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.
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, the 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 has worked. 2012 was, according to Ted Lalka, Subaru Canada's vice-president of marketing and product planning, its best year 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 it ain't broke, don't fix it, and the 2014 iteration of the Forester is more of the same, only better.
For one thing, the body has received a much-needed facelift. Slightly longer and wider, it has had its edges rounded a little, with a front end re-do and a revised side pillar treatment. It looks less boxy than before and this makes it a little bigger inside, with more storage capacity than its predecessor – 2,115 litres versus 1,934 litres – and easier entry and exit for both front- and rear-seat passengers. Interior elbow room has been likewise enhanced, and the rear-seat floor is almost completely flat with the seats folded down.
One interesting little note: 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.
There are three transmission choices: a 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.
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 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, 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.
On road, the normally aspirated version is no powerhouse. Especially if it's matched to the CVT. On steep inclines and during overtaking manoeuvres, 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 that would 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 0-100 km/h time almost identical to that of the Porsche Cayenne V-6 (6.2 seconds versus 6.1), 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 gas.
The 2014 Forester is arriving in showrooms right about now.
2014 Subaru Forester
Price Range: $25,995-$37,995
Engine: 2.5-litre normally aspirated and 2.0-litre turbocharged flat-four
Horsepower/torque: 170 hp/174 lb-ft normally aspirated; 250 hp/258 lb-ft turbo
Transmission: Six-speed manual/CVT
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.3 city/6.2 highway (2.5 litre with CVT)' regular and premium gas
Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-7, Volkswagen Tiguan, Ford Edge, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, GMC Terrain, Nissan Rogue