My dog in the small SUV fight is that I strong-armed my sister Natalie into buying a 2010 Subaru Forester. See, when my nephew was born, her two-door Honda Civic just wasn't cutting it anymore. She wanted something safe, reliable, economical, useful, and easy to get a car seat in and out of. A low price wasn't a bad attribute, either. Being an unrepentant gearhead, I of course told her to get the turbo XT version with the manual. However, she purchased the naturally aspirated Forester with the old four-speed automatic. Natalie's only complaint with the car? It's too slow. As always, she should have listened to her older brother. Regardless, when I told her I'd just driven the new version of her beloved family-hauler, she peppered me with questions, wanting to know if it was time for her to trade up. As Subaru loves pointing out, its customers are among the most loyal in the business. The following is essentially what I told her.

The 2014 Forester is the fourth-generation car, and, after a long day of highways, byways, dirt roads, medium-duty rock crawling, and even a 22-turn racetrack outside of Tucson, Arizona, I can confidently say it is the best Forester yet. Perhaps more important -- for my family, at least -- Natalie wouldn't think the naturally aspirated car is slow any longer. While the entire car is new (minus the carryover 170-hp, 174-lb-ft, 2.5-liter flat-four boxer engine, which was new for 2013), the biggest change is the addition of a continuously variable transmission. While people in the auto-writing trade gripe and moan about CVTs almost as an article of faith, the dirty little secret is that some of them are pretty good. Like the one in the Nissan Maxima. Or the one in the new Forester, which smartly makes the most out of the boxer engine's modest power. Subaru claims 0-60 mph in just over 9 seconds, but my well-tuned butt says quicker, though not much. More important, fuel economy is up to 24/32 mpg city/highway. For diehards, a manual transmission is available on the base Forester,but it returns worse mileage than the CVT, at just 22/29. Subaru expects very low take rates for the shift-it-yourself version.

The first thing that stands out on the road is how quiet the new Forester is. This is particularly shocking, as the Forester is based on the same Impreza platform as the NVH-afterthought XV Crosstrek, one of the boomiest modern vehicles on the market. The Forester's side mirrors now mountto lower on the doors, and there's very little wind noise. All you hear at 75 mph is some tire slap, though it's not nearly as bad as in many modern cars because the rubber is relatively small -- each corner rides on 225/60R17 Yokohama Geolander all-seasons. The strengthened unibody structure feels stiffer than before; however, the ride feels firmer too. This is one of those great quandaries: As someone who enjoys sporty cars, I tend to prefer harder-riding cars that share the road conditions with their drivers. So if you're the type of Subaru owner who loves hauling kayaks and mountain bikes up mountains, I bet you'll appreciate how the new Forester rides. Running from the yoga studio to the granola hut? Not so much. Now, before you accuse me of being unduly cruel to hippies, know that Subaru told us the new Forester can now hold 228 yoga mats -- 74.7 cubic feet -- with the rear seats folded. With the rear seats up, the 2014 Forester can haul 231 bundles of hemp twine -- 34.4 cubic feet.

Subaru has also gone out of its way to optimize the new Forester for young families. For instance, the rear-seat cupholders have been relocated to the center armrest so that children in car seats can use them. And the driveshaft hump has been lowered by 3 inches to make the middle rear seat habitable. A textured coating was added to the rear doorsills so that toddlers won't slip and break their faces while climbing aboard. The Forester team has made the rear door openings larger and the doors themselves open up wider, thereby making it easier for parents to install child seats. Additionally, the hooks for said car seats have been repositioned to make installation easier. Subaru is also offering its excellent Eye Sight system -- a silly name for a host of great safety technologies -- in several trim levels. Eye Sight encompasses adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, pre-collision braking, and pre-collision throttle. I didn't get to test that last one out, but the idea is that, if you try to floor it into a tree, Eye Sight will retard the throttle to lessen the impact. As for the braking, I can fully attest to the fact that it works. The combination of a dog running into the street coupled with a frenzied, "The Direct TV guy didn't show up on time, and I have to go to the doctor!" phone call from my wife, and well, the Forester just may have saved my bacon. Good, strong brakes, too.

I'm happy to report that the Forester is still just as capable as it's always been. While the car is slightly larger, weight was kept in check (it's about 40 pounds heavier), and you still have 8.7 inches of ground clearance, more than all the Forester's direct competition and really pretty good for any modern, production SUV. To prove this point, Subaru sent us down some of Arizona's dustiest "primitive roads," and the Forester had zero issues running along at 60 to 70 mph on packed dirt for dozens of miles. Then we headed up a moderate-level rocky off-road section and the Forester didn't break a sweat, especially when switched into X-Mode, a low speed off-road mode that retards the throttle, increases the torque on the center diff by 25 percent to keep the front and back wheel speeds separate, and uses the brakes to keep the right wheels turning around the same speed as the left ones. Subaru even arranged for a highly banked wet metal ramp (to simulate ice) and had us climb it from a standstill in both the Forester (full-time AWD) and a Honda CRV (part-time AWD, when front wheels slip). With my foot at about 33-percent throttle, the Subaru bounded right up. The Honda required my foot to the floor and simply would not go all the way up the ramp.

Now, if it were my money, I'd go for the Forester XT. That's the one with the new 250-hp, 258-lb-ft 2.0-liter direct-injected turbo engine. This is the same engine that will eventually show up in the upcoming WRX (about a year out), and eventually in the worst-kept-secret BRZ Turbo (making perhaps275 hp in both of those applications). The new, smaller turbo powerplant (down from 2.5 liters) is actually based on the BRZ's engine. Subaru indicates the new Forester XT will hit 60 mph in 6.2 seconds; that feels about right and would make the XT quicker than the BRZ.

The XT is now CVT-only, but again, this is a very sophisticated CVT. When put in into S mode, the transmission mimics a six-speed, and the "gears" can be controlled via the wheel-mounted paddles. Switch into the goofily named S mode, and the CVT suddenly pretends it's an eight-speed unit, offering the driver even more control over the ratios. Would I prefer a manual? Yes. However, this new CVT is worlds better than the dowdy old four-speed automatic. I could absolutely live with it. And my little sister soon might be doing exactly that.


2014 SUBARU FORESTER
BASE PRICE $22,820-$28,820
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINES 2.5L/170-hp/174-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve flat-4; 2.0L/250-hp/258-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve flat-4
TRANSMISSIONS 6-speed manual, cont variable auto
CURB WEIGHT 3300-3650 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 103.9 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 180.9 x 70.7 x 66.4 in
0-60 MPH 6.2-9.0 sec (mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 22-24/28-32 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 140-153/105-116 kW-hrs/100 mi (est)
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.72-0.79 lb/mi (est)
ON SALE IN U.S. Currently