The Subaru Forester is well known by now, as a compact, wagon-like utility vehicle. With the ride and handling of a car, it was basically a crossover before crossovers were invented, bringing superb all-weather security with all-wheel drive, and primitive road capability with nearly nine inches of ground clearance. Forester is the best-selling Subaru, and in 2014 it won The Car Connection’s Best Car To Buy award.
We recently spent six months with a turbocharged Forester 2.0XT, testing it in a variety of conditions and terrains, confirming our belief it’s an excellent car to buy. The CVT works very well, and delivers fuel mileage as high as 28 miles per gallon. Forester doesn’t have the agility of the Ford Escape or Mazda CX-5, but from the driver’s seat it feels far sportier than the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, or Toyota RAV4.
The 2017 Forester gets updated styling, with a mesh grille, tweaked front bumper on Forester 2.5i models, and a C-shape for the headlamps and taillamps. One thing that remains is superb visibility through the upright glass.
Base engine is a 2.5-liter, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine making 170 horsepower. This boxer engine is mated to a 6-speed manual gearbox or continuously variable transmission (CVT). Acceleration is adequate.
A quicker option is the turbocharged 2.0-liter that makes 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque; it comes only with a paddle-shifting CVT, which can be programmed to feel like a six-speed or eight-speed automatic transmission using Subaru’s SI-Drive system.
The 2017 Subaru Forester 2.5i CVT delivers EPA-rated fuel mileage of 26/32 mpg City/Highway, or 28 mpg Combined; the 6-speed manual transmission is rated only 25 mpg Combined. The 2017 Forester gets an increase of one mpg over the 2016 model, thanks to sharpened engine management.
The 2.0XT model, with the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, which requires Premium fuel, is rated at 23/27/25 mpg City/Highway/Combined. Over a few thousand miles during our six-month test with a 2.0XT, we averaged 24.1 miles per gallon.
The federal NHTSA gives the Forester five stars overall for crash safety, and the insurance industry’s IIHS confirms the praise with top ratings in every crash test including the challenging small overlap frontal crash, to Top Safety Pick Plus.
The 2017 Forester makes available some new active safety features: The EyeSight camera system, which spots dangers on the road ahead and self-brakes, gets a longer and broader field of vision. The 2017 Forester offers reverse automatic braking, and the automatic headlamps now turn with the car. 2017 Forester Limited and Touring models have blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alerts.
2017 Forester 2.5i models come in base, Premium, Limited, and Touring models. Forester 2.0XT comes in Limited and Touring.
Standard equipment in all models includes rearview camera, Bluetooth hands-free calling, audio streaming, and a 6.2-inch touchscreen. Options include perforated leather seats, a 7.0-inch screen with infotainment, eight-speaker, 440-watt sound system, and power rear liftgate.
The Forester has never compromised to look all swoopy like other crossovers. It’s a tall, short, square wagon with the ride height of an SUV. Its design priorities include easy entrance and exit. That doesn’t make it not handsome.
It does step out a bit. The light sculpts on its sides, and the shape of its taillamps, are shared by the edgy Impreza. There are a couple of character lines on the hood, down the center and along the sides. Not everything is neat. On the turbo models there’s an aggressive airdam that reminds us of dewlaps on a lizard.
One thing we like about the Forester is that you can climb in it and work everything without having to refer to a 500-page manual in the glovebox, like, for example, with an Audi. In other words, it’s simple and intuitive.
The instrument panel is clean (shared with the Legacy sedan and Outback crossover. Audio and climate controls are logical and easy to use. The dash is located forward and low, to give front occupants more room. The information screen is mounted over the center console that flows back over bins and cupholders to an armrest.
The interior materials, improved in recent years, are a mix of matte and soft-touch surfaces with matte metallic trim, including a handsome Saddle Brown perforated leather with contrasting stitching for the Touring model. The 2017 Forester gets more sound insulation in the floor, an acoustic windshield, and thicker glass in the doors, all intended to reduce interior noise while underway.
The driving position is high and the window line low, so there’s an unsurpassed feeling of space in front, for a compact car. But the front seats leave a lot to be desired, with short, flat cushions and slim bolstering. Tall drivers will find their knees contacting the center console and door panels, which aren’t soft.
Ironically the rear seats have a better contour to them. There’s ample headroom and legroom, with a low driveshaft tunnel, as well as rear doors that are wide enough for easy entry and exit. Every model but the base has a 60/40 rear seat that folds nearly flat with a one-touch mechanism, creating a generous cargo capacity of 74.7 cubic feet. And there’s still a good 34.4 cubic feet behind the rear seat.
The Forester might not look it, but it’s pretty sporty. The Subaru Forester is quicker and better handling than a Honda CR-V or Nissan Rogue. It brings a good amount of fun to its capable and versatile utility.
The base 2.5-liter isn’t so quick, but it will have enough acceleration for most people. We prefer the 6-speed manual transmission to the CVT with this engine, because the CVT in the 2.5 isn’t as sophisticated as it is in the 2.0 turbo. The shift linkage isn’t as tight as it might be, and the throws a bit long and truckish, but still, the six-speed manual gets the most out of the engine’s torque.
In the Forester 2.0XT, Subaru’s SI-Drive system offers Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp modes, to alter throttle and CVT response. Sport Sharp enables the CVT to shift through eight snappy steps, using paddles on the steering wheel. Sport and Intelligent mode are programmed for six steps. This CVT is the least annoying we can think of.
Forester’s good handling is enhanced by the stout turbo engine. The electric power steering is well tuned and nicely weighted, with a quicker ratio for 2017. The body scarcely leans, for a tall utility vehicle. The ride is comfortable and not harsh on big bumps.. The 2.0XT Touring adds torque vectoring, which dabs the brakes on the inside rear wheel in corners, helping the car rotate. The Mazda CX-5 might still be better on the pavement, but it can’t match the Forester on unpaved trails, so if you ever go there, you’re ahead with the Subaru.
Forester’s relatively rugged capability on trails is enhanced by 8.7 inches of ground clearance, with approach and departure angles that are quite impressive for a small SUV.
The mechanical all-wheel drive makes the Forester fun and predictable on dirt or snowy roads. For more offroad security, there’s an available X Mode (with hill descent control) that moves the power between the left and right wheels, in addition to the front and rear wheels. This puts the Subaru up there on the sophistication level of Jeep and Land Rover.
Underneath the Forester’s dated skin lies the heart, soul and spirit of a dominant competitor in the field of compact crossovers. The base 2.5-liter engine with a 6-speed manual transmission and minimum options brings tremendous value, for all you get, starting with unquestionable reliability and longevity, and including great handling, all-weather capability, and interior room with cargo capacity. The CVT with the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is the best in the business.
Sam Moses contributed to this review, with staff reports by The Car Connection.