The Subaru Forester was among the leading wave of compact crossovers in the late 1990s, but it was hardly the definition of the segment. As the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V wrote the rules that would be followed by every major mainstream automaker for the coming decades, the Forester marched to its own wagon-like beat. Riding on the Impreza platform, the original Forester resembled a car more than an SUV.
Although the Forester still uses the Impreza's bones, even quirky Subaru isn't immune to outside influences, and over the years, Subaru's small wagon-y trucklet has made a slow but steady course correction toward true crossover status by injecting more SUV character. Having tasted the sweet nectar of double-digit sales gains with some of its latest products, Subaru isn't about to buck that trend. Just as the Outback steered toward the mainstream with the 2010 update, so does the fourth-generation Forester.
The longer, taller, wider Forester
It starts with a bigger body. The new Forester measures 1.3 inches taller, 1.4 inches longer, and 0.8 inch wider, while its hardy 8.7 inches of ground clearance remains unchanged. It's hardly beautiful, but the new Forester does look less bizarre and more in line with the family aesthetic. The more sculpted sheetmetal takes on a bolder, sturdier look. Interior measurements aren't significantly changed, which means that the Forester still offers generous amounts of rear-seat room and cargo space. By raising the hip point more than two inches, however, Subaru has given the driver a higher vantage point in traffic.
The normally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder carries over, with identical outputs of 170 hp and 174 lb-ft of torque. That's a bit more power and torque than Mazda's pokey CX-5, but at a claimed 9.3 seconds to 60 mph, the Subaru isn't likely to be any faster. We ran the new Forester up to 100 mph on Subaru's Japanese test track back-to-back with the old model and after we backed off the throttle and the engine note subsided, we noticed that the cabin is significantly quieter at speed.
We're happy to see the four-speed automatic go, although we're not ready to celebrate the fact that its replacement is a continuously variable transmission. Fortunately, those who can manage three pedals now have six forward gears instead of five. Those two new transmissions, along with aerodynamic improvements, help the Forester to achieve major fuel economy improvements. The automatic is expected to achieve EPA ratings of 24/32 mpg city/highway, compared to a dismal 19/24 mpg for the old model.
XT means more than turbocharged
While the turbocharged XT model isn't new, Subaru's philosophy about this particular model is. Whereas the outgoing XT was little more than a more powerful engine, in the new XT, engineers have also lavished additional attention on the chassis. The turbocharged model may have dropped its hood scoop, but it's more performance-oriented than ever before. Subaru bolted in a rear subframe brace and raised the damping rates for the XT, and it has also increased the rear spring rates and front anti-roll bar diameter relative to the outgoing car.
The engine is an all-new turbocharged version of the Subaru BRZ's FA20 engine. (Yes, Subaru does have the hardware to build a BRZ STI.) The 2.0-liter, horizontally opposed four-cylinder uses a Subaru-developed direct injection system (the BRZ uses a Toyota system that features both port and direct injection) and is good for 250 hp at 5600 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque at 2400-4800 rpm on 93 octane fuel. On 91 octane fuel, power drops to 230 hp. Fuel economy is expected to be 23/28 mpg city/highway.
Unfortunately, the continuously variable transmission is the only choice here. Making the XT sportier and yet not offering the manual gearbox seems like a lost opportunity. It's a small consolation, but as in the 2.5i model, the XT does allow the driver to manually shift the CVT as if it has fixed gear ratios. The XT also includes a version of the SI Drive that's found on the WRX STI, only here it has nothing to do with differentials, instead altering throttle mapping and transmission behavior in its Intelligent, Sport, and Sport # (say "sport sharp") modes. In Sport #, the CVT fakes its way through eight gear ratios rather than six.
On a flat, relatively low-speed handling course, we found the Forester XT to be nearly as nimble and well controlled as the Mazda CX-5, with steering that's among the best in the class. While our proving ground drive route offered little insight into the ride quality of the new Forester, we suspect it will err toward the firm side rather than the soft.
For those who dare to take their Forester off-road, Subaru has fortified the XT's all-wheel-drive system with X-Mode, a software set that optimizes the powertrain and traction control systems. X-Mode holds lower gear ratios, activates hill descent control, deactivates the transmission's lock-up clutch, and puts traction control on high alert. Subaru allowed us to drive through a demonstration in which the car was stopped on an incline with the front and rear left wheels standing on rollers to mimic a surface with zero traction. As we pulled away, the brakes clamped on the slipping wheels with authority, quickly sending power to the wheels with traction and effortlessly pulling us out of this artificially slippery slope. A Toyota RAV4 and a Hyundai Tucson struggled and sometimes failed to accelerate out of this same situation. Although we don't put too much stock in manufactured tests like these, it does say something about the tuning of the traction control. While likely only useful to Subaru's customers who deal with the harshest winter conditions, the Forester might have an advantage on very slick pavement.
Electronics, good and bad
The Forester will be available with EyeSight, which uses two cameras mounted in front of the rearview mirror to perform lane departure warning, forward collision warning, and adaptive cruise control. As both a safety and convenience feature, it is an excellent example of our 2013 Technology of the Year.
We're less excited about the navigation system, which debuted on the BRZ and now features Aha Radio app integration. Subaru, which arguably had one of the worst navigation systems in the business with its outgoing system, has come up with an even worse head unit. The resolution is poor, the information is difficult to read, and the buttons on the touchscreen are small and often unresponsive.
Don't miss the Forester for the trees
The 2014 Subaru Forester moves towards the mainstream without abandoning its best traits. It might come in a slightly larger package with more conventional looks, but the Forester still delivers standard all-wheel-drive, practical packaging, and -- if our prototype drive is any indication -- promising driving dynamics.
2014 Subaru Forester
On sale: Mid 2013
Price: $23,000/$29,000 (2.5i/XT, est.)
Engines: 2.5L I-4, 170 hp, 174 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo I-4, 250 hp, 258 lb-ft
Transmissions: 6-speed manual; continuously variable
Fuel Mileage: 24/32 mpg, 23/28 mpg (2.5i, XT; est.)