The compact crossover class is one of the most competitive with a slew of excellent choices for car shoppers.
Subaru's redesigned Forester won't make things any easier.
The 2014 Subaru Forester may look only slightly different on the outside, but inside, underneath the hood and just about everywhere else, it's a significantly improved SUV.
Subaru has gone to great lengths to make sure the Forester is still a capable off-road or at least "off-pavement" vehicle — but it shines in everyday driving, too.
At a national introduction hosted by Subaru in Arizona, I tested both the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder that most shoppers will choose as well as the significantly more powerful turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder found in XT models. The Forester will go on sale in March.
The engine Subaru expects nearly 95 percent of Forester buyers to opt for is a 170-horsepower four-cylinder teamed to a continuously variable automatic transmission. Doesn't sound like a powerhouse, does it? But the top-sellers in the class aren't far removed. The Honda CR-V, new Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape and Mazda's CX-5 get 185, 176, 173 and 155 hp, respectively.
Look at torque figures, though, and the Forester's 174 pounds-feet of torque compares well against the same group at 163, 172, 184 and 150 pounds-feet, respectively.
In the real world, when merging onto the highway, passing and accelerating from a dead stop, I put the Forester on par with the CR-V and Escape. Its one fault in these areas is the high level of noise during hard acceleration, which is partly due to the CVT.
Once up to speed, though, the Forester is remarkably quiet. Most of today's Subaru vehicles, including the outgoing Forester, allow too much road and wind noise into the cabin. Subaru says this Forester is the quietest vehicle it's ever made, and impressive aerodynamics helps the seemingly boxy SUV's fuel economy, too. Considering how tall the cabin is — with lots of tall windows — the noise level is even more impressive while still delivering terrific visibility.
The one advantage Subaru clearly has over the competition is its standard all-wheel-drive system. That's not just because of how much less a Forester costs than all-wheel-drive versions of the competition — they come standard with front-wheel drive — but just how capable the system is itself.
I took the Forester up a steep — if not extensive — off-road course on the side of an Arizona hill and had few issues with traction. Only while making a turn to descend did it require a second and third attempt to accelerate through the maneuver. The 8.7 inches of ground clearance helps in situations like this, as does a new X-Mode system in higher level trims and the XT turbo. X-Mode allows for more control in certain driving conditions and when equipped, adds hill descent control.
My co-driver and I also traveled more than 50 miles of unpaved public roads of loose dirt and rock at decent speeds ranging from 40 to 60 mph in both versions of the Forester. While the ride had been comfortable on paved roads, we were both a bit surprised at how the little SUV handled these surfaces with barely any jarring effects to the passengers.
Generally you think of people in Northern regions opting for all-wheel-drive vehicles like the Forester, but the trip showed that there are quite a few warm-weather areas that could benefit from the technology. We even passed a previous-generation Forester pulling into a driveway on our unpaved route.
Of course, all-wheel-drive systems generally hurt fuel economy, but Subaru has done wonders with the 2.5-liter's efficiency. It's rated 24/32 mpg city/highway and 27 mpg combined.
Those are excellent numbers even against front-wheel-drive competitors. The combined rating tops the CR-V, the Escape 1.6 and the four-cylinder Chevy Equinox at 26 mpg. Only the underpowered CX-5 outshines the field at 29 mpg combined. Highway mileage is right in line with the CR-V's 31 mpg, RAV4's 31 mpg, Escape's 33 mpg, CX-5's 32 mpg and Equinox's 32 mpg.
With optional all-wheel drive, the above models' combined ratings drop 1 mpg, except for the Chevy, which drops 3 mpg, to 23 mpg.
Our Forester's trip computer relayed 27 mpg during our test of combined and relatively spirited driving on Arizona streets, highways and unpaved roads.
The steering has a surprisingly natural feel for an electric system that adjusts for different driving speeds. At low speeds, it requires little effort from the driver while still getting a decent amount of road feedback, and at high speeds, it stays on center superbly.
The Forester XT is a different beast crafted for drivers who want more speed in their little crossover. Its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder puts out 250 hp and 254 pounds-feet of torque. That matches well against the Ford Escape's V-6 replacement, a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 240 hp and 270 pounds-feet of torque. Few others in this class offer more powerful engines.
To show off its speed, Subaru put the XT on a challenging racetrack for part of the evaluation. While it handled the circuit well, it was the open road where the XT felt really quick. Subaru says the zero-to-60 time is in the low 6-second range, which is about the same as a base Porsche Cayenne.
Off-the-line speed was the one aspect that didn't impress me because the XT's CVT seemed to take too long to rev to redline, even with the optional manual mode. The XT has a manual setting with shift paddles while the 2.5 does not. The CVT in the XT is an upgraded version from the 2.5, and it's significantly quieter under heavy acceleration.
But everywhere else, from long, sweeping highway on-ramps, twisty mountain roads and about 35 miles of the unpaved stuff, the XT was a blast to drive.
Whether it's worth the added price and fuel-economy hit — 23/28 mpg and 25 mpg combined — is another question. We observed 25.8 mpg on our full drive and just 20 mpg after the first leg of unpaved driving.
An area Subaru has failed in for many years is interior design and refinement. I've never found much issue with it, as my family owns its second Outback wagon. However, other editors at Cars.com find fault with the quality of glossy plastics and hard dashboards.
Even they should be impressed with the new Forester's cabin. The dashboard's design is simple and has just a few pieces of the silver plastic many despise. The gauges are traditionally laid out; there are large buttons and knobs for the standard stereo and climate controls, and even the dashboard materials are softer to the touch than before.
On all but the base models there is a new digital screen at the top center of the dashboard to display mileage and other data. It's also where the backup camera image is displayed. The camera is standard in all but base models, as well.
Drivers and front passengers will appreciate the front seats. The optional leather seats I tested throughout my six-hour drive were incredibly comfortable. I routinely get a sore back after an hour-plus in many test cars, so the pain-free day stood out.
I also sat in a Forester outfitted with cloth seats, which are standard. They were definitely firmer but were still nice and wide across the seat's back and bottom.
Rear-seat room is plentiful. Subaru increased interior dimensions fractionally throughout the Forester and added more front seat travel. The result is a rear seat that left me — at 5 feet 10 inches — with inches of knee room behind the driver's seat adjusted for my frame.
At 34.4 cubic feet, the cargo area barely tops the CX-5 and Escape at 34.1 and 34.3 cubic feet, respectively, but the Forester falls behind CR-V and RAV4 at 37.2 and 38.4 cubic feet, respectively. Forester models with the panoramic moonroof lose roughly 3 cubic feet, as well.
Fold the rear seats and the maximum cargo area is 74.7 cubic feet, which bests the class. At 73.4 cubic feet, the RAV4 comes closest to the Forester's max cargo space. Again, the moonroof cuts into that by almost 6 cubic feet. Of course, these losses come at the highest point of the vehicle's interior, so the Forester's wide cargo opening and relatively flat floor will still be a bonus in a majority of cargo situations.
The rear seats fold easily, either by the knobs at the top of the seatbacks or by optional buttons placed in the rear cargo area. When the seats are folded, there is a hump covered by a hefty piece of carpeted plastic, so the floor isn't entirely flat.
Features and Pricing
The base 2.5i Forester starts at $22,820, including an $825 destination charge. That is with a six-speed manual transmission. The CVT is an additional $1,000.
At that $23,820 price, the Forester comes well-equipped with Bluetooth for phone and streaming audio, a four-speaker stereo system, USB input, cruise control and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with controls for phone and audio.
A front-wheel-drive base Honda CR-V LX with an automatic transmission starts at $23,625 while a front-wheel-drive RAV4 LE base starts at $24,145, both including destination.
The next step up is the Forester 2.5i Premium at $24,320 for the manual and $25,820 for the CVT. It adds a power driver's seat, 17-inch alloy wheels, a six-speaker stereo system with HD Radio, body-colored mirrors, privacy glass, backup camera and roof rails.
The Premium will be the bulk of Foresters sold, but shoppers should be aware that the manual-transmission version actually comes with the All-Weather Package, including heated seats, but the package is an option on the CVT Premium. The CVT version comes with the panoramic moonroof and adjustable center armrest standard while the manual does not.
The 2.5i also comes in Limited and Touring trims priced at $28,820 and $30,820, respectively, and are only available with the CVT.
The XT comes in Premium and Touring trims with the CVT only at $28,820 and $33,820, respectively.
I'm no more impressed with the optional navigation system in the Forester than I have been in our long-term Subaru BRZ. It has the looks of an aftermarket system and is hard to use while driving.
You can see a full breakdown of trim levels here.
The Forester has not been crash-tested by the federal government or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at this time.
It does feature seven airbags, including front seat-mounted side-impact airbags and a driver's knee airbag.
Subaru has also moved the top tether mounts for child-safety seats from the cabin's roof to the rear seatbacks for easier access and improved rear visibility.
Forester in the Market
Subaru wanted to make an all-wheel-drive compact SUV that didn't lose to front-drive competitors on price, fuel economy or performance. After my test I can confirm that the Forester does succeed on those fronts.
It's also comfortable and quiet on the road, with plenty of power for this segment.
For shoppers looking for an all-wheel-drive vehicle, the Forester wins easily in terms of capability, price and fuel economy.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun