Six years is the standard life span for a new car design, but the current Subaru Forester, which went on sale in early 2008, is being ushered off stage one year early. This is despite the fact that the departing Forester has sold much better than its gawky, wagonlike predecessors and even in its last year accounted for nearly a quarter of the brand's volume. The new Forester, wisely, does little to threaten that success, instead largely building on the previous car's strengths, the better to face the fleet of big-name competitors in this ever-more-popular segment.
Current owners will instantly recognize this as a Forester. The largest dimensional change is in length, which grows by 1.4 inches. Better packaging helps make for an even roomier back seat, and Subaru engineers have made the car even more family friendly with easier ingress and egress and simpler child-seat installation.
The previous Forester offered excellent outward visibility, and -- defying widespread industry trends -- the new version is actually improved. On our drive outside of Tucson, we gazed at southern Arizona's rocky brown tableau through huge side windows. Slimmer A-pillars and a raised seat height make for a great forward view as well, and backing up is easier with a rearview camera (standard in all but the base model).
Our test route took us along miles of dirt roads, in an apparent effort by Subaru to emphasize the Forester's off-road readiness. The old Forester already had the best ground clearance in its class, but the engineers nonetheless felt compelled to enhance the car's off-road ability, although it's hard to imagine that owners were crying out for more. Higher-trim models have a new X-Mode that optimizes throttle and transmission mapping for low-speed off-road driving and (somewhat jarringly) engages the new hill-descent control on steep downslopes.
One area that was ripe for improvement was fuel economy. Subaru has finally junked the old Forester's mileage-sapping four-speed automatic transmission. Unfortunately, as in the Legacy, Outback, and Impreza, it was replaced with a CVT. A stick shift (now a six-speed) is still available with the standard 2.5-liter engine on base and Premium trim levels, but the vast majority of Foresters will be equipped with the automatic. Paired with the 2.5-liter -- a 170-hp unit that was introduced in the outgoing car last year -- it makes for droning acceleration. At least that acceleration is somewhat quicker, with the factory-measured 0-to-60-mph time down from 9.9 to 9.3 seconds. Moreover, fuel economy has jumped from 21/27 mpg city/highway to a top-of-the-class 24/32 mpg -- and that's with all-wheel drive, which is standard.
The turbocharged Forester XT, meanwhile, has a new 2.0-liter unit that puts out 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. The 2.0-liter is based on the BRZ engine and will appear next in the new Impreza WRX. The turbo comes only with the CVT, but with so much additional muscle available from only 2000 rpm, the engine spends very little time hanging at the top of the rev range, and the CVT becomes almost a nonissue.
However, if you're still bothered by the stepless gearbox, there is a fix. The XT comes with Subaru's SI-Drive, which provides three powertrain modes: i (Intelligent), s (Sport), and s# (Sport Sharp); in the last two, the transmission can convincingly imitate a six-speed or an eight-speed automatic, respectively. The addition of SI-Drive is part of Subaru's effort to make the turbo more of a comprehensive model rather than just an engine option. The XT loses its hood scoop but is now denoted by a restyled front end. It also gets unique suspension tuning and larger brakes. Even so, a couple of quick laps around a 2.2-mile road course showed that the XT is still very much a compact crossover rather than a tall-roofed WRX, as it displayed considerable body roll and understeer. The electric power steering, though, is well tuned and nicely weighted, if not quite as lively as that in a Mazda CX-5.
Electronics are elsewhere employed in a new navigation unit, which unfortunately incorporates the audio system and is a pain to use. Subaru's EyeSight system -- with adaptive cruise, precollision braking, and lane-departure warning -- is an option on Touring models only. That new top-spec model takes the Forester's price as high as $33,820, but buyers will be reassured to know that there's plenty of good value to be found toward the lower end of the spectrum, with the base 2.5i starting at $22,820. Value is an integral part of the Forester equation, along with practicality and usability. This early renewal enhances those strengths and should fortify the Forester against the buzz saw of competition.
On sale: Now
Price: $22,820/$28,820 (base/XT)
Engines: 2.5L I-4, 170 hp, 174 lb-ft; 2.0L I-4 turbo, 250 hp, 258 lb-ft
Fuel mileage: 24/32 mpg, 23/28 mpg (2.5, XT; est.)