The Subaru Forester has long been the vehicle of choice for outdoorsy people, competent, no-nonsense lesbians, and Vermonters (not to be confused with Vermonsters, a colossal tub of ice cream incapable of purchasing a car), and I don't think that's going to change with the new 2014 model. It's been updated in some pretty significant ways, but it retains the fundamental qualities that have made it a niche favorite.
Only now it does it all faster, roomier, and a bit uglier.
(Full Disclosure: Subaru flew me out to Tokyo, put me up in a hotel, fed me, and even let me drive a tiny truck they didn't fly me out to drive. Also, they always made sure I was pretty much out of earshot before making fun of me to other journalists.)
These impressions to follow are from my time behind the wheel of a pre-production mule of the 2014 Subaru Forester. For a mule, however, it was very, very close to the final production model, and I was told only would differ in extremely small ways. So, while these impressions likely will be valid for the production version, I can't absolutely say that, so we'll wait to give a Jalopnik Number until we get our hands on an official production model.
A lot's changed on the Forester since the current model, most obviously the body design. I'm personally fond of Subarus in a general sense, though I feel like design-wise they're like a good kid entering middle school and making some strange and misguided choices appearance-wise. Like that short, stocky, funny friend you had in the sixth grade who shows up for the first day of seventh grade in unfortunate skinny jeans, eyeliner, and massive limp bangs. You know what he's trying for, but it's just not really him.
The new Forester feels like that. It started out as a car-like SUV with a simple, clean design with interesting proportions, and with each successive redesign it's gotten more SUV-like and more over-styled. This new one has some decent design cues here and there— the angled-corner motif on the headlights and grille, for example, but the general look is a bit overdone. Especially that lower front bumper/valence with all the grilles and slits and fake intakes.
It's not bad, as such, but somehow manages to be slightly boring despite all the overworked detailing. I guess that's sort of an achievement right there. It's not all bad news, as the new more raked windshield design provides a good increase in interior room, and there's thoughtful touches throughout, like doors that are designed to close in a way that prevents off-road dirt from making it into the car.
Inside, you've got a nice, modern-feeling if not breathtaking SUV interior. The rear seats have been thoughtfully designed, with cupholders moved so that a toddler in a child's seat can reach them. Having a toddler who often likes to reach for drinks, I can attest that this is a wonderful change. I'm sure many toddler eyes will be spared poking by drink straws from this one simple innovation. Also nice when you have a kid is the auto-opening rear hatch, new for this year as well.
The dash has one confusing decision: Subaru has added a very up-to-date feeling color LCD screen, but for some reason decided to place it on the upper center of the dashboard where it's hard for everyone to see. I've grown used to seeing these LCDs in the main instrument binnacle, and moving it so far out of eyeline seems like a terrible idea. The optional infotainment system has its own centrally-placed LCD, so I have no idea why they felt the one with the useful driver's information should be placed in the middle as well.
There's two flat-four boxer engines for the new Forester, a 2.5-liter normally aspirated and a 2.0-liter turbocharged. The NA engine makes 170 HP/174 lb-ft, and the Turbo one makes a very respectable 250 HP/258 lb-ft. For the 2.5, you can pick between a 6-speed manual and CVT, and the CVT is the only transmission for the Turbo 2.0.
The Turbo, of course, is the interesting engine here. You may recognize it from it's more glamorous job hauling around BRZs and FR-Ses. Here, Subaru has swapped out Toyota's TDI for their own Gasoline Direct Injection system and, of course, they've placed a turbo on it. I'm sure this turbo will end up in BRZs before too long as well, from the factory or not. The turbo is placed under the engine, which is fine in a vehicle with high clearance, but may make things trickier for people hoping to do straight swaps onto a BRZ.
Now that I'm talking about the engine, I'm going to jump into what this was like to drive. I drove it on Subaru's banked test track. We were limited to a maximum speed of 100 mph, which is fine for a car like this, really. Most of these cars lives will be spent far below that speed.
On the turbo, the acceleration is great— it gets to 60 in 6.2 seconds (the NA does it in 9.5). Subaru made sure to point out that a V6 Porsche Cayenne does it in 6.1 seconds. Yes, they're targeting the base-level one, but it's still a decent comparison. They also had a V6 Mustang race it for the journalists while we were there, and while the results were close, it sort of looked like the Mustang wasn't really trying too hard.
Silly stunts aside, the Turbo Forester felt quite quick and was a pleasure to drive. The low center of gravity from the low-mounted, flat engine could absolutely be felt, especially when compared with other competing small SUVs I drove on the track as well. The Forester felt planted and very controllable, not nearly as top-heavy as its shape would suggest.
The CVT is interesting in the car as well. It has three modes— economy/normal, S (sport), and S# (Sport 'sharp'). Of the three, S is actually the fastest, and the smooth, stepless quality of a CVT can be felt here. It's a constant, smooth transition between ratios, and provides a nice power curve, I felt.
What baffles me is the S# mode, because it's entirely a psychological trick. Essentially, Sport Sharp makes the stepless CVT pretend it's an 8-speed automatic transmission, by changing the straight ramp up of ratios into a sawtooth-pattern of gear steps, with the engine revs slowing and speeding up accordingly like they would if actual gears were used. I suppose it sort of feels like you're going faster, but only because we're used to hearing and feeling gear changes. The reality is it's actually a bit slower and less efficient.
I'm sure some drivers may prefer the fake gear changes, but it's fundamentally a bit silly. Personally, if you're going to use the car's computers to fake this kind of thing, you should have settings so the driver can choose how they want to be faked. What if, instead of a modern-seeming 8 gears, I'm nostalgic for the old Ford LTD wagon my folks had growing up? Can I dial in just three steps? That'd be more fun, and no more absurd.
The steering felt decent, not quite as numb as I was prepared for, possibly because the electric assist is on the rack as opposed to the column. Rack-mounting the assist motor should also be an advantage for off-roading use as well.
The body and chassis are more rigid (they say 150% so) and the car did feel pretty solid on the track, but I didn't do anything really, really demanding. Brakes were excellent on the Turbo, a bit less so on the NA. Really, the Turbo is the model you need to be looking at here, anyway.
I didn't get to drive off-road, but I did get to try some interesting things: driving up a hill, with rollers on one side of the car. This was to simulate if half your wheels were on ice, and the Forester new traction control system did adapt quite quickly, letting me drive up the steep hill with only a couple seconds of wheel spinning and the car doing lots of math.
I was also driven on Subaru's off-road course by one of their engineers that I can only assume they usually keep chained up in a closet. The guy was insane, barreling through gravel-filled ditches and up 45° slopes like a maniac, getting sideways on dirt road turns and generally driving like a loon. It was a blast, and the new Forester seemed to cope with everything quite well. I was just a passenger here, but the fact that the engineers hoon the cars with such abandon is a good sign.
All told, I think Subaru's done a good job updating the Forester. They've retained the useful qualities of the car, highlighted the unique parts (low-center of gravity boxer engine) and actually made it quick and fun to drive. Let's just hope there's a facelift scheduled for 2015.