Subaru's popular Forester continues to put function in front of form. It stands out from the crowd, resisting the contemporary trend toward making SUVs look like sports coupes with descending rooflines and curvaceous bodies. Instead, the Forester aces the fundamentals with a space-efficient design, large windows, and big square doors. That recipe has resulted in the easiest access and the best view out of almost any vehicle, and one of the roomiest rear seats in the class, with copious head and leg room.
By adapting various fuel-efficient technologies, including using a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), the Forester delivers a class-leading 26 mpg overall and 35 mpg on the highway. Performance is decent from that standard 2.5-liter, 170-hp four-cylinder engine; an uplevel 2.0-liter, 250-hp turbocharged four-cylinder XT version is available. Unlike most modern small SUVs, a manual transmission can be had, but only with the base engine and basic trim levels.
All Foresters have a standard backup camera. Advanced safety gear is readily available as part of Subaru's EyeSight suite of safety equipment, including lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems coupled with automatic emergency braking. All-wheel-drive is standard on all Foresters; it is very capable in wintry conditions.
For all its virtues, however, the Forester does suffer some tradeoffs. The ride is rather firm in this generation. Handling is responsive and very secure, but the Forester isn't as agile as, say, the Ford Escape or Mazda CX-5.
Don't expect luxury inside; interior trim remains quite austere, with several especially cheap-looking touches. It's not particularly quiet inside either, with noticeable engine noise when accelerating. Updates for 2016 included a new touch-screen infotainment system that significantly improves the Forester's connectivity quotient; previous Foresters fell far behind the tech curve.
Overall, if you're looking for a small SUV that's very functional and fuel-efficient, the Forester is hard to beat. It also offers a lot for the money. The mid-trim Forester 2.5i Premium has a huge sunroof, heated front seats, and a power driver's seat, all for about $27,000.