In the car business, Subaru has a reputation as a company primarily run by engineers, as opposed to accountants. It is, after all, part of the huge Fuji Heavy Industries corporation, and has always marched to a different drummer than most of its contemporaries. It is the only company, other than Porsche, that has stuck with a horizontally-opposed boxer engine configuration through thick and thin, and a four-wheel-drive system of one type or another has been standard equipment on its products for years.
This has resulted in some, er, interesting experiments, such as the Baja, Justy, and unforgettable Brat, but it’s also allowed Subaru to punch above its weight when it comes to off-road ability and performance…the WRX STi, for example, is one of the fastest cars for the money on the road.
Either way, Subaru’s engineering-over-bean counting approach seems to have worked. 2012 was, according to Ted Lalka, Subaru Canada’s vice-president of marketing and product planning, the best year ever for sales, and one of its core models, the Forester, has never sold better. “It’s nothing fancy, but good solid transportation,” he says of the current, third generation, version.
So, as they say, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and the 2014 iteration of the Forester, recently introduced to the Canadian media in Ucluelet, is more of the same, only better.
For one thing, the body has received a much-needed facelift. Slightly longer and wider, it’s had its edges rounded a little, with a front end re-do and a revised side pillar treatment. It definitely looks less boxy than before and this makes it a little bigger inside, with more storage capacity than its predecessor…2115 vs 1934 litres, and improved ingress and egress, for both front and rear seat passengers. Interior elbow room has been likewise enhanced, and the rear seat floor is now almost completely flat with the seats folded down.
One interesting little note here. The power rear liftgate has four different switches and you can adjust how far it opens. If, for example, you’re in a parking garage with low ceilings, or just can’t reach up to close it, you can set the height level so that it won’t smack into the ceiling. The power actuator for the liftgate has also been redesigned and is completely unobtrusive. Those Fuji guys….always thinking.
But the essence of this company has traditionally been found in its drivetrain, and for 2014, it’s a case of evolution, rather than revolution.
There are two engine choices: a normally-aspirated 2.5 litre and a 2.0 litre turbocharged flat-four. These two develop 170 and 250 horsepower respectively, and there are three transmission choices: six-speed manual and two CVTs, one of which features six or eight “speeds”. Both have manual shift modes and shift paddles. The manual transmission is not available with the turbocharged engine, nor is the multi-speed “high torque” CVT available with the normally-aspirated engine.
Needless to say, Subaru’s asymmetrical 4WD system is standard kit, and new for this year is an “X Mode” that increases the Forester’s traction and hill climbing/descending abilities. It does this by increasing throttle response, adjusting power output to the driving wheels and increasing clutch pressure in the AWD system….among other things. The Forester has always been pretty good off-road, but with X Mode in play, it’s even better. A centre console-mounted button accesses X Mode and nothing could be simpler. A hill descent control is also part of the package here, which means off-road declines can be taken without using the brakes and risking a slide. So, yes, feel free to take this one off-road, and it’s good for more than schlepping to the mall in snowy weather. A detailed graphic display on the instrumentation cluster lets you know precisely how much power is going where when X Mode is engaged.
On-road, the normally-aspirated version is no powerhouse. Especially if it’s matched to the CVT. On steep inclines and during overtaking maneuvers, the transmission tends to “hunt” for the right ratio, and if you accelerate and decelerate abruptly, you can almost feel the drive belt trying to catch up. I am no fan of CVTs and the Forester does nothing to change my mind here. The manual gearbox is better, and were I in the market for one of these SUVs, that’d be my choice. It’s interesting to note that Subaru is one of the few manufacturers to still offer a manual gearbox in this market.
The turbo, on the other hand, is chock full of power and snap. Subaru is claiming a 0 to 100 km/h time almost identical to that of the Porsche Cayenne V6 (6.2 vs. 6.1 seconds), and power transfer is smooth and linear. There’s something about the flat-four engine configuration that makes it highly compatible with a turbocharger, and the Forester XT may have one of the smoothest powertrains on the market. On the other hand, it likes premium grade gas.
Despite “catastrophic” setbacks in Japan due to the Tsunami of 2011, the 2014 Forester is arriving in showrooms right about now.
AT A GLANCE
Price Range: $25,995 - $37,995
Engine: 2.5 normally-aspirated & 2.0 litre turbocharged “flat four”
Horsepower: 170 hp @ 5800 rpm & 250 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 174 ft. lb @ 4100 rpm & 258 ft. lb. @ 200 – 4800 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual / CVT
Fuel economy: (litres/100 km): 8.3 city; 6.2 hwy (2.5 litre w. CVT). Regular & Premium gas.
Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-7, Volkswagen Tiguan, Ford Edge, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, GMC Terrain, Nissan Rogue.