Pleasant, but polarizing
The Subaru Forester is one of the vehicles that earned Subaru its reputation for all-weather capability. The all-new 2014 Forester offers up an intriguing array of options and features, including standard all-wheel drive and an optional 250-horsepower turbocharged engine.
We were particularly impressed by the Subaru's design. Note we didn't say styling, which is boxy and a little dull. However, what Subaru built into that box is clever and very family-car smart. The Subaru Forester offers thin roof pillars and large windows all around for excellent visibility, whereas most compact SUVs are like driving a bunker by comparison. The Forester also has a huge cargo area. Then there's technology like Subaru's new EyeSight collision mitigation and active cruise control system. Using two cameras, it literally watches the road ahead, helps keep you in your lane, and even offers low-speed active cruise control that can be used in traffic.
But we were split on the Forester. Some of us said the suspension was too soft, while others weren't fond of the interior noise on the highway. And virtually everyone criticized the small radio buttons. Yet in the end, the Subaru Forester persevered, proving itself a solid choice for families, despite some shortcomings.
Key Family Car Strength
Call us old fashioned, but we like being able to rely on our eyeballs to park a car, rather than backup cameras and sensors, and the Subaru Forester SUV had the best outward visibility in our family-car comparison test. It has a backup camera, but visibility is good enough to just look around you and ignore it. Blind-spot detection and backup sensors aren't offered, but honestly, they aren't needed.
Key Family Car Weakness
The radio and navigation interface on this and other Subaru models has got to go. The buttons are tiny and hard to read, the on-screen buttons are even harder to read, and the Bluetooth was difficult to set up. The only knob is for volume -- if you want to switch radio stations, you have to hunt for the right button to press. It's a glaring flaw in an otherwise good family-car cockpit.
The 2014 Subaru Forester comes standard with all-wheel drive, and a choice of two engines: a 170-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine or a 250-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged version. Both are "boxer" engines, using horizontal cylinders, which Subaru says lowers the center of gravity of the compact SUV for better handling. The lowest-price Forester is the 2.5i, which comes with either a manual transmission for $22,820 or a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) for an extra $1,000. Step up to the $24,320 2.5i Premium, and you'll get aluminum-alloy wheels. A power moonroof, navigation and winter prep package are available, but only if you opt for the $1,500 CVT. The $28,820 2.5i Limited adds leather upholstery, automatic climate control, a more advanced all-wheel-drive setup with hill-descent control, and a power rear liftgate with adjustable height limit. Navigation is an option. The top-line 2.5i Touring costs $30,820 and includes the navigation system, leaving only the $2,400 keyless entry/EyeSight combination as the sole option package. The turbocharged Forester 2.0XT Premium is equipped similar to the 2.5i Premium, but costs $28,820 and adds the advanced all-wheel drive. The 2.0XT Touring starts at $33,820, with EyeSight the only option. All prices include an $825 destination charge.
Child booster seats were so easy to install in the Forester, it's as if Subaru started with a booster and designed out from there. The lower anchors are behind two flaps: Pull them up and you can easily hook and unhook your booster. The upper tether is equally easy to reach. Visibility with the two seats installed was also good, and there was plenty of legroom in front for a passenger. About the only downside is that there was no way someone could fit between the boosters, but that's not unique to the Forester. Note that the 2nd-row seats don't adjust at all, which adult passengers will likely miss.
The front seats were comfortable, and the high seating position made taking advantage of the big windows easy. However, some drivers found it difficult to get a good driving position, and most of us thought the interior design was dull, but functional.
Cargo and Storage
The Subaru Forester's vast cargo area is tough to beat. There's a large under-floor area, and our Forester came with a weatherproof mat for carrying wet or dirty items. The rear hatch opens wide, and has a variable height adjustment -- handy for shorter owners. The 2nd-row seatbacks fold forward for a mostly flat floor, and we were impressed by how easy it was to fill up the space, and how much we could cram inside.
The small-item storage for passengers was good, but not the best in the group. The center console bin was small, and the glovebox was par for the course. We did like the big bin ahead of the shifter, especially the rubber mat that kept small items like a cellphone from sliding around. The cupholders were also notably large.
On the Road
The Subaru Forester we drove had the non-turbo 2.5-liter 4-cylinder. Power was adequate, nothing spectacular, and the CVT settled down quickly once we let off the gas pedal. However, the Forester was loud inside, one of the louder vehicles in the test. Several staffers also complained about a soft-feeling brake pedal, and at least a couple thought the Forester's suspension allowed the compact SUV to lean too far in corners. On the other hand, the all-wheel-drive system is a proven winner. EyeSight is a bit of a mixed bag -- while our test vehicle wasn't equipped with it, some staffers complained that the two EyeSight cameras mounted by the rearview-mirror could be blinded by direct sunlight, or even a foggy windshield. However, it does offer a degree of accident-prevention capability that's lacking in the rest of the Subaru's competition.
Nobody had any complaints about the Forester when it came to parking lots though. The Subaru was nimble in tight parking structures, and the big windows made maneuvering simple, even without parking sensors.
A family-car champ at hauling baby seats, and a proven winner when it comes to bad-weather capability.
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