The 2016 Subaru Forester comes down slightly on the sportier end of the performance scale, with better acceleration and more reassuring handling than a Honda CR-V or a Nissan Rogue. It doesn't have the athletic ride or steering of the Ford Escape, or the driving pleasure of the Mazda CX-5, but it blends a pleasing amount of fun into its eminently capable all-weather-wagon recipe.
The standard powerplant on the 2.5i models is a 2.5-liter, horizontally opposed 4-cylinder engine with 170 horsepower, paired with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) or a 6-speed manual. All-wheel drive is standard on every Forester.
The 2.5i Foresters aren’t all that quick, but they’re adequately powerful for a vehicle weighing in at about 3,300 pounds. Move up to the Forester 2.0XT, however, and the picture changes. That turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0-liter engine, also a flat-4, puts out a stout 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque (on premium gas). It comes only with the CVT, though; no manual shifting here. The curb weight on top trims rises to about 3,600 pounds, but that's offset by a tow rating of up to 1,500 pounds for the Forester 2.0XT.
The Forester's capable roadholding is best shown off by the more powerful turbo engine. This Forester rides more comfortably than previous generations, with less abruptness over large bumps. It now has especially good body control, as well as very well-tuned and nicely weighted rack-mounted electric power steering. Considering the toughness of the little SUV, and its cargo capacity for weekend outdoor gear, that's a win. We might still prefer a Mazda CX-5 if we were using it entirely on pavement, but for any off-road or trail use, the Subaru gets the nod.
The Forester's rugged trail prowess includes 8.7 inches of ground clearance and approach and departure angles that even off-road purists won't quickly dismiss. For additional security in off-road conditions, Subaru has added a function dubbed "X-Mode" that distributes power left to right at low speeds—supplementing the all-wheel-drive system’s standard front-to-back distribution. That function, plus impressive approach and departure angles, let Subaru’s utility wagon play on some of the same hills as competitors from off-road stalwarts Jeep and Land Rover.
Back on the pure performance side, Subaru's SI-Drive system offers three modes—Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp—that tweak the way its accelerator and powertrain respond to driver inputs. Sport Sharp transforms the 2.0XT's CVT—it simulates an 8-speed automatic, with snappy shifts and manual control via steering-wheel paddle-shifters (not offered on 2.5i models). In Intelligent or Sport there are instead 6 simulated gears available via the paddle-shifters.
If you’re going for the standard 2.5i model, the CVT will be just fine for most people, though we remain fond of the 6-speed manual, an increasingly rare offering in compact crossover utilities these days. Its shift linkage may be a little sloppy, and its throws are long and truck-like, but it’s the way to get the most power out of the torquey boxer engine. Plus, the mechanically split all-wheel-drive system makes the Forester a little more fun, as well as a little more predictable, whenever traction gets scarce. If you want to go with the greater performance of the XT, though, the CVT is livable and unobtrusive, and its simulated 8-speed mode really redeems it.