By and large, the compact crossover segment is not characterized by driving excitement or high performance, and even some former hot rods of the group have been unceremoniously chopped in the interest of fuel economy, most notably the Toyota RAV4 V-6. The Mazda CX-5 is an intriguing recent entry, but Subaru has provided its own unique take on the market for more than 15 years in the form of the Forester. The company has just introduced its fourth-generation model, and it's the most high-tech Forester to date. But in the pursuit of technology and mass-market appeal, has the Forester lost its unique character?

Distinctively Subaru

Worry not, Subiephiles. The styling of the 2014 Forester is more distinctively Subaru than the somewhat anonymous shape of the previous model. The flattened hexagonal grille and tapered headlights give the new Forester a more aggressive look. The only traditional cue that was eliminated that might upset the loyalists is the deletion of Subaru's trademark hood scoop on the XT model, but overall, the styling brings some attitude back to the line. We were able to get behind the wheel of the 2.5i model as well as the turbocharged XT, and the two models provided a unique contrast and comparison between the two flavors of Forester.

The naturally aspirated model comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission. The XT, like its predecessor, is automatic-only. And on the automatic models, they're CVT-only for 2014. Both our testers were equipped with CVTs, although the XT gets a few more bells and whistles on the pulley-box to try to keep things interesting.

Our first stint behind the wheel was in the 2.5i Limited model. The initial throttle response on this model is quite sharp, on the verge of being jumpy, giving the first impression that you'll be rewarded with plentiful power the deeper you get into the throttle. This masquerade holds up until about 35 mph, at which point you realize the 170-hp boxer engine only has so much to give. That's not to say it's hopelessly gutless, as it's perfectly competent and adequate for the majority of driving it will be doing, but aggressive passing and merging summons the full thrum of the boxer four. The 0-60 time came in at 9.0 seconds, and a 16.9 second quarter mile at 83.9 mph, average, but not class-leading numbers.

Under less frenetic conditions, the CVT does a good job of keeping the engine in its powerband, delivering competent part-throttle acceleration without being too droney or revvy, the two characteristics that can sometimes afflict CVTs.

Hail the New King

Throttle response in the XT is ironically opposite. Rather than getting you overly excited in anticipation of imminent power with a hair-trigger throttle, initial tip-in is more gradual, but the strong mid-range torque of the direct-injected turbo boxer works in harmony with the performance-tuned CVT to deliver smooth, ample, relaxed power the further you put your foot down. Although the combination of a CVT and turbo seems like an unlikely one, it works well in this application for the most part.

During normal driving, there's not much turbo lag to speak of. The only time it's noticeable is flooring it from a dead stop, when the XT is a little flat footed for a second before the boost ramps up, and then you're rocketed away on a seamless wave of turbo torque that seems to keep going well beyond most rational drivers' inclination to keep the throttle down. The XT adds an"S/I shift mode, as well as simulated "gears" intended to mimic the distinct ratios of a traditional transmission. We played with that mode a little with the wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but found the transmission frequently overruled our requests, so we simply left the transmission in S mode, and took advantage of its somewhat sharper response on the CVT. Performance, both from a subjective and objective standpoint, is a major improvement over the naturally-aspirated model, with 0-60 coming in a brisk 6.2 seconds, and the quarter-mile at 14.8 sec at 95.8 mph. With the discontinuation of the RAV4 V-6, the XT can lay claim to being the heir apparent to the small crossover speed crown.

Outwardly, the Forester doesn't look like it would be the most entertaining choice for spirited driving, and in the greater scheme of things, it's still a compact SUV aimed at a mainstream audience, with a fairly tall height and 8.7-inch ground clearance. The front buckets, while supremely comfortable, don't offer a great deal of lateral support in either the Limited or the XT, so you'll likely be bracing yourself against the door or center console if you get too wild. That said, the Forester's standard all-wheel drive makes for pretty confidence-inspiring handling. We noticed a little more tire squeal during aggressive driving on the Limited than on the XT, likely due to subtle differences in suspension tuning and different tire specifications. But if you feel playful, the Forester is a willing enough participant.

Subarus have never exactly been known for their especially alluring or sexy style, with some of the brand's earlier efforts at distinction getting decidedly mixed reactions. The angular, kitsch-futuristic XT coupe, jet-fighter inspired SVX, and more recently the awkward B9 Tribeca come to mind. So the new Forester doesn't blaze any radical style paths, inside or out.

Materials, Features More Than Meets the Eye

At first glance, the interior comes across as almost low-rent, but actually employs a fair quantity of soft-touch surfaces. Functional is probably the first word that comes to mind. Further evidence of Subaru's emphasis of function over aesthetics is a plastic plug in the steering column where the key would go on lower-trim models (both our testers had push-button start) and a visible threaded mounting stud and exposed painted sheetmetal under the front seat. Some might consider these as crude oversights, but we've seen Subarus still firmly holding together well into the six-figure realm, so we have few qualms about the Forester's long-term durability. But if small details like that irk you, be advised.

One of the most significant upgrades on the 2014 Forester is Subaru's new Eye Sight cruise control and emergency braking system. Once the sole province of six-figure ultra-luxury sedans, Subaru is bringing this formerly exotic technology to the masses, by employing an optical distance sensor rather than the more expensive sonar-based system on some other models. The Eye Sight systems' benefits are twofold. It provides adaptive-distance cruise control, as well as emergency braking at speeds under 19 mph. We were able to personally experience one of these attributes, and frankly lost our courage to test the other in an uncontrolled setting. The adaptive cruise control function works very well. Although there is a slight latency in the automated brake or throttle modulation with this function, after taking a deep breath and trusting the system, it performed very effectively, keeping a comfortable distance to the car ahead, even on the closest following setting, slowing down to a near-crawl, then accelerating again once traffic opened up.

In terms of the low-speed emergency braking, we got right to the threshold of where the system would have kicked in, but chickened out and applied the brakes. It got to the point where we could hear some mechanisms starting to whir and clunk as we approached the danger zone, but couldn't bring ourselves to let it fully intervene.

Enthusiast-Approved

For day-to-day practical versatility, the 2014 Forester hits its target market of young couples, and starter families perfectly with ample, smartly packaged interior room and cargo versatility, and adds significantly increased fuel economy over its predecessor in both naturally aspirated and turbo forms. The one area where the Forester has taken a slight hit in capability over its predecessor is towing, with a 900-pound decrease from 2400 to 1500. But that's about in line with most of the four-cylinder models in the segment, like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Besides, when's the last time you saw a compact crossover towing a trailer, other than a mini U-Haul going to or from college or a studio apartment?

The 2014 Forester gets our thumbs-up for being an interesting option for those shopping for a compact SUV that aren't willing to totally sacrifice driving fun to fulfill their practical needs. The improved technology, features and fuel economy are just icing on the cake for what was already one of our favorite models.


2014 Subaru Forester 2.5 Touring, XT
BASE PRICE $30,820, $32,995
PRICE AS TESTED $32,220, $36,220
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.5L/170-hp/174-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve F-4, 2.0L/250-hp/258-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve F-4
TRANSMISSION Cont variable auto
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3444 lb (57/43%), 3663 lb (58/42%)
WHEELBASE 103.9 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 180.9 x 70.7 x 66.4 in, 68.2 in (XT)
0-60 MPH 9.0 sec, 6.2 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.9 sec @ 83.9 mph, 14.8 sec @95.8 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 120 ft, 111 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.78 g (avg), 0.79 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.6 sec @ 0.55 g (avg), 27.8 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 24/32 mpg, 23/28 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 140/105 kW-hrs/100 mi, 147/120 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.72 lb/mi, 0.78 lb/mi