The Subaru Forester is a well-known compact crossover utility vehicle with all-wheel drive. It is Subaru’s bestselling model. The Forester looks and feels more like a wagon than an SUV; in fact, the Forester pretty much invented the crossover. It adds practicality and versatility to its rugged all-weather capability. It can carry five people and their bags, if not all their back-country gear. There’s a roof rack for that. It will even tow a small trailer.
Competitors include the Mazda MX-5, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, and Toyota RAV4; but, ironically, its main competition might be the Subaru Impreza XV Crosstrek.
The base Forester 2.5i is powered by a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter H4 (horizontally opposed cylinders, also called a boxer engine). The faster Forester 2.0XT is powered by a 2.0-liter boxer, turbocharged direct-injection, making 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.
Forester 2.5i is one of the few compact crossovers that you can get with a 6-speed manual transmission, but most opt for the CVT. Forester 2.0XT only comes with a CVT.
For 2016, Forester gets few changes: some additions to security and infotainment, enhancements to the system Subaru calls Starlink. This generation of the Forester was completely redesigned for the 2014 model year.
Forester is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+. In the NHTSA crash tests it got five stars in every category but frontal impact, where it got four. Its EPA fuel mileage of 24/32/27 mpg City/Highway/Combined is at the top of the compact crossover class.
The Forester’s grille is high, not aggressive, and its headlamps sweep and taper. The hood is aggressively creased, but the sides are softer, with modest fender flares and taillights taken from Impreza. The lines are simple, a design that takes into consideration easy access, cabin space, and visibility.
The Forester 2.5i is better looking than the 2XT, with all its vents, lights, grilles, and accents. Still an aggressive air dam but no longer a hood scoop.
Interior room in the Forester is remarkable for a compact crossover. A driver’s long legs might extend over the seat cushion, but rear passengers have plenty of legroom. The rear seats fold flat with a one-touch mechanism. It’s quiet inside, thanks to added insulation behind the door panels and instrument panel.
The refreshingly simple instrument panel is shared with the Outback and Legacy sedan. It’s forward and low, opening the cabin a bit.
The trim is mostly matte and soft-touch surfaces. The information screen, larger in 2016, is located at the top of a center stack with simple climate and audio controls. At the driver’s elbow there’s an armrest, cupholders and storage bins.
Subaru Forester handles with more sport than its competitors, namely the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, and Toyota RAV4. The steering is nicely weighted, and the boxy body doesn’t roll much. The ride is comfortable and not abrupt over large bumps. The Forester doesn’t have the athletic ride or steering of the Ford Escape, or the driving pleasure of the Mazda CX-5, but it’s fun and highly capable on the highway, in snow, on gravel roads.
The acceleration in the 2.5i isn’t quick, but it’s adequate. Its zero-to-sixty time of 9.3 inches isn’t impressive, but because its peak torque of 174 pound-feet is available from 2000 to 4000 rpm, you’ve got power when you need it.
If you want quick acceleration (from 258-pound-feet of torque) spend another 11 grand for the 2.0XT and pump in premium gas. It will accelerate from zero to 60 in just 6.2 seconds. It offers quickness in other areas, such as turning and stopping, the XT offers a sport suspension on 18-inch alloy wheels with grippy tires, and bigger brakes with ventilated rotors.
Subaru’s SI-Drive system offers three modes, Intelligent, Sport, Sport Sharp, that change the throttle response and transmission shift points (the base Forester 2.5i doesn’t get this feature).
The CVT will be fine for most people. It’s livable and unobtrusive, the least annoying CVT we know of. And when you ask a lot of it, for example in the 2.0XT using Sport Sharp mode, its simulated eight-speed relieves any boredom, with snappy shifts using the paddle shifters. In Intelligent or Sport, there are only six simulated gears.
We like the 6-speed manual. The clutch pedal is smooth and we enjoyed shifting manually.
The Forester is fine with going off road, with almost 9 inches of ground clearance, a tidy turning circle of 34.8 feet, and steep approach and departure angles. Its all-wheel-drive system is front-to-rear, but there’s a function called X-Mode that moves power left-to-right at low speeds, putting the Forester on the same field as Jeep and Land Rover. In a demonstration, we watched a Forester climb up and over a steep and slick ramp. Subaru has a lot of experience with all-wheel drive and suspension design and is very good at both.
The base Forester 2.5i is a whale of a value at less than $23,000. You get proven all-wheel drive, ruggedness, balanced handling, safety, 27 mpg, non-distracting instrument panel, room for five, and tons of cargo space. If you want the extras, there are three upgraded models. If you want the Mr. Hyde speed-demon version, there’s the 2.0XT turbo.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.