The Subaru Forester, well known as a durable and eminently functional compact sport utility vehicle, adds more power, more room, more safety features and a retuned suspension for 2014.
The new, fourth-generation Forester also has higher fuel economy ratings than its predecessor — 24 miles per gallon in city driving and 32 mpg on the highway with base, 170-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and fuel-efficient continuously variable transmission (CVT).
As a result, the 2014 Forester ranks as fifth best SUV nameplate in fuel economy in the United States among gasoline-only-powered SUVs, according to the federal government.
Better yet, the new Forester is rated best small SUV by Consumer Reports, where predicted reliability is above average.
Styling is new, too, though casual observers may not notice the Forester's freshened exterior and the fact the turbo scoop is gone from the hoods of turbocharged models that now have 250 horsepower, up from 224.
But they will notice the commodious 41.7 inches of legroom that's now in the Forester's back seat. This is more legroom than is found in the front seats of the big Cadillac Escalade SUV. Front seats in the new Forester aren't shortchanged. They provide a generous 43 inches of legroom plus at least 40 inches of headroom, even when there's a sunroof overhead.
The space inside the Forester, including a 10 percent boost in maximum cargo room for 2014, is surprising for a 15-foot-long vehicle that has grown lengthwise less than 1.5 inches from its predecessor.
Base retail price for the new Forester is up slightly from the 2013 Forester's $22,090 for a manual transmission model. Specifically, a base, 2014 Forester with five-speed manual and basically the same 2.5-liter, horizontally opposed four cylinder that was in last year's model has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $22,820. The lowest starting retail price, including destination charge, for a 2014 Forester with CVT, which a driver operates like an automatic, is $23,820.
All Foresters come standard with all-wheel drive. No automatic transmission is offered in 2014 models.
Even with the price increase, the 2014 Forester's starting prices are lower than those of the 2013 Honda CR-V. The CR-V's starting retail price, including destination charge, is $23,695 for a front-wheel drive model with 185-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission. The lowest priced 2013 CR-V with all-wheel drive is $24,875.
But the 2013 Kia Sportage SUV starts lower, at $19,850 with 176-horsepower, four cylinder, manual transmission and front-wheel drive. The lowest starting retail price for a 2013 Sportage with automatic is $22,050, while the starting MSRP, including destination charge, for an all-wheel drive Sportage is $23,550. Note that unlike the Forester, the all-wheel drive Sportage only comes with automatic.
Neither the CR-V nor Sportage offers a CVT.
With more than a dozen years on the U.S. market, the Forester is a trailblazer in blending a car-like ride with sport utility looks, ride height that's higher than that of regular cars and all-road capability.
But where other so-called crossover SUVs have become larger and added third-row seats, the 2014 Forester with new underlying platform keeps its not-too-big, well-proportioned shape and seats for five.
Increased interior room, such as maximum cargo room that's now 74.7 cubic feet with rear seats folded compared with 68.3 cubic feet in the 2013 Forester, comes from paying attention to the details.
As an example, a flatter cargo floor helped add cargo space, while revised hip points on the seats contribute to greater legroom, and the middle passenger in the rear has a more comfortable resting spot as the center tunnel in the floor is lower now.
The test 2014 Forester, a 2.0XT Premium model with CVT, demanded little effort for the driver to get acclimated. Entry, as well as exit, was very easy as door openings are sizable and door sills have been repositioned 2 inches lower.
Sizable side windows and metal pillars at the sides of the windshield that are pushed forward a bit compared with last year's Forester provided good views out.
With the instrument panel positioned a bit farther away from front-seat passengers than in last year's Forester, interior controls are mostly straightforward. Plastic on the dashboard in the tester was acceptable, though there was little flair or style.
Meantime, a rearview camera, which is standard on all CR-Vs, isn't available on the base 2014 Forester.
But a driver's knee air bag and anti-whiplash front seats are new standard safety items on the 2014 Forester.
The Forester remains a nimble handler, with suspension now providing a bit firmer ride.
The base, 2.5-liter, double overhead cam, naturally aspirated, four-cylinder engine is the typical Subaru "boxer" design where pistons are arranged horizontally. Peak torque is 174 foot-pounds at 4,100 rpm, which is a bit better than the 168 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm in Kia's 2013 Sportage.
But the Forester's 2-liter, horizontally opposed four cylinder that's turbocharged and direct injected is the big news. This engine, mated to the CVT in the tester, had some turbo lag. But once the power came on, the car moved sprightly and a bit loudly. Paddle shifters let drivers get all the power they could. Peak torque of 258 foot-pounds comes on as soon as 2,000 rpm and continues to 4,800 rpm.
To get peak performance, Subaru recommends premium gasoline.
Alas, fuel mileage averaged just over 20 mpg in admittedly aggressive driving.
Last month, some 2014 Foresters were recalled because floor mats might begin to curl when they are subjected to heat. The curling might interfere with driver use of pedals, so dealers were installing four new floor mats in the affected vehicles.