2014 Subaru Forester review:

The wagon with 20/20 vision

2014 Subaru Forester
To use Aha in the Forester, the app needs to be loaded on a smartphone cabled to or paired with the car. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Small screen
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.

2014 Subaru Forester
The navigation system's LCD is a bit cramped, especially in split-screen mode. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Modest power
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.

2014 Subaru Forester
Subaru enhanced the Forester's all-wheel drive with X Mode, designed to give better traction on slippery roads. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

2014 Subaru Forester
Although not a serious offroader, the Forester can handle trail drives and snow. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

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.

Still sensible
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.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Subaru Forester
Trim 2.5i Touring
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
Base price $29,995
Price as tested $33,220

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