The Subaru Forester is familiar, as a pioneer compact wagon-like utility vehicle. It was a crossover before crossovers were called crossovers, meaning it’s based on a car platform. It was boxy then and it’s still boxier than the many copycats that have come along over the years.
Forester brings the ride and handling of a car, with all-wheel drive proven over the ages, and nearly nine inches of ground clearance for primitive pursuits. It’s the most popular Subaru, if not the one you see in pictures, and has won an award or two for being one of the best buys on the market.
A year ago, we spent six months with a turbocharged Forester 2.0XT, testing it in a variety of conditions and terrains, confirming the awards are well-earned. It doesn’t have the agility of the Ford Escape or Mazda CX-5, but feels far sportier than the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, or Toyota RAV4. It’s got one of the best continuously variable transmissions in the game, and gets an EPA-rated 28 Combined miles per gallon. Its virtues are impressive: reliability, longevity, good handling, all-weather capability, and interior room with cargo capacity.
The Forester’s styling was updated for 2017 (grille, bumper and headlamps), and for 2018 the changes are in packaging. The EyeSight active-safety package is standard on Touring models, a camera system that sees danger ahead and self-brakes. Along with that system comes self-dimming headlamps that turn with the car, and reverse automatic braking. The Touring models also have blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alerts. A Black Edition Package is a new option for 2018 Forester 2.5i Premium models.
The 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 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. That 2.0XT model gets 25 Combined miles per gallon on Premium gasoline. Over a few thousand miles during our six-month test with a Forester 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 that with top ratings in every crash test including the challenging small overlap frontal crash, making it a Top Safety Pick Plus.
2018 Forester 2.5i models come in base ($23,795), Premium ($26,195), Limited ($29,395), and Touring ($30,090) models. Forester 2.0XT comes in Premium ($29,495) and Touring ($36,090).
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 is anti-swoopy. It’s uncompromising It’s a tall, short, square wagon with the ride height of an SUV. Its design priorities include easy entrance and exit.
We’re not saying it’s ugly. It does step out a bit, with character lines on the hood and sculpting on the sides. The taillamps come from the edgy Impreza. Not everything is neat. On the turbo models there’s an aggressive airdam that looks like dewlaps on a lizard.
One of the Forester’s strengths, and one reason it’s so popular, is that it’s simple and intuitive. You can climb in the car and operate everything for the first time, without having to refer to a thick manual. Unlike, say, a German car or two.
The instrument panel, shared with the Legacy sedan and Outback crossover, is clean. The audio and climate controls are logical and easy to use. The information screen is mounted over the center console that flows back over bins and cupholders to an armrest.
The interior materials 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 got 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. The dash is located forward and low, to give front occupants more room. But the front seats have short flat cushions and slim bolstering. Tall drivers will find their knees contacting the center console and door panels, which aren’t soft.
The rear seats have a better contour. 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 is sportier than it looks. It’s quicker and better handling than a Honda CR-V or Nissan Rogue. It brings some fun to its 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 are 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 fairly quick ratio. 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 brings tremendous value, given the Forester’s proven strengths and capabilities. The CVT with the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is great for a CVT.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.