Subaru Forester — Improved in all the right places

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

When you think of compact crossover SUVs, names such as Escape, RAV4 and CR-V instantly come to mind. We think another should be added to the list of small top-tier family haulers — the Subaru Forester. And today, Subaru has taken its already excellent Forester to a new level of sophistication with a complete remake for the 2014 model year.

We were delighted to find that the Forester has not lost any of its attributes, from its excellent driving dynamics, to its all-weather capability, great sight lines, comfortable seats, quiet interior and the all-around good feeling it imparts. Subaru has done its makeover job quite well.

The Forester still carries a more upright traditional SUV stance avoiding the modern car-like appearance of several of its competitors, but beyond styling, the appeal of the Forester over the years has been its bad-weather capability with standard all-wheel drive and elevated ground clearance (8.7 inches). Combined with its car-like driving attributes — it's based on the compact Impreza sedan — and its hatchback-style cargo-hauling capability the Forester continually proves itself.

Perhaps the biggest news for 2014 is that this fourth generation Forester gets two new transmissions, a new engine and a load of new cutting-edge technology. The outdated four-speed automatic has been replaced with a new continuously variable transmission (CVT) and the five-speed manual has been dropped, replaced by a new six-speed. Both transmissions yield much better fuel economy. Mated to the standard 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine, the six speed (which we also drove) is EPA-rated at 22 city/29 highway, a two mpg improvement, and the CVT at 25 city/32 highway beats the old transmission by three and five mpg respectively.

While the standard engine remains the same (170 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque) buyers can now opt for considerably more performance with a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder pumping out 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. We didn't drive the new 2.0XT model, but it should prove popular with the go-fast crowd with 0-to-60 time measured in the mid-sixes.

Our 2.5i Touring edition test vehicle came with the standard engine mated to the CVT, and we were impressed with its capability in all driving situations. The numbers bear out our seat-of-the-pants observations, 0-to-60 in 8.5 seconds. The new CVT works well, a solid improvement over the outgoing four-speed.

Forester’s exterior dimensions have grown slightly for 2014 and that translates into more roominess inside with excellent headroom and rear-seat legroom up a whopping 3.7 inches. Cargo capacity has grown from 68.3 to 74.7 cubic feet, outscoring the Escape and new RAV4.

The interior has been thoroughly refreshed with a straight-forward appealing look. A large analog speedometer and tachometer flank an information screen that includes an odometer and gas gauge. Steering wheel controls with cruise and audio are helpful. We were impressed with the large climate control knobs, but not so much with the audio function embedded in the navigation screen. Once radio pre-sets are chosen, they can be accessed by arrows on the steering wheel. A large storage area is located on the center stack convenient for everything from a cellphone to a small purse, and includes a coin holder.

An additional dashboard feature is a small screen atop the center stack that serves as a backup camera (note the word small) and at other times dispenses such information as time, outside temperature, gas mileage and climate control settings.

The Forester can be purchased with Subaru's new EyeSight system, and we think it a great value for an option price of $2,400. Included are keyless access and start; EyeSight driver-assist system with pre-collision braking, pedestrian detection, lane departure and sway warning, adaptive cruise control, and high intensity discharge (HID) headlights with automatic height adjustment control. These are features usually unavailable in a vehicle in this price range.

The Forester comes in six trim levels starting at $22,820 and working up to the top 2.0XT Touring trim starting at $33,845. Our 2.5i Touring carried a base price of $29,820 and an as-tested price with the EyeSight option of $32,220.

Standard equipment across the lineup is generous and includes full power accessories, cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, four-speaker sound system with CD player and iPod jack. Move up one trim level to 2.5i Premium at $24,320 and roof rails, a panoramic sunroof, rearview camera and eight-way power driver's seat are added. Unfortunately, Subaru requires you to move up to the top 2.5-liter trim before the EyeSight system becomes available.

We were pleased to find the new Forester has lost none of its considerable appeal and, in fact, has been improved in several areas over the last generation crossover.

Base price: $22,820; as driven, $32,220
Engine: 2.5-liter flat four
Horsepower: 170 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 174 foot-pounds @ 4,100 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
Length: 180.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,296 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 34.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 74.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.9 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 32 highway, 24 city
0-60: 8.5 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Toyota RAV4

The Good
• All-wheel drive standard
• Roomy passenger compartment
• High-tech safety features available
• Improved gas mileage

The Bad
• Audio controls awkward with navigation

The Ugly
• Can reach 35 grand in top trim