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TOCHIGI, JAPAN -- Being a niche player in the grand panorama of the automotive industry and discounting its well-deserved reputation for marching to a somewhat different beat than the mainstream automakers, it's quite understandable that Subaru doesn't want to upset the status quo by messing with a good thing.
The good thing, in this case, is its popular Forester compact sport-ute, Subaru's second-best-selling model in Canada and the United States (which, together, account for 50 per cent of global sales). So, the 2014 model year replacement to the current version is not going to stray too far from the precepts that define the Forester line (and Subaru, in general) -- symmetrical all-wheel drive powered by a choice of boxer engines.
The upcoming fourth iteration is, however, going to update a model that, after a five-year run, is looking a little shopworn in the face of unbounded competition. (Think refreshed Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Hyundai Santa Fe, plus the new Mazda CX-5, to name just a few rivals.)
Here, at the Subaru Test and Development Centre, located in rural foothills about 100 kilometres north of Tokyo, a small assembly of Canadian and American journalists got a very tightly controlled preview of what is to be -- in North America -- the 2014 model, with an arrival date expected to be some time in March (some other markets will receive the SUV earlier).
The hand-assembled prototypes showcased an evolutionary redesign that focuses on the following improvements -- styling "with more presence," better fuel economy, more performance from the Turbo model, better day-to-day usability and a more sophisticated four-wheel-drive system. As Takuji Dai, project general manager for the Forester says, Subaru's goal is to make the sport-ute "loved even more."
With a length of 4,595 millimetres, the newest Forester is about 36 mm longer than the third generation. It is also slightly wider, taller and weighs about 25 kilograms more thanks to added sound deadening and improved structural rigidity. From an exterior styling standpoint, the 2014 model is subtly redesigned, with its windshield pillars moved forward and a small triangular window added. The roofline has been raised and the front fender flares softened. A bolder hexagonal-shaped grille replaces the current one, with the turbo models getting a different front bumper. Turbo versions also lose the hood air intake. Square-shaped LED lights surround the HID headlights and are available on both the non-turbo and turbo models. Thanks to all the subtle improvements, including a redesigned roof spoiler and more under-car cladding, aerodynamics have been significantly improved, aiding fuel economy and reducing wind noise at higher speeds, which was borne out at 160 kilometres per hour on the test centre's high-speed banked track.
Inside, the Forester's increase in size translates into more headroom and legroom front and rear, to the point where four six-footers should find accommodations plenty comfortable. Soft-touch padding has been added to the dashboard and armrests and a larger 4.3-inch colour multi-functional display adorns the top of the centre stack.
The SUV's powertrain upgrades are far more significant. While the 170-horsepower 2.5-litre boxer four-cylinder has been retained, a smaller yet more powerful (courtesy of direct injection and a larger intercooler) 250-hp 2.0L turbo four-cylinder replaces the current 224-hp 2.5L unit.
Equally significant is that a new continuously variable transmission (CVT) with paddle shifters (except for the base model) replaces the antiquated four-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is standard for the base 2.5i and Touring non-turbo models). Turbo models are enhanced with SI-Drive, complete with Intelligent (normal), Sport and Sport# (sharp) modes. In Sport mode, a six-step "shift" setup is added when manually shifting, while Sport# ups the ante to eight speeds -- great fun for motor heads. Subaru claims the new turbo models will accelerate to 96 kilometres an hour in 6.2 seconds, 1.2 seconds faster than the 2013 model. Even non-turbo models see acceleration improved to a less leisurely 9.3 seconds (from 9.9).
Changes to the full-time AWD system include the addition of X-Mode, which ups the Forester's traction abilities on low-friction surfaces (think washed-out dirt roads or deep snow) and includes a downhill assist control that will maintain a driver-selectable set speed on steep declines (the system disengages at 40 km/h). Subaru set up a track of rollers on a steep hill to allow us to test the X-Mode's efficiency.
Stopping with two wheels on the track and then gassing the SUV showed a very quick transfer of torque to the wheels with more grip, with quicker response and less rollback than two competitive SUVs with part-time AWD systems.
Seat time in the new sport-ute was limited, so impressions are few. What I was able to glean is that the new Forester is quieter, more comfortable and better handling.
Many final details are still in flux, but it appears the new Forester will come to Canada in six trim levels for the non-turbo (2.5i, Convenience, PZEV, Touring, Limited and Limited EyeSight) and three trims (Touring, Limited and Limited EyeSight) for the turbo.
The Subie faithful -- fiercely loyal as they are -- should find more to love.
-- Postmedia News