Ask the Experts: Should You Buy a Subaru Forester?
PUBLISHED FRIDAY, JANUARY 21, 2022
How the adventurous Subaru Forester stands apart from other crossovers.
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2021 Subaru Forester Premium
The Subaru Forester is ready for adventure at a moment's notice. It comes with standard all-wheel drive and a raised ground clearance to enhance off-road performance compared to rival small SUVs. The Forester also has a comfortable ride and generous cargo capacity. But is it the right choice for you? Edmunds' Ryan ZumMallen gives you his take on what to look for when shopping at CarMax.
What do I need to know about the Subaru Forester?
This article focuses on the 2019-present Subaru Forester, which is the fifth-generation version of the SUV. Compared to previous models, the fifth-generation Forester offers a more powerful engine, improved technology features, increased cargo space, and more advanced driver aids as standard equipment.
The Forester belongs to an extremely popular group of vehicles: small SUVs. It has four doors and seating for up to five passengers, plus a rear liftgate that opens to reveal impressive cargo capacity. It stands out in the Forester's approach to the outdoors—more on that below. For 2019 to 2021 Foresters, you can choose from five trim levels: base, Premium, Sport, Limited, and Touring.
What engine does the Forester come with?
Every 2019-2021 Forester is equipped with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque. This is a decent amount of power but ultimately a bit short of what class leaders provide.
The engine is paired to a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. The big redeeming factor is that all-wheel drive comes standard on all Foresters. Also, the Forester has appealing EPA-estimated fuel economy for a small SUV with all-wheel drive: 29 mpg combined.
Ryan's take: The Forester's one and only engine is pretty gutless—it's true. But nonetheless I've had loads of fun in Foresters. It has enough traction to get through mud and along dirt trails. And the engine does have enough low-rpm muscle to get you over ruts and rocks. As for fuel economy, these EPA estimates are quite strong considering the Forester has standard all-wheel drive. But its lack of power means you might have to use more gas than usual to keep your speed up.
What is the Forester's interior like?
The Forester has a comfortable interior. The cabin is full of soft materials, tasteful plastics, and some genuine leather on higher trim levels. There are even rich upholstery colors and neat design accents to add some excitement to the fold. Most importantly, the Forester's raised height and large doors make it easy to get in and out. Also, the seats provide pleasing support for hours of driving, and there is a wide range of adjustments on the driver's seat and steering wheel to accommodate people of different shapes and sizes.
Space inside the cabin is another strength of the Forester. Front passengers should enjoy abundant headroom and legroom as well as an elevated seating position. The windshield pillars are quite thin and the windows are tall, allowing for an excellent view of the road and your surroundings.
Ryan's take: The Forester is a perfectly pleasant place for daily commuting and long road trips. Its boxy design makes it easy to pile gear inside or fill the back seats with friends. The interior feels appropriate for the price and is easy to wipe down when you inevitably get it covered in dirt, dust, and dog hair.
What's the Forester like to drive?
It needs to be said: The Forester is slow. Whether you're punching the accelerator from a stop, or speeding up to merge into another lane, there are several competing crossovers that will do the job with much more verve. On the other hand, the Forester is comfortable in day-to-day settings. There is virtually no learning curve, and its maneuverability at low speeds is top-notch.
We also like the Forester's braking, steering, and handling. Now, on paper these abilities may not be immediately apparent, as the Forester doesn't turn or stop much quicker than its rivals. But it often feels composed and stable while performing the tasks that are asked of it. Whether you're taking a corner at speed or coming to a sudden stop, the Forester feels planted and delivers confidence to the driver.
Best of all is the Forester's capability in inclement weather and off-road situations. The Forester's high ground clearance makes it more adept at handling dirt trails or the occasional rocky surface. It also has an available X-MODE® traction system that, when activated, cleverly sends power to the wheel that needs it most. That helps in off-roading and can enhance control on roads that are slick from rain, snow, and ice.
Ryan's take: The Forester is easy to get used to. It's not quick, but the driving character is consistent and predictable, so you can jump right in and acclimate to the steering and braking systems within minutes. It's important that the Forester is easy to use because there's quite a bit of high-tech wizardry going on underneath – for instance, the effective all-wheel drive system is working all the time, and all you have to do is hit the X-Mode button for extra grip in the mud or snow. No expertise required.
How capable is the Forester?
The Forester is a spacious compact SUV. Behind the second row of seats there is 35.4 cubic feet of room on 2019-2021 Foresters, which is enough to fit several pieces of luggage or camping equipment. (Note that this figure is for Foresters without the sunroof; with it, there's slightly less space at 33 cubic feet.) Some competitors like the Honda CR-V have more room (up to 39.2 cubic feet), but the Forester should still accommodate most everyday hauling needs.
Also, if you fold down the second row of seats, the Forester has 76.1 cubic feet of space (70.9 cubes with the sunroof). That is plenty to toss a bicycle inside or pick up large electronics from the store. If you need even more space, all Forester trims except the base model come standard with roof rails so you can install cross rails and add more storage options.
Unfortunately, towing is not a strong suit for the Forester. The 2019-2021 models have a maximum towing capacity of 1,500 pounds when properly equipped. That's enough for a light trailer but nothing more. Several competitors, like the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4, can tow an estimated 3,500 pounds. Properly equipped versions of the Jeep Cherokee have a maximum towing capacity of 4,500 pounds.
Ryan's take: National parks, here we come. Load up your tents, mount your bicycles, and grab some ice for that designer cooler. There is plenty of space to pack a weekend's worth of gear inside the Forester. But what if you're bringing the whole family along for an extended trip? Then it might be best to pack what you can in the cargo area, and store the rest atop the roof with straps or in cargo boxes. This is also, in my opinion, the best use of the tow hitch. Seeing as how the Forester doesn't have a very impressive towing capacity, you may be better off installing a hitch-mounted bike rack or something of the like. Plus, the Forester sure looks sweet all loaded up.
What is the Forester's technology like?
One of the reasons to skip directly to the fifth-generation Forester, beginning with 2019 models, is the addition of a 6.5-inch touchscreen as standard. We like the way the screen is responsive to the touch and easy to find the controls you need. It also comes with Apple CarPlay® and Android Auto™ smartphone integration, so you can use familiar apps and functions while driving. Bluetooth® compatibility is also standard. Limited and Touring models add an upgraded 8-inch screen.
One neat feature is a second smaller screen mounted just above the main one. Subaru calls this the multifunction display, and it shows helpful information related to fuel economy, climate control, all-wheel drive, and driver aid systems.
Speaking of driver aid systems, the fifth-gen Forester comes with EyeSight®, which is a suite of driver-assistance features. It includes:
Adaptive cruise control (maintains a set distance between the Forester and the car in front)
Lane departure warning (alerts you if the vehicle begins to drift out of its lane)
Lane-keeping assist (steers the Forester back into its lane if it begins to drift over the lane marker)
Pre-collision warning with automatic braking (warns you of an impending collision and applies the brakes in certain scenarios)
Ryan’s take: Both the Forester’s smartphone integration and its native infotainment system are easy to see and use. But there’s nothing particularly innovative here. Instead, it’s the EyeSight system that deserves special recognition. Not only does it allow the Forester to recognize and react to other cars, but it can also monitor driver awareness and issue alerts if you appear to lose concentration. That's pretty impressive standard equipment on Foresters from this generation. There's only one thing that gets my goat—the cruise control button moves in 5-mph increments. To adjust speed by 1 mph, you need to press the button and hold. If you ask me, it should be the other way around!
What else should I consider?
Due to the popularity of small SUVs, nearly every major manufacturer has one to offer buyers. Some even have two. So there is no shortage of choice, and it's a testament to the Forester that we consider it one of the very best.
However, if you need more capability, your best options are the Jeep Cherokee with its additional rugged features and the Jeep Wrangler, which is an uncompromising off-roader. For something a little sportier, the Mazda CX-5 and Honda CR-V both impress with their acceleration and handling abilities. Finally, the Nissan Rogue was recently redesigned for the 2021 model year and offers a well-rounded package.
Ryan's take: You may have figured this out by now, but some folks are simply Forester people. Forester people tend to be outdoorsy, or enjoy an active lifestyle, or simply like to stand out from the crowd. The point is that the Forester presents something unique in a sea of sameness. You have a massive range of options in this class, and most of your choices can haul a similar amount of cargo and return similar fuel economy estimates. But only one has the spirit of the Forester. And Forester people tend to find their way to one, sooner or later.
If I decide on a Forester, which one should I buy?
Definitely skip the base model. It comes with lots of standard features, but higher trims include so much more. In fact we consider the Forester Premium, just one step above the base, to be among the best options. On the 2019 Forester, it has upgraded wheels and standard roof rails, plus foglights and a sunroof. But crucially, it also offers an All-Weather package that includes heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and windshield wiper de-icer. We find that many Forester owners choose this vehicle because they frequently deal with cold temperatures, so it's an easy match.
If you're looking for more but still want to focus on value, step up to the Limited trim. It nets you a larger touchscreen, dual-zone automatic climate control, and leather upholstery. There's also a standard power liftgate, which can be helpful if you are frequently loading items with your hands full. The Touring trim has even more features but we don't consider them necessities.