Subaru delivers safe, smart CUV

by Haney Louka . Mar 15 2019
SubaruThe 2019 model of the Subaru Forester is built on the Subaru Global Platform, which underpins the Impreza and Crosstrek.

Subaru

The 2019 model of the Subaru Forester is built on the Subaru Global Platform, which underpins the Impreza and Crosstrek.

Few crossovers are as instantly recognizable as the Subaru Forester, the Japanese company’s boxy and quirky entry into the popular compact CUV segment.

For 2019, Subaru brings us a ground-up redesign that preserves the Forester’s brand identity while providing significant enhancements in technology and performance.

That is, if you can make friends with its continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is mandatory across the board. I cannot.

But first, the good stuff.

Built on the Subaru Global Platform, which already forms the foundation for the Impreza and Crosstrek, the new Forester is roomier than before, with more volume for cargo and passengers. It’s more powerful than before (182 hp versus 170), if you don’t count the now-discontinued turbo from the retired XT trims. And it sips less fuel than before, by 0.2 L/100 km.

These are all rather incremental changes, but the bottom line is that everything has been tweaked and the new ute costs a few hundred bucks less than last year’s model when comparing the same trim levels.

Incremental also describes the changes to the Forester’s looks, where it takes a keen eye to spot the differences between the two. A blunter nose with a more upright grille give it a slightly more rugged stance with a more interesting use of LED lighting. The rear treatment is most noticeable, thanks to the boomerang-style tail lights.

Inside, the changes are a bit more pronounced. The dual-screen setup remains, but the main screen is larger and incorporates Android Auto and Apple CarPlay across all trims.

The dash design is cleaner and uses more upscale materials, but retains a welcome familiarity with its user-friendliness. Overall, it’s a very pleasant place to spend time.

Safety is a big focus in the new Forester, as well. The company has been touting its EyeSight suite of safety and driver assistance features for years, but is increasing its availability. While it’s not available on the entry level 2.5i, it is an option on the Convenience trim and standard on the Touring, Sport, Limited and Premier trims. Last year, it was optional across the board.

The nucleus of the EyeSight system is a pair of cameras located either side of the rearview mirror near the top of the windshield. (Winter note: they don’t work below about -15 C, but it’s related to interior temperature, so once the car warms up a bit, they start functioning again. But beware: no cruise control until they do.)

The system is used to activate pre-collision features such as braking and throttle management, as well as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist.

As the EyeSight system evolves, it becomes slicker and less intrusive with each new generation.

One thing that isn’t slick is the automatic start-stop feature that shuts the engine off when the Subie is at rest. The engine shuts off just fine, but startup is rough and abrupt, and is triggered by the slightest change in brake pedal pressure, so it often happens prematurely.

The Forester’s powertrain elicits a love-hate reaction from me. The engine itself feels much stronger than before, and the Subaru’s all-wheel drive system is still among the best in the biz. The system is enhanced with X Mode, a feature drivers can select when the terrain gets a little rougher. In Sport and higher trims, there are two modes to choose from, one for reduced traction on snow and ice, and one for deeper, loose terrain, such as mud or deep snow.

But that CVT detracts big time from the Forester’s appeal. Some things, I found, just aren’t worth the tradeoff. It’s ironic that the first car company to bring the CVT to the masses was Subaru. Remember the Justy? It’s better if you don’t. But that is the first production car I remember being so equipped, and that was in the late ‘80s. You would think they’d have it figured out by now.

CVTs eschew traditional gears in favour of variable-diameter pulleys and a chain (or a belt in some cases). Fewer moving parts and an infinite number of gear ratios give the transmission distinct advantages over traditional automatics; chief of these is lower fuel consumption.

The traditional CVT complaints are that they are noisy and cause annoying engine drone under acceleration. Well, not much has changed here. There’s an incessant whine, particularly when everything is cold, coming from the transmission. It’s not as pronounced as it was in the larger Ascent I drove a couple of weeks earlier, but it’s there.

And under acceleration, the constant high revs combined with the gruff nature of the boxer engine make it a chore rather than a pleasure to pick up speed. And for the first time, it’s the only transmission available, now that the six-speed stick has been dropped for 2019.

Nissan and Honda have the CVT game figured out a bit better these days.

It’s a shame, too, because the Forester has great steering and an enviable ride-handling balance that appeals to discerning drivers who also need practicality baked into their ride.

Two new trims are offered for 2019, and our Sport tester is one of them: unique orange stitching and accents inside, trim-exclusive 18-inch wheels, adaptive headlights, Sport SI Drive (for quicker throttle response) and several cosmetic upgrades distinguish the Sport from other models.

The top-end Premier trim is also new, and it includes a few upgrades over the already-loaded Limited, including the DriverFocus distraction mitigation system. Which is a fancy way of saying the car is watching you and will send out a friendly reminder when you need to pay more attention.

Forester pricing starts at $27,995 for the 2.5i and tops out at $39,495 for the Premier. Our Sport tester stickered at $34,995.

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SubaruAn interior view of the 2019 Subaru Forester.

Subaru

An interior view of the 2019 Subaru Forester.