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Usually, I prefer a fast car on a twisty road, but the 2014 Subaru Forester changed me. When I took the wheel, its sheer sensibleness infused me with a Zen-like patience for other cars traveling at tourist mph, and those drivers who take a second to realize that the light just changed to green.
The Forester's practical interior space, economical 2.5-liter four-cylinder, and all-wheel drive turned all of my aggressive driving behavior to jelly. I suddenly had visions of living in a suburban house, with the Forester parked next to a Prius in the driveway.
Sensible. Practical. As much as I need, and no more. That is the 2014 Forester.
Subaru seems perpetually modest, BRATs and aside, and the Forester exemplifies that characteristic in the SUV class. The body shows some minor flourishes, but at heart it's a boxy wagon with seating for five and fold-down rear seats expanding the cargo area. Standard plastic mats on the cargo floor show the car is intended to carry potting soil and antique finds.
But wait, we are well into a whole new millennium that promises technology that will alter our lifestyles completely. How does the Forester reflect its 2014 model year?
Subaru rolled out two key technologies in the new Forester, features that I have been eager to test. One, Starlink, brings a new data connection into the cabin. The other, EyeSight, literally lets the car see the road ahead and react to any obstacles.
Big windows and a raised seating position afford a good view all around. But realizing that our increasingly hectic urban zones require extra driver attention, Subaru fitted two cameras, one on each side of the rearview mirror, to the Forester's ceiling. These two eyes perpetually look forward and, unlike the driver, never blink.
This is Subaru's EyeSight system, and it gives the car adaptive cruise control, collision warnings with automatic braking, and lane departure warnings.
I have driven many cars with radar-based adaptive cruise control, and now trust and appreciate these systems. Generally, you set the cruising speed, and whenever the radar detects a slower-moving car in the lane ahead, the system tells your car to match that speed, following at a preset distance. I have driven hundreds of miles at a stretch without touching gas or brake pedals with these systems. Rather than using radar, the Forester relies on its cameras to do the same thing.
And for the first time, I felt like I had a better grip on how the technology worked.
Instead of the mystery of radar, the EyeSight system's cameras mimic what we humans have relied on throughout history to successfully run through forests, shoot an arrow into a target, or catch a baseball. A processor continually compares the images from each camera, using the known distance between the cameras to calculate the distance of any object in front of the car. Our brains do something similar all the time.
Setting the cruise control in the Forester, I was prepared for this new type of system to behave badly. Instead, it easily tracked each car or motorcycle in the lane ahead, quickly registering vehicles that changed lanes abruptly. It told the Forester when to slow down and when it could speed up. After half an hour of use, it built up my trust.
Subaru helped me appreciate the system with a graphical image in the Forester's upper LCD, showing when it had another vehicle in its sights.
When traffic ahead stopped abruptly, I let EyeSight handle the braking (although my right foot hovered over the brake pedal). The system proved very capable in handling every situation I threw at it. However, it is a visual system, so don't expect it to see when you can't, such as in a dust storm or heavy fog.
If EyeSight deems a collision is imminent, it first gives the driver a warning, then hits the brakes if the driver doesn't react. Subaru says it will brake hard enough to prevent collisions below 19 mph, and can mitigate damage at higher speeds. I was not brave enough to test the precollision braking, but did see the collision warning pop up a few times when I got too close to other cars.
It gave me a couple of false alerts, such as on a fast approach to a hill, but not so frequently that I wanted to turn the system off.
EyeSight is acute enough to see lane lines, so it flashed me a warning whenever I drifted over. The alert tone is not particularly loud, so it wasn't a bother when it sounded off on a winding road, but it also might not be loud enough to wake a dozing driver. That part of the system also depends on the local road authorities having kept the lane lines painted.
The Forester's other new feature, Starlink, integrates the Aha Internet radio app with the Forester's cabin tech interface, seamlessly slotting it in as one of the audio sources. To use it, I had to have the app running on a smartphone paired with the car, in the case of Android, or connected by cable if an iOS device.
Aha carries a variety of Internet-based streams, from podcasts to music to social media. For online audio sources, it works as a convenient container, an all-in-one place to find your favorite content. However, the music services are limited, with Slacker being the one big-name partner. And rather than find specific artists with the Slacker implementation, Aha only lets you listen to preprogrammed channels.
Listening to my Facebook updates was a little tedious, as the car reads them out, offering no text element, one at a time. The most useful Facebook feature was the ability to share my location with friends.
Aha offers a few location services, with channels for hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops. Unfortunately, the system errs too much on the side of safety. Rather than letting me perform a search for a specific location, it would only show the nearest matches for each category, reading them out one at a time. On the plus side, I could tap an entry on the car's touch screen and have its address programmed as my destination.
Missing from Subaru's implementation of Aha is any free-form local-search function for navigation.