Subaru, long the bastion of all-wheel drive and rugged practicality, is an automaker on a hot streak. And the all-new 2014 Forester crossover shows every sign of becoming another sales hit.
Subaru's profits have hit record highs this year, and May was the best sales month in the automaker's history. Over the last decade, the brand's market share has more than doubled, according to auto information company Edmunds.com.
Subaru has been pushing to become a truly national company, said Thomas Doll, president of Subaru of America. Previously, Subarus sold well in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, where buyers relished a durable, all-wheel-drive coach that could climb snow-covered mountains.
"Our strength was regional," Doll acknowledged.
In areas where all-weather traction has little appeal — say, Southern California — Subaru struggled to become more than a niche player. Mediocre fuel economy, hampered by all-wheel drive, didn't help.
The company found salvation in the continuously variable transmission. CVTs gave the automaker marked gains in fuel efficiency, starting with the 2010 Outback and Legacy mid-size models, and continuing with the compact Impreza in 2012 and now the Forester for 2014.
Consumers nationwide, even in warmer climates, responded by pushing up the automaker's sales 26% in 2012 compared with the previous year. This year, the company expects to hit a record sales goal of 380,000 vehicles.
The new Forester, which starts at $22,820, should help meet that goal. The compact crossover has been a staple for Subaru since the company introduced it to the U.S. market in 1998. The segment has evolved impressively since, with rivals such as the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5 adding refinement and efficiency to the practicality that has been the hallmark of the class.
This fourth-generation Forester has proved a hit with consumers since it began selling earlier this year, no small thanks to a fuel efficiency rating that's improved from 21 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway to 24 and 32, respectively.
Over 130 miles of testing, we averaged 22 mpg in mostly city driving.
The CVT gearbox on our loaded $32,220 Forester 2.5i Touring was mated to a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder boxer engine. It's largely a carry-over from the previous Forester and puts out 170 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque.
But competitors offer smoother transmissions than this one, which kept the engine droning more than your typical automatic. The unwelcome noise underscored the fact that the Forester remains more rugged than refined.
Buyers who prefer the control of a manual transmission will find one in the base Forester, with six speeds. But the stick shift, with a vague feel that made it hard to avoid grinding gears, had all the charm of a daylong migraine. The lifeless clutch pedal felt equally awkward.
The Forester's power plant performed better, with the base 2.5-liter providing ample if not overwhelming power. A lower curb weight than most peers' helped the Forester feel spry.
Ample torque gives the Forester strong power off the line, so most buyers won't need to opt for the additional power offered by the turbocharged engine in the Forester 2.0XT, a direct-injected four-cylinder making 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Subaru's sales numbers back this up; the company says only about 7% of buyers so far have opted for the turbo.
Wrapping all these mechanical bits is an entirely new exterior, with mixed results. The previous Forester had a sleeker, almost handsome look; this new model has a face like it got a whiff of bad milk. Clearly Subaru hoped for a more aggressive profile, but designers threw in too many mismatched angles.
The Forester makes up for its odd looks with functional space. Subaru stretched the wheelbase by almost an inch from the previous generation, and the overall length is up by 1.4 inches. Rear-seat legroom picks up almost 4 more inches, while the cargo space grows by 6.4 cubic feet.
An upright seating position and plenty of glass give driver and passengers lots of visibility. It's a safe place to sit. The 2014 Forester recently picked up a "top safety pick plus" designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. All models come with seven air bags, anti-lock braking systems and three-point seat belts for all three rear passengers.
Our Forester Touring also had a new safety system from Subaru that it calls EyeSight. This $2,400 option uses a pair of cameras mounted on either side of the rearview mirror, scanning the road ahead. The system rolls together multiple safety features, including adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning. EyeSight automatically hits the brakes when a driver fails to react, and reduces throttle input if a lead-footer speeds toward a stationary object.
Space and safety aside, other elements of the Forester's cabin seemed below par for our loaded $32,220. Flat seats lacked support, and the touch-screen navigation and radio controls were often counterintuitive. Overall, the interior had a basic feel that took Subaru's form-over-function ethic too far, even with options such as heated leather seats and a premium Harman/Kardon sound system.
Surely, many buyers will see Subaru's trademark simplicity as a positive. But in a segment that has moved forward in refinement and style, the Forester feels like a bit of an anachronism.
Fortunately for the automaker, it's an anachronism that seems to suit Subaru loyalists just fine.
2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i
Times' take: Straightforward practicality, if that's your thing
Highs: Low-end torque, better fuel economy
Lows: Less refined than competitors; odd front-end design
Vehicle type: Four-door compact crossover SUV
Base price: $22,820
Price as tested: $32,220, Forester 2.5i Touring
Powertrain: 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder engine; permanent all-wheel drive
Transmission: Continuously variable
Torque: 174 pound-feet
Zero to 60 mph: 9.0 seconds, according to Motor Trend
EPA fuel economy rating: 24 mpg city, 32 highway