
The turbocharged models show off the best of the Forester's capable tuning. The body's stiffer than before, and the suspension has been redesigned. As a result, this Forester rides more comfortably, with less of the compact-car abruptness over large bumps. The Forester now has especially good body control, as well as very well-tuned and nicely weighted rack-mounted electric power-steering. Considering its toughness and cargo capacity for weekend outdoor gear, that's a win.
It's not quite as supple as a Rogue or an Equinox, but neither has the flourishes of personality that come from Subaru's reaches into acceleration and off-roading. One of those flourishes 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.