The small-SUV category is like a rugged, rocky mountain that has proved difficult to scale for many hopeful models. For the past decade, the Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester had maintained a vigorous rivalry while scrambling for the top spot. But recent redesigns to the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, and RAV4 have reshuffled the class. Now the Forester has undergone its own redesign for 2014, and its lofty road-test score of 88 has left it alone at the summit with its competition far below.
What's the secret? Sticking to the basics. This new Forester embodies the saying, "a steady pace wins the race." It has always been a sound, practical vehicle, although its plain, unpretentious demeanor hasn't helped it stand out to car shoppers in this crowded field.
With its redesign, Subaru has continued putting function in front of form. It resisted the contemporary trend toward making SUVs look like sports coupes with descending rooflines and curvaceous bodies, instead focusing on 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 moving to a new continuously variable transmission in place of its dated four-speed automatic, the Forester now delivers quicker acceleration as well as a class-leading 26 mpg overall and 35 on the highway. We also like that our mid-trim Forester 2.5i Premium has a power seat and a backup camera, handy features that some similarly priced competitors lack.
For all its virtuous simplicity, however, the Forester's redesign has also brought trade-offs. The ride, which used to be calm and cushy, is now rather firm and jittery. Handling is responsive and very secure, but the Forester isn't as agile as, say, the Ford Escape, Mazda CX-5, or Toyota RAV4.
The interior trim was modestly upgraded but remains quite austere, with a few cheap-looking touches. More notable, the Forester's in-car electronics and infotainment connectivity are a little behind the curve, especially in the areas of wireless Bluetooth phone pairing and audio streaming.
Overall, if you're looking for a small SUV that's very functional and fuel-efficient, the Forester is hard to beat. We expect its reliability to be above average, based on previous models.
Most Foresters come with a 170-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a CVT, which delivers acceleration that's on a par with most competitors. More impressive is the fuel economy, which is the best we've recorded in any non-diesel, non-hybrid SUV and just edges out the Mazda CX-5's 25 mpg.
Moreover, the CVT, a weak point for many other models, is largely unobtrusive. Ratio changes are quick and responsive. Still, hard acceleration kicks up the revs, creating a lot of engine noise. For more effortless power, you can opt for the lively 250-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four in the 2.0XT trim. But that will boost the price by about $4,500 and you'll have to use premium gas.
The Forester's formerly excellent ride has deteriorated with its redesign. Though the suspension absorbs single bumps and ruts fairly well, the ride is never settled. Even on smooth roads, passengers experience a small, incessant jitter that some of us found annoying. If you put a premium on ride comfort, consider a Honda CR-V instead.
As is typical for this class, cabin noise is fairly pronounced. At highway speeds, wind noise dominates and hard acceleration brings a howl from the otherwise quietly humming engine.
The steering is well weighted but short on feedback. When pushed to its handling limits at our track, the Forester was very secure and unflappable, with mild, predictable understeer. It posted a respectable speed through our avoidance maneuver, and we felt confident hustling it through the cones.
Subaru's EyeSight safety system, available on Touring versions, includes active cruise control, auto braking, and lane-departure warning.
It would be hard to improve on the Forester's driving position. The cabin feels airy, and the power seat with adjustable lumbar is supportive. Big windows and thin roof pillars contribute to outstanding visibility. But a blind-spot monitor isn't available.
The gauges are big and legible, including a high-mounted center display for the onboard computer and rear camera. Controls are basic but simple to operate. Large buttons and knobs manage the radio and climate system—not fancy but functional. To get automatic climate control, opt for the Limited or Touring version.
Unfortunately, when a phone is paired via Bluetooth, voice commands are cumbersome and unintuitive. Inexplicably, the system supports only one device at a time. When streaming Bluetooth audio, the dash display shows song info if you're using an iPhone but not an Android device. And the system doesn't support an iPhone 5 being used as a music player when it's plugged into the USB port.
Subaru's navigation system displaces the simple radio with a touch-screen unit that has small, fussy, and cryptic controls with tiny onscreen fonts and "buttons." Plus, you have to opt for the navigation system to get satellite radio and Aha Internet radio, features that are common on other cars.
The 60/40-split rear seatbacks fold flat, creating a fairly generous 35.5 cubic feet of space. A handy power liftgate comes with the Limited version.
|Highs||Fuel economy, visibility, braking, roomy interior, access, controls|
|Lows||Unsettled ride, noise, antiquated connectivity|
|Trim line||2.5i Premium|
|Drivetrain||170-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine; continuously variable transmission; all-wheel drive|
|Major options||All-weather package (heated seats and mirrors)|
|Other trim lines||2.5i, 2.5i Limited, 2.5i Touring, 2.0XT Premium, 2.0XT Touring|
|Other drivetrains||250-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine; six-speed manual transmission|
|Braking||Excellent on dry pavement, OK on wet.|
|Headlights||Good overall, but the low-beam pattern is a bit dimmer toward the edges than in the center.|
|Access||Big square doors, flush sills, and a low step-in height make getting in and out very easy.|
|Visibility||Excellent. Most versions come with a backup camera.|
|Cabin storage||Numerous nooks and bins help make the interior very functional.|
|Head restraints||The center-rear restraint is too low to provide adequate protection.|
|Child seats||Securing some forward-facing seats requires removing the head restraint. Subaru recommends against putting a child seat in the center rear.|