2014 Subaru Forester: Preview Drive

November 14, 2012
The Subaru Forester, at last, fits into the mainstream.

And before you pass judgment, we think that’s a good thing.

The Forester has a well-established reputation for being a good all-weather vehicle that’s rugged, responsive, and surprisingly versatile—albeit a little quirky and lacking on the details compared to some small crossovers. Enter the redesigned, third-generation 2014 Subaru Forester, which gets a higher, more SUV-like seating position, a higher hoodline, an impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance, and a special off-road aid called X Mode. It’s also adopted redesigned seating, for better comfort front and back, improved cabin materials and refinement, and luxury convenience items like Harmon Kardon audio, adaptive cruise control, and a power liftgate.

And as we found out with some time behind the wheel of prototype mules for the 2014 Forester at Subaru’s proving grounds in Japan, the new model holds true to everything that the Forester already is, only with a lot more sophistication.

The Forester was already well on its way to hitting its stride with the crossover-vehicle mainstream. The current third-generation model, which was introduced for 2008, made a jump in size and has much better ride quality than the previous version. And it’s surged to a sales rate of 80,000 a year in the U.S., with Forester making up about a quarter of Subaru’s U.S. sales.

Some major remodeling inside

Although the new Forester is basically the same size as the outgoing version, seating in the new Forester has been completely redesigned and rethought. To start, Subaru pushed the dash five inches forward and downward, while nudging the front and rear seats slightly upward; meanwhile side sills are lowered, the center driveline hump is lowered, all the seats have been re-contoured, and the rear seatbacks now fold closer to a fully flat position. The net effect, considering this model’s improved ride quality, too, is that the new Forester is one of the most comfortable crossovers this size for adults.

But it’s the new Forester’s so-called X Mode system that expands the Forester’s crossover potential even more. Engaged by a button at less than 25 mph, the system functions as a very precise e-diff, managing torque from left to right as the all-wheel drive system modulates it front to back. That’s matched with a special mode for the AWD system’s clutch pack, as well as Hill Descent Control. What you end up with is a Forester that’s a little more able on the trail, while it enables precise, composed control of individual wheels on slick inclines—much better, Subaru wagers, than any of its rivals. We can see this feature as one that may soon be converting some current Jeep owners.

The other side of the coin is performance, and with a new 2.0XT Turbo model, fitted with SI Drive and a Sport mode for the CVT, the new Forester should keep up relatively well with the Ford Escape 2.0-liter EcoBoost. With its 250 horsepower (on premium fuel) and 258 pound-feet of torque, at just 2,000 rpm, the engine delivers a solid kick at tip-in, especially if you have the SI Drive Control in S#. Just as this system has allowed in other Subaru performance models, SI Drive offers Intelligent (I), Sport (S), and Sport Sharp (S#) modes. These three modes affect the sensitivity to accelerator inputs and responsiveness of the transmission, but more importantly in Turbo models a Sport shift mode enables eight-speed manual control, allowing you to click through closely-spaced ‘gears’ with the steering-wheel paddle-shifters. Otherwise the system allows six manual-control ratios (yes, it’s actually a different set of ratios), and it only holds them momentarily.

The turbo is quick once underway, but its launch lacks as much gusto as it should—mainly, we suspect, because the CVT starts in too tall of a ratio. From a standing start, there’s nothing close to the tire-scorching drama of a current-generation Toyota RAV4 V-6, for instance. Tipping into the accelerator in Turbo models once underway brought quick, strong response, and compared to other CVTs we liked the way it would hold on to current revs for a moment, for a more confident feel as the boost kicks in.

Standard Forester 2.5i models are powered by a carryover 170-hp, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four, but the CVT has an expanded ratio range compared to some of Subaru’s other models. Turbo models get dual variable valve timing, while 2.5-liter versions have variable intake timing only.

Quiet, smooth, and refined

One of the first impressions in driving the new Forester—and one enforced from the passenger seat in a battering high-speed rally-style course—is that it’s very quiet compared to most other compact crossovers. Subaru has gotten serious about hushing the cabin, and added extra insulation behind the instrument panel and within door panels. Bod rigidity has been greatly improved both around the front bulkhead and around the hatchback opening, and new diagonal crossmembers have been added to the underbody.

Subaru has actually increased damping force while softening the spring rate (it’s 20 percent higher for the Turbo), and the new dampers have an increased rebound stroke. We expected that to translate to a little more ride harshness, as well as a little more body motion, but with the structural improvements as well as a significantly larger front stabilizer bar the setup feels surprisingly solid. Subaru notes that it looked to the exact lane-change test used by Consumer Reports in an effort to maximize stability while also improving ride comfort. And they let us loose on a small road course, versus rivals such as the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5—as well as the outgoing Forester. What we found is that the new Forester has less harshness and better weight transfer in quick maneuvers. There’s still a lot of body lean when you drive it like a hooligan, but hey, this is a relatively tall crossover.

Despite being 1.4 inches taller, as well as slightly heavier than the outgoing version, Subaru has managed to quite dramatically improve gas mileage—up to 32 mpg highway for 2.5i CVT versions, or 25 mpg Combined for the Turbo—and better aerodynamics have a lot to do with it. The new model has more carefully sculpted exterior details (with the side mirrors positioned back), while underbody shielding reduces turbulence and even the taillamp design cuts drag—altogether, to a 0.327 coefficient.

Infotainment interfaces the only letdown so far

Although we’ll need to revisit this vehicle on real U.S. roads in order to give you a final verdict, based on our limited drive there was surprisingly little to gripe about. interior materials—everything from upholstery to door panels—are astonishingly improved. The exception is that we just can’t get comfortable or feel happy with the awkward interface and menu system for Subaru’s already-outdated-looking touch-screen infotainment systems—although steering-wheel controls have been expanded, and you can now get Aha app integration for streaming smartphone-based entertainment.

To sum, from the driver’s seat, the 2014 Forester has some strong credentials for families—and that holds true whether we're talking about getting safely around town, rain or shine, or getting up to a campsite on the weekend. The all-weather ruggedness is still there, but the more comfortable interior and far better look inside and out are going to win friends.

True to its name, it still has what the tree-huggers want; it's just branched out.

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