Subaru has long marched to the beat of a different drummer, but the past few years have seen the company edging closer to the mainstream. The latest Forester is a prime example of Subaru's desire to broaden its appeal.
The rework of the Forester is evolutionary -- it takes a keen eye to spot the differences between the third and new fourth-generation models, but the good news is the underpinnings take a significant turn for the better.
While the base Forester is powered by a 170-horsepower 2.5-litre flat-four boxer, the XT carries a 2.0L turbocharged engine that puts some real spice in the drive. It ups the output to 250 hp and -- more importantly -- 258 pound-feet of torque. And the driver has access to that twisting power anywhere between 2,000 and 4,800 rpm, which is a broad range that brings a rapid response regardless of driving condition. It also means a run from rest to 100 kilometres an hour of 6.3 seconds and a remarkably spry five-second 80-to-120 km/h passing move.
If there is a nit to pick, it is the boxer engine's rather gruff demeanour. It runs smoothly, but sounds less than smooth.
I have made no bones about the fact I despise continuously annoying transmissions -- technically a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. Typically, noise and motorboating occurs under hard acceleration, but the Forester has a feature that transforms the CVT's performance to the point where I could actually live with one.
Subaru Intelligent Drive allows the driver to pick one of several driving modes through steering wheel-mounted buttons. In Normal (Intelligent), it is the usual annoyance, but with a twist -- the paddle shifters allow the driver to slip up and down six preset ratios (the same applies when the shifter is moved to manual). Sport mode sharpens the throttle and allows manual shifting.
The game-changer, however, is Sport Sharp mode. It cranks up throttle response further and gives the driver eight gears. When left to its own devices, the transmission acts like a true automatic, which means the Forester drives like a regular car. Sadly, it has to be selected every time the car is started and it is not available until the engine warms up. Quibbles aside, it really did transform the Forester for me.
While the manual transmission gets a fairly basic all-wheel-drive setup, the CVT-equipped models get a much better proactive system. By monitoring a number of inputs, it continuously splits up the drive, sending the power to the wheels that can put it to best use. The result is much better stability regardless of the conditions.
It also features something called X-Mode. When engaged, the system optimizes the engine, transmission, brakes and stability control system to provide better traction on really slippery surfaces -- think off-road, as the system only functions below 40 km/h. It also includes a downhill assistant. In the end, it all comes together very effectively.
The Forester's suspension has been specifically retuned for the turbocharged model. With 10 per cent stiffer front springs and 20 per cent stiffer rear springs than the non-turbo models, the handling is sharper and far more poised.
The feedback from the steering is first-rate and the body remains flat when the Forester is pushed. In fact, the small amount of roll that does surface is more perceived that real because of the elevated seating position. As a result, the Forester easily matches the sportiest crossover in the segment.
Another bonus is found in the Turbo's upsized brakes -- shorter stops and less fade.
Inside, the cabin is nicely attired and the Limited is well equipped. Nice materials, plenty of toys, comfortable seating and some neat gauges -- the central screen atop the centre stack shows a trip computer, what the all-wheel-drive system is doing, when X-Mode is engaged and how much boost the turbocharger is supplying. Flipping through the different displays is as simple as using the steering wheel-mounted buttons. It also displays the scene from the back-up camera. The problem is for this application, the screen (10.9-centimetre) is too small.
Aft of that, the rear seat is spacious and benefits from the drop in the height of the central tunnel. It is now low enough to give the middle-seat rider some semblance of comfort.
Likewise, the cargo capacity is better. The XT Limited and its power moonroof delivers 31.5 cubic feet with the seats up and 68.5 cu. ft. with them flat -- an increase of 5.5 cu. ft. over the outgoing model. You'll also find a tonneau cover and a power tailgate that allows the opening height to be changed for those times when the ceiling is low. Talking of low, when the liftgate is raised to its highest position, anyone over 5 foot 10 will bang their head on it so caution is advised.
While the look is evolutionary in nature, there's a lot to like about the rest of the rework. Subaru still offers one of the very best AWD systems, the new turbocharged engine puts some real power under the hood and the cabin is a comfortable place to while away the clicks. Pricing, however, could be an issue -- the Limited is a cool $9,500 more than the base model.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013