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 BRZs 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.
Using an iPhone, I found the system buggy. Once I had cabled the phone to the car and activated the Aha app, it did not want to let go. The touch screen in the Forester showed Aha as an audio source, but when I tried to switch to the music library on my phone, it would often just continue with the Aha content. iOS is notoriously bad at multitasking, and I would not expect to have the same problems on an Android phone.
The Forester's navigation system becomes available at the Premium trim level, one up from base. The top Touring trim, which I had, comes with navigation standard. With a smallish touch screen and flash-based maps, this system looks and works much like a portable navigation device. I liked its lane guidance and voice prompts with street names, and its traffic rerouting seemed to keep me out of traffic jams. But the small screen sometimes made it difficult to quickly see which button I needed to press.
A split-screen function, showing audio on one side and navigation on the other, made the interface far too small to use.
Voice command, activated with buttons on the steering wheel and stereo panel, let me enter addresses, but only one component at a time, such as city, street, then number, which was tedious and a bit slow. And beyond initiating calls to contacts through the Bluetooth hands-free voice system, voice command offered few other features, with only limited stereo control.
Subaru has worked HD Radio, Bluetooth streaming, and a USB port for music from USB drives and iOS devices into the Forester's audio sources. A convenient pass-through from the center console makes it easy to leave an iOS cable plugged in, with the connector end resting in a cup holder. The Bluetooth audio interface shows track information, and iOS devices get a complete music library interface. USB drives are relegated to a simple file-and-folder interface.
The Forester Touring comes standard with an eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio system. Although the stereo produced nicely detailed music, with easily discernible instrumentation, I thought it sounded a little flat. Vocals and instruments lacked a fulsome sound. Digging into the stereo settings, I was pleased to find a seven-band graphic equalizer with five custom presets. Tweaking the bass and treble, I tuned the sound more to my liking, but it never completely wowed me.
The musical punch may have been modest, but even more so was the Forester's engine, a 2.5-liter flat four-cylinder making 170 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque. Putting power to all four wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT), Subaru's recently adopted religion, the car delivers very good fuel economy but is not so hot on acceleration.
The torque tells initially, giving the Forester a nice bump off the line to about 30 mph, but it all goes a bit laggy after that. Flooring it from a stop, I felt the CVT's linear power delivery, but it was a slow ride to freeway speeds. I quickly learned not to go for the pass on two-lane country roads if the car ahead was anywhere near the speed limit, as the Forester's transmission seemed loath to kick down to its lower ratios.
However, the Forester boasts EPA fuel economy ratings of 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, very impressive for something so closely resembling an SUV, and with full-time all-wheel drive.
Subaru does not make a six-cylinder engine available for the Forester, but there is another engine available, an engine that suggests the Forester is capable of a little madness, an engine that will make BRZ owners envious. Not only does the available 2-liter flat-four engine have direct injection, it also has a turbocharger, bringing its numbers up to 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.
According to the EPA numbers, that engine only pays for the extra power with a 1-mpg drop in average fuel economy.
But I'm not so sure I would want that much power turning the Forester's wheels. Driving along a highway with some sharp turns, I could tell the Forester's suspension was engineered for sensible speeds. In no way does the Forester pretend to be sporty, and so it will lean and wallow in the corners.
On suburban and city roads, the Forester's ride quality fit its price range. The suspension was not particularly soft, but reasonably comfortable and competent at damping the bumps. I found the steering tuning more impressive, as it exhibited such a natural feel that I at first thought it used hydraulic boost. Looking at the specs, I saw that Subaru went to the more economical electric power steering, yet managed to tune out any whirring sounds or overboosting.
Subaru set its standard on all-wheel-drive cars a while back, so naturally the Forester follows suit. But this Touring trim example offered something more, a new X-Mode traction control setting. This new setting is meant for particularly slippery conditions -- think ice and snow -- automatically enhancing engine, transmission, and traction control to cope. Subaru does not offer a traditional differential lock to force an even torque split.
A descent control mode maintains a steady speed when the car is going down steep inclines with poor traction.
The Forester doesn't look like it would be much of a rock crawler, but Subaru rates its ground clearance at 8.5 inches -- not bad for your basic suburban crossover.
I wouldn't call the 2014 Subaru Forester a technological tour de force. Its cabin electronics in particular are a little cramped, fitted into the dashboard similarly to a standard stereo unit. The Aha integration gives it some hope for connected features, but those are somewhat limited, especially when it comes to destination searches.
More impressive is how Subaru wrings a number of useful driver assistance features out of the EyeSight system, enhancing the car's safety and comfort.
The standard engine gets excellent fuel economy for the size of the vehicle, but the turbo variant seems a tasty option. Given the Forester's sensible demeanor, it would probably be best to go with the standard engine, which seems well-suited to the car's purpose.
|Model||2014 Subaru Forester|
|Power train||2.5-liter flat 4-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||24 mpg city/32 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||25.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Flash-based system with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Aha Internet radio, Bluetooth streaming, iOS device integration, USB drive, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Harman Kardon 440-watt, 8-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$33,220|