Getting anywhere in any weather – snow, ice or in between – is a cinch in the Subaru Forester XT. The larger challenge is finding it in parking lots when dried salt has camouflaged the massed SUV/crossovers.
Stride confidently up to the first salted beige SUV and uh-oh, it turns out to be a Hyundai. The next one, a Honda CR-V. Finally, zeroing in on hood badges, Subaru’s distinctive six-star logo shines through the dust and the test car is found.
The 2014 Forester is bigger than the 2013, much bigger than the 1998 original, without being any bolder. Subarus seldom venture beyond generic styling: They differ instead in how they function.
Turn the key for the first difference. The engine cranks so slowly my wife thinks something is wrong – but no, the slow turnover is as characteristic as the near silent idle.
The new body’s doors open unusually deep and wide, easing access. So long as you fit the narrow front seats, the interior is both commodious and hospitable. As for cargo, the rear seats fold flat and four hooks facilitate hauling camping gear or IKEA booty.
Side windows have been enlarged and you sit higher for great visibility. The wipers clear an extraordinary proportion of the windshield and a wiper de-icer turns out to be a polar vortex asset.
Driving turns up more dynamic differences. The Forester avoids skids or spins despite its standard all-season tires yielding poor traction as temperatures drop. Subaru’s all-wheel drive responds constantly to road conditions, always engaged, hence not requiring the driver to push a switch as in some like-priced competitors.
For severe conditions, X-Mode softens powertrain responses while traversing slippery hills. Operational only below 40 km/h, it is engaged with a switch ahead of the gearshift.
The new automatic transmission – continuously variable as opposed to the previous four-speed – affords improved fuel efficiency and acceleration. Towing capacity, though, drops from 1,087 kg to 680 kg.
The XT hauls nicely on the highway with impressive acceleration on offer. Still, the discernible pause between flooring the gas pedal and blast-off is as annoying as stubbing your toe running upstairs.
A three-mode engine/transmission control tailors the XT’s manners with two switches on the steering wheel. “Intelligent” is the base setting, smoothest and most fuel-efficient. “Sport,” the owner’s manual gushes, is “for those who want to make the driving experience their own personal adventure.”
Press the “S+” button to maximize thrust. Throttle response sharpens (though initial turbo lag remains) and the transmission becomes an eight-speed rather than continuously variable. Control the shifts if you choose, utilizing the paddles forward of the steering point. You imagine for a moment you’re driving a sports sedan, not a big box.
Forester’s long-established identity as plain and practical is under threat. Harman Kardon speakers, eight of them, in a Subaru? A rear-view camera? Truth is, Subaru needs to add even more luxury features, like heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel, if it’s to keep up with Hyundai.
Safety remains a standard feature. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the Forester as a Top Safety Pick. With Subaru’s new EyeSight auto-braking crash-avoidance system, a $2,500 feature not fitted to our test car, Forester becomes one of 39 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ choices.
Too bad not every Forester is so equipped. Too bad Forester isn’t easier to find in a parking lot. Next generation, perhaps.
Base Price: $32,495; as tested, $37,477.45 for XT Limited
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-litre boxer four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 250 hp/268 ft-lb
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic with paddle shifting among eight simulated gears
Drive: All-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.9 city/7.2 highway. In our city area/severe winter driving, 12.2
Alternatives: Jeep Cherokee, Toyota RAV4, GMC Terrain, Ford Edge, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, BMW X1
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