When the 2014 Subaru Forester was introduced last year at the LA Auto Show, it looked to be a solid improvement over the already-successful outgoing Forester model, with increased interior room, improved ergonomics and materials, better fuel economy, and a long list of available safety and comfort features. Living in the Northwest, where the Forester and its Subaru stablemates are extremely popular, I was eager to see how the new Forester stacked up.
On the exterior, changes to the Forester’s styling are subtle when compared to the previous model: as Subaru asked, why mess with success? With proportions that set it apart from many of the cookie-cutter crossovers, the SUV is immediately recognizable as a Forester, though details like light-pipes in the headlamp housings lend the Forester a sophisticated look.
From the driver’s seat, visibility out of the Forester is INCREDIBLE. Yes, I SHOUTED IT by typing it in ALL CAPS, because the visibility really is that good. Narrow pillars, a generous greenhouse, and a thoughtfully designed rear window /seat combination give a commanding view out forward, sideways, and even a clear view behind for reversing; I can’t remember the last time I complimented any vehicle’s rear visibility.
I found the driver’s seat to be plenty comfortable – my backside didn’t get tired even with a three-hour stint behind the wheel. My size-thirteen shoes had plenty of room in the pedal box, and my knees had plenty of space. The driver’s seat has ten-way power adjustment including lumbar, but my wife found the manually-adjusted front passenger seat to be a bit higher than she likes, with the shape of the dash intruding a bit on her perceived space.
Rear seat legroom in the new Forester has improved compared to the previous generation. At 6’4” tall, I can comfortably “sit behind myself” with my knees just barely brushing the driver’s seatback. The seat cushion was comfortably high above the floor. Unfortunately the buckles for the rear seat belts are not rigidly supported at the bottom as they protrude from the seat cushion, which made it difficult for my kids to buckle their seatbelts themselves from their booster seats. On the side, the backrests do recline in 60/40 split, as well as folding forward in that split using switches in the cargo area.
The Harman/Kardon-branded infotainment/navigation system is standard on the Forester Premium. The unit’s touchscreen display has an anti-glare surface which prevents the display offering sharp visual images – but the display is still able to be washed out by sunlight coming through the large windows or panoramic moonroof. I found the soft-keys for both audio and navigation functions to be on the small side, making them occasionally hard to read and hard to use accurately while keeping my eyes on the road. Because there is no knob for tuning, softkeys on the touchscreen must be used, which can be cumbersome when trying to tune satellite radio stations far up the dial. iPod integration of my iPhone 5 worked seamlessly through the USB connector in the Forester’s armrest. The system displayed a useful amount of information about music in the AUDIO mode, though only minimal audio information is available in Navigation display mode.
The navigation system requires TWO disclaimer-acceptance button pushes at startup (one reminding you to be mindful of road conditions and not become distracted, the other admonishing you not to remove the memory card which contains map data). The fact that the map database is stored on an SD card rather than a hard drive means that it can (and does) take a long time to calculate a route. That said, the bespoke display layout is clever, with good graphics despite being let down by slow route calculations from the SD card. Destination entry is performed by speaking street name and house number, which prompts the system to look for matching combinations nearby. City/state entry is only prompted by speaking “change city” after the list of nearby options populates, and doing so results in an approximately 20 second delay before being prompted to speak the name of the city and state, presumably because the system is trying to load all of the possible city/state options from the SD card. Note that if you are speaking the name of the state “Oregon”, be sure to pronounce it like “organ” rather than “or-uh-gone;” I spent several frustrated minutes trying to enter my destination in that state without being understood by the voice recognition software. Once underway the directions given are straightforward, and sometimes included unexpectedly-helpful commands such as “turn right after the gas station”. The navigation system does receive real-time traffic incident information, which can provide automatic route recalculation based on reported traffic problems, with the announcement “Traffic Jam Ahead” On a 25 mile drive across Seattle on a Friday evening with heavy traffic (which took 75 minutes), the system interrupted music to say “traffic jam ahead” at least 20 times. I heard the same admonition at least that many times throughout my three-hour trip to Portland as well, though I never encounterd any traffic after the first 20 minutes of my drive.
The vehicle tested was also equipped with Subaru’s EyeSight system, which uses a stereo-camera system mounted near the rear-view mirror enable adaptive cruise control and obstacle detection. This is the first adaptive cruise system I have used that was camera-based, and such a system is still pretty uncommon on affordable family vehicles. I found the system to work well except in certain climatic conditions; a separate review of the EyeSight system is available in Technology Sidebar article.
The Forester’s roots as an inexpensive family crossover are evident in the functional-yet-n on-fancy climate control display. The dual-zone system shows both temperatures, fan speed, and air distribution in white-on-blue LCD display which matches the odometer/cruise display between the tachometer and speedometers. However, the climate control display is immediately adjacent to a full color LCD screen used for trip computer functionality; use of a slightly larger LCD display would have integrated the climate control information more nicely into the dash, though it would have likely also added cost to the Forester, whose base model starts at a low $21,995.
Surprisingly (given Subaru’s “symmetrical AWD” provenance), the Forester’s front tires can scrabble and engage traction control when setting off aggressively from a stop in wet conditions, as the AWD control had initially decoupled the rear drive. This differs somewhat from the typical older Subaru full-time AWD system, but decoupling the rear drive when not needed certainly contributes to the Forester’s improved fuel economy rating.
IN the past I have commented about the agricultural sound of Subaru powertrains, especially those pairing a horizontally-opposed four cylinder engine with a manual transmission; both the Legacy sedan and the XV Crosstrek I’ve previously reviewed are guilty of this transgression. Happily, the Forester and its Lineartronic CVT (continuously-variable transmission) do a good job isolating mechanical noises from the cabin.
I am generally not a fan of continuously variable transmissions, but I had no issues with the one fitted to the Forester. It delivered prompt downshifts without the “rubber-band” feel of many CVTs, and was responsive to throttle inputs. To Subaru’s credit, this is the first CVT I have used which didn’t detract from the vehicle’s driving experience. My logbook notes state that the “CVT is unobtrusive and unexciting but works well enough around town – not the horrific experience I remember from some previous CVT experiences in rented Nissans.”
During my week with the Forester, I had the opportunity to explore some unpaved roads in Oregon’s scenic Columbia River Gorge. Driving the Forester on muddy, rutted dirt roads, I was impressed with the suspension’s ability to handle big ruts and dips with aplomb. Subaru has fitted the Forester with an offroad driving mode called “X-Mode”, which is activated by the push of a button which somehow adjusts the drivetrain response for true off-roading at speeds below about 20 MPH, including different AWD engagement and a hill-descent control program. I didn’t notice much of a difference with the system on or off, and found that I exceeded the 20mph speed max which caused the system to automatically turn off. Handling and throttle response were totally predictable on the forest roads, which made the rainy trip through the wilderness a bit of a non-event.
The Forester 2.5i with CVT has an EPA fuel economy rating of 24/32/27 MPG (city/highway/combined). During my week with the Forester, I covered 628 miles, with an overall average of 26.1 MPG according to the Forester’s trip computer. That distance included a trip from Seattle to Portland and back on Interstate 5, which has posted speed limits of 60 MPH and 70 MPH in urban and rural areas, respectively. I tended to drive with the cruise control set about 7 MPH above the posted speed limit; that saw real-life averages of 31.6 MPG at 67 MPH, and 25.3 at 77 MPH; my overall average for the 188 mile segment (which took 2 hours 53 minutes, for 65.2 MPH average speed and included some stop-and-go traffic but no pit-stops) southbound was 29.1 MPG, which is impressive for an AWD crossover like the Forester.
The Forester 2.5i Touring has a starting price of $29,995, which includes standard features like all-wheel drive with CVT automatic transmission, keyless entry/starting, panoramic moonroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, 440 W Harman/Kardon-branded touchscreen navigation/infotainment system (including satellite and HD terrestrial radio), leather seating surfaces, and power liftgate. The Jasmine Green Metallic Forester tested here was additionally equipped with the $2400 “Option Package 30”, which includes Keyless Access & Start; EyeSight Driver Assistance System (Pre-Collision Braking System, Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure / Lane Sway Warning, Pre-Collision Throttle Management); and HID low-beam headlamps. Including the $825 Destination fee, the vehicle tested rings in at $33,220.
It is hardly possible to describe the strength of Subaru’s market presence in Oregon and Washington. When I review vehicles for Techshake I tend to be on the lookout for other models of the same vehicle on the road. In the case of the Forester, they are so plentiful in the Northwest that I lost count of the number of other Foresters I saw on the road, they are everywhere. This latest version builds on the reputation of past Foresters, while adding space, and features, as well as a recently-announced IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating, making it a satisfying vehicle to drive and a very strong contender in the small SUV class.