As far as crossovers go, the Subaru Forester is some kind of an enigma. Besides a few new safety features here and there, the damn thing has been pretty much unchanged for the last four years, and while its engine is relatively new, it feels like the same Boxer motor Subaru has used since, like, fire was invented.
Yet Forester sales have somehow increased in 2016—last year alone Subaru moved nearly 200,000 of them in North America, part of a steady sales rise that’s been going on for years.
Yes, the Forester is kind of old, but people keep buying them. More and more people keep buying them, in fact. What the hell is going on here? Is there some sort of Jeep-like, 4x4 cult following with the Forester that I’m not aware of?
(Full disclosure: Subaru Canada wanted me to drive the Forester so badly, they lent me one for an entire week, clean, brown, and with a full tank of gas.)
What Is It?
Introduced to our market in 1997, the Subaru Forester was among the first wave of car-based Japanese crossovers along with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Originally built on the Impreza platform, the first generation Forester was marketed as a more rugged alternative to the existing all-wheel drive wagons Subaru was selling at the time, notably the Legacy and Impreza Outback.
Fast forward to today and the classic Forester hot sauce recipe remains almost unmolested. It’s still running on Impreza hardware and still looks very vertically challenged. Power is claimed at 170 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. That’s a whole five horsepower more than the original Forester from 20 years ago. Wow!
Subaru will sell you a turbo-powered Forester, called the XT. It uses essentially the same 2.0-liter turbo as in the Impreza WRX. That one, according to Subaru, is good for 250 horsepower.
Of course, all Foresters send their power to the wheels through Subaru’s acclaimed symmetrical all-wheel drive system. That power is transferred via a CVT (yawn), like my tester, or a six-speed manual, but only for entry-level models such as the 2.5i and 2.5i Premium (Touring in Canada). So no, you can’t get your turbo Forester with three pedals, which sucks.
But! An all-wheel-drive, manual crossover in this day and age is very rare, so the fact that Subaru even offers the option is seriously cool.
Why Does it Matter?
People are buying a shitload of crossovers now. If you’re not marketing some sort of jacked-up, all-wheel-drive contraption with an abundance of cargo space these days, you’re not in the car business. Period. You and I may think the WRX STI is the most important vehicle in Subaru’s lineup, but it’s really not: this guy is.
So, Subaru has been selling quite a lot of these. In 2016, the Forester ended up in 178,593 U.S. driveways and 13,798 in Canada. That’s a lot of Foresters, especially for a small and mostly independent carmaker like Subaru. While still not even close to the Honda and Toyota juggernauts, Subaru’s crossover is the ninth most sold SUV in America, ahead of the Jeep Wrangler and Mazda CX-5.
Now for a utility vehicle to matter in this day and age, it must not only deliver on the basics of utility, all-weather capability, and value, but also stand out from the crowd by offering truly unique features such as funky styling, innovative and efficient drivetrains, or an abundance of standard tech.
About the Forester’s drivetrain: it’s both its biggest flaw and most outstanding feature. Yes, this has a Boxer motor, like all Subarus, and yes it’s the same 2.5-liter that’s been powering everything in their lineup for the past decade. Subaru did replace the EJ25 for the FB25, but the specs haven’t changed all that much. It’s also the one that somehow magically implodes when it reaches 100,000 miles.
To Subaru’s credit, the Boxer/AWD formula remains brilliant. While carmakers are throwing all the technology they can at their all-wheel-drive systems to make sure young families don’t fall off a cliff in their crossover, none of them will ever match the low center of gravity of a horizontally opposed engine.
And that’s where the Forester has its competition totally curbstomped.
On the road, thanks to the drivetrain’s excellent weight distribution, all Subarus feel solidly planted to the ground, as if they were glued to the pavement, or whatever surface they’re riding on. This means that although the Forester is top heavy, there’s virtually no body roll.
It’s confidence-inspiring. In other words, you can drive it like a little car, hitting corners quickly, turning in sharply, and be somewhat spirited behind the wheel.
Unfortunately, this is old news. We’ve been hearing about Subaru’s magical system since Britney Spears was in the Mickey Mouse Club. And that engine is crude. Unrefined. And slow. What’s up with those power figures? Is that really the best you could pull out of that 2.5-liter over a 20-year span, Subaru? The 2017 Honda CR-V, on the other hand, can be powered by an all-new, very efficient, supremely quiet, and punchy, 190-hp, direct-injection 1.5-liter turbo four for the same price as this.
Also, the acceleration in the Forester, especially with the CVT, is downright awful: 8.6 seconds according to Car and Driver. Even the most boring of boring crossovers, the Toyota RAV4, is faster off the line. Urgh.
So as far as being all innovative and new, the Forester’s engine is a big no.
X-Mode Is For Off-Roading, They Say
The 2017 Subaru Forester is equipped with an X-Mode function, apparently to give it some serious off-road capability. That feature is only available on Foresters equipped with the CVT, go figure. While not a full differential lock 4x4 system like what you’d get in a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, the Forester’s traction management system is still refreshingly clever.
X-Mode can only be engaged at speeds below 25 mph. When activated, the system automatically fiddles with engine throttle, transmission gearing, and electronic stability control to increase traction. It also adds a hill decent feature.
But the coolest thing about X-Mode is that it raises the front/rear coupling force of the differentials, allowing the engine’s power to be more evenly spread out to all four wheels. It basically mimics a locking diff setup. It’s really clever. And geeky. And it actually works!
I took my Forester through some rather rough dirt roads, with steep inclinations, thick mud, sand, and rocks. It crawled its way out, no sweat. In many ways, this reminded me of my 1995 Suzuki Sidekick, which had full-locking hubs and all.
So yes, the Subaru Forester does the occasional off-roading stuff better than most vehicles in its class.
Continuously. Variable. Transmission.
As a CVT, it’s a good system, thanks to a simulated step-gear system that actually gives off the impression that it’s, ahem, shifting.
But it still heavily kills any soul the Forester has left, and when combined with that rumbling flat-four, the entire drivetrain drones throughout the cabin, as if the Forester is unhappy to even exist.
Did I mention how slow this thing is? God, it’s slow.
Then, there’s the odd, and seriously annoying jerkiness of the electronic throttle. You really need to give it a strong jab for the car to actually start moving, which inevitably causes it to lurch ahead furiously, making you look like a mad drunk driver at an intersection.
It’s all or nothing with the Forester. You’re either giving it too much throttle, or not enough. And that can become very annoying, very quickly.
Build quality is good, but materials feel low grade; the entire cabin is plastic-intensive, and not particularly that attractive. Let’s call it functional.
Finally, the Forester’s infotainment system lacks all the recent connectivity features such as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, features that are now standard in a base Honda Civic.
As a daily driver, this thing is great. But not necessarily better than the competition. Thanks to the Forester’s high roof line and blocky proportions, you sit upright in it, like a mini Land Rover. And that’s cool.
Also, there’s a lot of glass in the cabin. The windows are high and wide, and the entire cowl is rather low, so it’s really easy to see out of the Forester. It’s easy to park, being compact and all, and fuel economy is up there at 28 MPG combined.
Finally, rear leg and headroom is massive, seats are comfortable enough, and cargo space is rather good. Once all rear seats are folded flat, the Forester will engulf 74.7 cu. ft of your stuff, slotting right between the RAV4 and the all time king, the Honda CR-V. So yeah, the Forester does the practical hauling stuff rather well.
It doesn’t do that all too well.
As mentioned above, the CVT and the lethargic engine really take away any sort of fun from the Forester. Granted, there’s a turbo version available, but it doesn’t come standard, unlike the competition which comes with more power out of the box.
Also, although this thing exhibits impeccable road manners due to its drivetrain and all, it still feels less sophisticated than the more recent, fresher offerings in the segment, like the CR-V or Mazda CX-5. As far as performance goes, the Forester still feels like 1997.
If you were to buy your Forester with a manual, you would have some sort of fun with it, but then, you still wouldn’t be able to disengage stability control. I didn’t get to drive the Forester in that massive blizzard that hit the East Coast, but as I’m writing this, I’m in a Crosstrek with a stick. What I can tell you is that Subaru’s system in its crossovers will allow you to disengage traction control, but as soon as the vehicle starts to slide, which is presumably what you’ll want to do in your Subie during a blizzard, that stability control system continuously interferes to ruin the party.
So no, you can’t hoon your Forester in the snow. Even with a manual. Somehow I feel like my photographer and I, as your resident Canadian reviewers, let you down in this regard. I am sorry.
Who Is It For?
Luckily for Subaru, the Forester appeals to a broad range of consumers. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the common folk who look for an affordable, safe, and practical family hauler. Young families will appreciate the Forester’s interior and cargo space as well as its competitive fuel economy.
Then there’s the outdoorsy active type, who will most likely bring their Forester into uncharted territory in search of that perfect mountain bike drop, ski-slope, hiking trail, or river rapids. They’ll undoubtedly appreciate the Forester’s light-duty off-road capabilities and practicality.
Pricing for a 2017 Subaru Forester kicks off at $22,595 for a base 2.5i with a stick. My tester was a Canadian-spec 2.5i Touring with the technology package. It’s the equivalent of the 2.5i Limited in the US, including Subaru’s Eyesight bundle of semi-autonomous tech. It sells for $29,195.
That’s actually pretty cheap.
The turbocharged, 2.0XT model sells for roughly the same price ($29,295), but doesn’t come standard with Eyesight. It’s the Forester 2.5i Touring that tops the lineup at $31 295.
So, let’s wrap this up: a base Forester, with a manual, undercuts the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5 and Hyundai Tucson. This a great value!
Is the Subaru Forester a good utility vehicle? You bet it is.
That classic Subaru secure feeling on the road and the fact that it’s a blast to daily, the option to buy one with a manual, and the fact that it’ll crawl its way out of pretty much anything the average urban human will ever encounter, makes it a lovable little wagon-thing.
But it’s far from stellar. The Forester has many flaws. Its drivetrain is dated, the entire thing doesn’t feel particularly innovative, its power figures are rather low for the segment, and it simply has trouble keeping up with the latest crop of cool, modern, and high-tech crossovers available out there. Also, Subaru doesn’t have a very good reliability track record—at least not long-term.
Finally, that CVT and intrusive stability control system take away the endearing traits that have made this little box on wheels an enthusiast-friendly option in the past. But cheap always sells, and Subaru knows this.
As good as this little Forester tries to be, the reality is that there are much better crossovers out there. That doesn’t seem to stop anyone from buying them, though.
Correction: This post has been updated to correct that the Forester uses the newer FB25 instead of the old EJ25, although it doesn’t feel like it. We regret the error.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com.