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2016 Subaru Forester review: 2016 Subaru Forester conquers dirt roads and the lone highway

With standard all-wheel drive and X-mode traction control, the 2016 Subaru Forester handles the dirt, while its EyeSight adaptive cruise control make for comfortable road trips.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
6 min read

Subarus have a reputation as hardy vehicles, favored by mountain climbers and snowboarders, but that doesn't mean they have to be spartan. Driving the 2016 Subaru Forester 2.5i Limited, I enjoyed Internet-sourced weather and news in the dashboard, an adaptive cruise control system that let me go for miles and miles without touching brake or accelerator pedals and even a liftgate that opened at the touch of a button.

2016 Subaru Forester

2016 Subaru Forester

The Good

All-wheel-drive, X-mode traction control and 8.7-inches of ground clearance get the 2016 Subaru Forester off the beaten path. Its adaptive cruise control system takes stress off long highway miles, and high-20s average fuel economy is good for a five-passenger SUV.

The Bad

The 2.5-liter engine and continuously variable transmission combo sound rough under hard acceleration. The collision warning system shows enough false positives to become annoying.

The Bottom Line

Although boxy in styling, the 2016 Subaru Forester exhibits many practical characteristics, such as a roomy interior and decent fuel economy, then adds extras with its standard all-wheel-drive and adaptive cruise control, making it a good all-around car for non-aggressive drivers.

The Forester is a relatively small SUV, although it still has seating for five, with looks that echo its original boxy design from the late '90s. The design looks more function than form, as the roofline holds its height all the way to the rear liftgate, improving cargo and interior space. With the sunroof option, as in the model I drove, there is only 31.5 cubic feet of cargo area, taller than it is deep. But put the rear seats down, and that opens up to 68.5 cubic feet, plenty of room for camping gear or flea market finds.

2016 Subaru Forester
Following the Subaru tradition, the Forester is a very capable car, suitable for the urban environment or the dirt road crawl. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The base Forester, with a 2.5-liter engine, manual transmission, and all-wheel drive, goes for $23,245, but you won't find the high-tech convenience features I mentioned above available in it. At the Limited trim model, with a base price of $29,645, you can add the navigation and Eyesight package for an additional $2,145. That put the total for the one I drove at $31,790.

In the UK, you find the base Forester model, powered by a 2-liter diesel engine, for £24,995. In Australia, the starting price for a Forester is AU$28,990, and that's with a 2-liter gasoline engine.

Dorky 2016 Subaru Forester contains high-tech practicality (pictures)

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The optioned-up dashboard in the example I drove had a 7-inch touchscreen showing Subaru's StarLink system, bundling navigation, stereo, hands-free phone, and app integration. Soft-touch buttons on either side of the display give quick access to a home screen, navigation, apps and satellite radio data services. It seemed odd there wasn't an audio button, although buttons on the steering wheel let me cycle through sources, skip tracks and change volume.

Maps in the navigation system look modern and show street names as easy-to-read pop-up labels. With the destination set and a long trip on the freeway ahead of me, the nav system gave me plenty of detour suggestions for slow traffic ahead. While I like a system that aggressively tries to keep me out of traffic, these suggestions would probably become annoyingly frequent in a place like Los Angeles. Destination input options included address entry, points of interest and browsing the map, all of which worked well, but there isn't an online destination search option.

2016 Subaru Forester
Onboard navigation is nice to have when far away from cell towers. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

App integration worked with my iPhone plugged into the car's USB port, and supported Pandora, Aha and Subaru's own StarLink. Aha does have limited online destination services, but not a free-form search. StarLink included a news feed, weather, and its own interface for playing music from my phone. MirrorLink-enabled phones aren't common in the US, but the Forester supports that phone-mirroring technology.

The range of audio sources offered Bluetooth streaming, HD radio and a USB port for drives and iOS devices. The same package that gave this Forester adaptive cruise control and navigation also brought in a Harman Kardon audio system with 440 watts. The sound comes through nice and clean, but falls short of audiophile quality.

Modest power

These dashboard conveniences suit the Forester nicely, especially the onboard navigation, as this car makes a good companion for road trips well out of data coverage areas. The Forester has almost plush seats, leather-covered in the example I drove, and a reasonably soft suspension allowing for many miles of driving comfort.

2016 Subaru Forester
A continuously variable transmission, which helps fuel economy, comes standard in the Limited trim Forester. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The standard engine, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, in a flat or boxer-style configuration, delivers a modest 170 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque. Coupled with the continuously variable transmission (CVT), standard in Limited trim, I could put it at half throttle and maintain good, steady speed up steep San Francisco hills. Under hard acceleration, the engine sounds rough, but the engine note smooths out at a constant rate of speed.

With that CVT, the Forester is a get-in-and-go type of car, with a very easy driving character suitable to just about any driving situation. And the fuel economy, at 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, won't be too painful for road trips and the daily commute. Even with San Francisco's tortuous traffic and hills, I turned in an average of 26.4 mpg after a week of driving on everything from freeways to city streets to a little bit of dirt road crawling.

Dirt roads and harsh weather make for one of the Forester's selling points, as it come standard with all-wheel drive. And rather than the front-wheel-drive biased systems of most other cars, Subaru's all-wheel drive is designed for a 60:40 front/rear torque split by default, with the differential shifting torque as needed to the wheels with the most grip. Adding to this, the Limited trim Forester comes with a special traction control program called X-mode, which better manages torque for more seriously slippery roads.

I took the Forester up a rocky and rutted dirt road, a moderately steep ascent, then back down again. Even with its all-season road tires, the Forester pulled the hill smoothly and easily. Taking it back down, I used its hill descent control and steered carefully around the ruts, the car managing the braking for me. The Forester's suspension doesn't have huge articulation, but the 8.7-inch ground clearance made for an easy crawl down.

2016 Subaru Forester
The Forester has the ground clearance and all-wheel drive to easily handle a dirt road descent. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Another bit of driving where I didn't need to touch the brake, or even the accelerator, was during long stretches on the freeway, using the Forester's adaptive cruise control system. I've raved about this system, called EyeSight, in other Subaru vehicles. It uses two cameras at the top of the windshield and a computer that analyzes the dual imagery, recognizing cars or obstacles ahead and figuring out distance and relative speed.

With the cruise control set to my preferred speed, the Forester automatically braked for slower traffic ahead, even coming to a full stop if needed. This feature worked very smoothly, generally not engaging abrupt braking or acceleration, and the instrument cluster display, showing set speed and following distance, proved easy to understand.

EyeSight also enables collision warning, but this feature was hyperreactive. Its red light and associated audio warning came on when I was merely pointed down a steep hill, or taking a tight turn on a forested road. This feature can help prevent nasty accidents for distracted drivers, especially in urban areas, so it might be worth the false alerts.

2016 Subaru Forester
The Subaru Forester bolsters its practical features with high-tech convenience. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Road tripper

The 2016 Subaru Forester 2.5i Limited makes for a good road tripper, weekend ski tripper, daily commuter and errand runner due to its comfortable cabin area, ride quality, all-wheel-drive and adaptive cruise control. Although it comes with Subaru's rally-proven all-wheel-drive, don't expect sports car handling. Its height and suspension suggest taking it easy in the turns.

The few complaints I have about the Forester aren't dealer killers. The engine sounds a bit rough at times and the collision warning shows many false positives, all things most people can live with. The power is modest, but it gets most jobs done.

Dashboard electronics are about average for the industry, with a usable interface and solid features for navigation, stereo and hands-free phone. I would like online destination search included with app integration, but cars in this price class are only beginning to see wide adoption of that feature.

Subaru also offers a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 250 horsepower, for those who crave more response at the throttle. Highway fuel economy goes down significantly with that engine, but it comes with a similar CVT to that used in the new WRX model, which means more modes and shift points for greater control.

Tech specs

Model 2016 Subaru Forester
Trim 2.5i Limited CVT
Powertrain 2.5-liter boxer-style four-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission
EPA fuel economy 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 26.4 mpg
Navigation Optional, with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio
Audio system Harman Kardon 440-watt 8-speaker audio system
Driver assistance Adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, collision warning, rear-view camera
Base price $23,245
Price as tested $31,790
2016 Subaru Forester

2016 Subaru Forester

Score Breakdown

Performance 7Features 8Design 8Media 5