Between the A+ report card from Consumer Reports and a last-crossover-standing result for the IIHS small overlap test, even Tommy Callahan could sell somebody a Subaru Forester. “Here comes the meat wagon WEEE-OOO WEEE-OOO and the medic gets out and says, ‘Oh my God’. New guy’s around the corner puking his guts out – all because you wanted to buy a RAV4.”
Factor in some much-improved fuel economy from a continuously variable transmission, and the sales figures are like spank-tra-vision to Subie execs: up by a third year-to-date. Holy shnikes! Is this the year the lovable approach hiking shoe crosses-over from niche product to all-round segment leader? Let’s go camping.
The Fozzie new mug eschews stylish wakka-wakka in favour of an outline that could just as easily be wearing Mitsubishi’s three-pointed star. Not that the Forester has ever been a stunningly handsome machine, but this new one puts me in mind of the grafted-on noses GM once put on all their minivans to bump safety ratings.
But it’s not bad-looking – this is inoffensiveness as a styling exercise. It might not be as cutting-edge as some of the other designs out there, but it looks like it’ll age better than the toaster-shaped original, and there is one extremely exciting visual thing about this crossover: you can actually see out of it.
I’d like to get Sajeev’s scorecard on the Forester’s design, but a closer look at the thing shows all kinds of good news. There’s plenty of greenhouse, and the rear-quarter windows are, well, windows. How rare is that? There’s not too much slope to the rear glass and those are functional roof rails as-standard. Front overhang is maybe a little prow-ish, but rear is good, and ground clearance looks suitably Subaru-ish.
On the Forester’s inside, the eyeball finds less to love. Like the new Impreza, the Forester is much improved over the previous generation, and could be considered mid-pack for interior quality. However, even in this Limited-trim model, there is evidence of some cheapness.
Look at these child anchors for instance. The foam of the seats is exposed when a LATCH tie-down is in-place, and while rear-seat room and comfort is better than that of a Ford Escape, family use is going to cause some unsightly wear.
Using your Forester as a cargo hauler is going to be a mixed bag too. While the way this new, bigger version swallows gear is impressive, the seats don’t fold completely flat, and both seatbacks and the little flap that covers the gap are flimsy and look prone to tearing and/or bending. Even more annoying is the lack of proper cargo area illumination – there’s just a rinky-dinky little lamp on the bottom right that’s about as effective as a birthday candle in the Mines of Moria.
Up front, the Fozzie rates a utility-grade pass for chunky knobs and dials and a centre cargo area with plenty of room for USB chargers or power-converters. Despite this Limited’s theoretically fully-loaded layout, the Harmon/Kardon stereo could have been lifted right out of a Subaru from last year. Or last decade. Or the decade before that. It sounds okay though.
Even with not-much mileage on the clock, the door-cards and centre area on this press-loaner were beginning to look a bit scratched up. The split-level display is a bit odd (why a digital clock face?) and the backup camera is only big enough as an emergency aid. Here again though, the Forester’s rear visibility is so good, you only need refer to it when the trunk is entirely full.
Pop the hood and – hey, an engine! I remember those! Granted, the Subie’s 2.5L pancake-four looks a bit like a plastic facehugger is impregnating an industrial dishwasher, but how rare these days to see a motor in all its unshrouded glory. Look, there’s even an exposed oil-filter! Just think of the smell after spilling gallons of 5W-30 all over the engine manifold – the home-mechanic’s potpourri.
Several important things about this carry-over engine (first introduced in the Forester in 2011, the FB25): it’s chain-drive, not belt and while it retains the same 2.5L displacement and 170hp rating as the old EJ-series options, both bore and stroke are different for very slightly more low end power – 4lb/ft. I do have some concerns about overall longevity with heat-cycling the plastic manifold, and the pool of FB25-powered cars with over 100,000 miles is too small to see if the new design completely dodges the EJ’s headgasket issues (granted, Subaru resolved the bulk of these by 2005, but there are still problems cropping up as vehicles age).
Bigger news on the drivetrain front is the CVT now installed in all automatic Foresters. Continuously Terrible Transmission, rubber-band, motor-boat, whining, fun-sapping, blah blah blah. Nonsense.
While you can still buy a manual transmission Forester – now a 6-speed, huzzah! – the CVT in the base Forester is perfectly fine if you know how to drive it. Turbocharged XT models drive like a fat Nissan Juke (er, that’s intended to be a compliment), and if you’re gentle with throttle inputs and don’t push the thing, you’ll appreciate both the better fuel economy and the smoothness from the naturally aspirated motor.
And trust me, you’re not really going to want to push it. While the Impreza is reasonably fun-to-drive, the Forester is bigger, bulkier, squishier and numb-er. On-ramp acceleration is acceptable, the over-boosted steering is still okay, and the car feels extremely planted in the corners, but a Mazda CX-5 would be a much better choice for driving pleasure. Except for one thing.
This is a mancala board, a popular African game, and it’s also an excellent visual representation of the potholed gravel road I ended up on after taking a wrong turn getting out of Squamish, BC. I’d just driven the Mazda on similar, if drier, roads and my reaction on seeing a few miles of this corrugated surface – with a sleeping baby in the back and in a bit of a hurry to make it to the campsite to get a decent spot – is unprintable.
The Forester, God bless her, picked up her fancy new skirts and just glided across the bumps like a hovercraft. Yes, you expect Subarus to be good off-road in the traction department, but it was still an impressive performance – after the first couple of hundred feet I started aiming for the bigger potholes to see what would happen. No problemo.
Back on the road, some of the less-good things about Subaru DNA reasserted themselves. Anyone nostalgic for the days of frameless windows will love the way the extra-large door-mounted side mirrors impart wind noise like a Sopwith Camel strafing the trenches. Yes, my spur-of-the-moment durability experiment probably caused it, but the mild rattle issuing from somewhere in the dashboard is pure Fuji Heavy Industries maraca.
And yet, as I wound down the curving highway, loaded up with camping gear and family, there’s a lot to like about this car: excellent safety rating, decent power, CRV-pipping fuel economy, lots of utility and even a bit of mild off-roading prowess. All the usual Subaru foibles are there too, but it’s a decent rig. Way to forge ahead, Tommy.