First Drive: 2019 Subaru Forester
More of the same—but better
It looks familiar, doesn't it? Rest assured, active-lifestyle types —this is indeed the all-new, factory fresh, redesigned from wheels to windows 2019 Subaru Forester, even though it might not look much different than the mud-splattered, dog-hair-covered one parked in your gravel driveway. We reckon this comes as a relief, as rock-climbing, canyoneering, and white-water-rafting folk might prefer to see the Forester evolve as quickly as a California redwood.
The sameness appears to be intentional. Subaru worked hard to cultivate its roaring year-after-year sales growth, and it is apparent rabid SUV buyers are happy with what the company already sells. Subaru sold a total of 1.8 million Foresters across four generations, comprising a large bulk of Subaru's total global sales. It must be doing something right: The new three-row Ascent was pre-sold out for two months, and at any given time, there is only a 12-day supply of Crosstreks on dealer lots. Lazy design? More like cutting-edge customer awareness.
In this case, though, the copy-paste is only skin-deep. The fifth-gen Forester rides on the fresh Subaru Global Platform (SGP), the same base underpinning the new Impreza, Crosstrek, and Ascent. It receives an Ascent-esque interior to boot, incorporating Subaru's latest cockpit design and infotainment tech. In this way, it's more of the same—but with an extended shelf life.
Thanks to the new platform, the Forester is bigger for 2019 when you compare base model to base model. The wheelbase grows by 1.2 inches, length by 0.6 inch, width by 0.8 inch, and height by 1.1 inches. A roomy interior is one of the Forester's trademarks, so expect more of it here. Front and rear headroom decrease by a measly 0.2 inch, but legroom improves by 0.3 inch in the front and an impressive 1.4 inches in the rear. Backpacks and kayak paddles will fit better with an additional cubic foot of seat-up storage, while seat-down capacity grows by 1.4 cubic feet.
On the verdant and nearly abandoned backroads just north of Asheville, North Carolina, the fruits of the SGP switchover were obvious. The suspension setup for all trim levels is remarkable—pliant over uneven farmland pavement, and confident on the slithering Blue Ridge Parkway. It feels distinctly upmarket, riding nicer than crossovers with heftier price tags and more premium badges.
As added bonuses, changes to the steering and brakes are equally spot-on. Steering is more than quick and balanced enough for the chassis and tires, providing adequate feedback. When we had to slow down for some weather-felled branches, the brake pedal felt right in the sweet spot, a welcome change from competitors' too numb or too touchy pedals. Torque vectoring is now standard range-wide, as is Subaru's SI-Drive-mode system, offering more aggressive throttle and shift mapping. We don't expect Forester buyers to set out on race circuits, but it's nice to know they'll have some fun hauling camping goods through the mountains on their way to the cabin.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the all-new powertrain. From the top to the bottom of the range, a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated flat-four provides the motivation. 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque is routed through a standard CVT transmission, returning a strong 26 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. Bad news—gone are the potent 2.0-liter turbo-four and the manual transmission, both distinctive options that set the Forester apart from the rest of the crossover crowd.
The new Forester Sport is a consolation prize for the now-defunct Forester XT. Unfortunately, it's mostly an aesthetic package, adding black wheels, darkened exterior trim, a slightly more aggressive front bumper, and thin red exterior accents. Inside, bright reddish-orange stitching and trim is scattered throughout the cabin. The Sport adds a Sport Sharp mode as the lone performance enhancement, providing more aggressive throttle and transmission mapping.
Thanks to direct injection and higher compression, there is an additional 12 hp compared with the older 2.5-liter, but we're not convinced it's enough. In the same vein as our dearly departed Four Seasons 2017 Mazda CX-5, 180-plus hp is enough to merge, but falls flat when you try and pass. This lack of motivation is worse on the Forester, exacerbated by the CVT's ropy nature. Consequently, the engine works very hard to scuttle the Forester's 3,500-pound bulk. The CVT holds the RPMs high when prodded, resulting in extended periods of mechanical racket.
Not that the Forester is dangerously slow—just give yourself plenty of room to make a pass. For all our saltiness around the turbo's death, the 2.0-liter just didn't sell well, comprising only a 5-percent share of sales. Besides, the new mill is rather efficient, returning 26 mpg city and 33 mpg highway.
Settle into an easy highway cruise, and everything's right. It's quiet, comfortable, and loaded with tech, especially at the higher-end of the range. Stick with the base, and Subaru includes its popular EyeSight package as standard, incorporating a nice array of driver-assistance tech that includes pre-collision braking, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control. For the eco-minded, this is also the first non-hybrid Subaru with engine stop-start.
Of course, this being a Subaru, all-wheel-drive is standard. Starting with Premium trim, X-Mode is included, adding an increased level of off-road capability with settings for mud and snow. Hop up to Sport, Limited, and Touring, and X-Mode adds an additional setting for deep snow and mud. We tested this briefly on a mild off-road course, dispatching moderate mud patches and off-camber paths without issue.
The interior is all new and one of the better parts of the redesign. As mentioned, it's essentially a scaled-down Ascent cockpit, with one fewer row of seats and a less cluttered center console. Plastic trim is used through the entire range, but leather seating and trim is available toward the top. Starting with the base, each Forester arrives with a Starlink 6.5-inch touchscreen, growing to 8.0-inches on the Limited and Touring trims (optional on Sport trim). Of course, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is included on all infotainment configurations.
The range-topping Touring spec's party piece is Subaru's first use of its DriverFocus tech. Using facial recognition, the system keeps an eye out for when your eyes aren't on the road, issuing an audible and visual warning. An interesting system, but it can be a little intrusive—more than once, it spoke up when I turned my head toward controls on the center stack.
In keeping with the theme of consistency, the fifth-gen Forester receives only a minor price bump when compared with last year's model, an increase ranging from $500 to $1,400. Stepping into the base model will set you back $25,270, including destination, and hopping up one level to the Premium costs $27,670. The new Sport stickers for $29,770, while the Limited and Touring jump to $31,770 and $35,270, respectively.
Not a bad way to keep your constituents happy. Aside from the design, Subaru deserves credit for fitting such a familiar shape onto the excellent Subaru Global Platform. If you're new to the company, the 2019 Forester is a good place to start. If you're one of the many customers on your third Subie, welcome back—everything is right where you left it.
2019 Subaru Forester
ON SALE: October 2019
PRICE: $25,270 (base)
ENGINE: 2.5L DOHC 16-valve flat-4 /182 hp @ 5,800rpm, 176 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION: Continuously variable, 7-speed simulated
LAYOUT: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD crossover SUV
EPA MILEAGE: 26/33 (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 182.1 x 71.5 x 67.5 in
WHEELBASE: 105.1 in
WEIGHT: 3,449 lb (base)
0-60 MPH: 8.8 seconds (est.)
TOP SPEED: N/A