The Subaru Forester continues Subaru’s recent onslaught towards many different corners of the market. The ever-popular compact crossover SUV segment is a very tough segment to be in, with new competition always looking to leapfrog everybody else. The Forester, new for 2012, brought along many significant updates and features that are aimed right in the thick of what the market expects nowadays. I reviewed the stripped-out base model Forester 2.5i earlier this year, and found it refreshingly relevant. A good value with everything you need, delivering reasonable efficiency considering the standard all-wheel-drive. Most competitors at this price point relegate you to front-wheel-drive models.
While competitors offer V6 power in their compact crossovers, leave it to Subaru to do things a little differently. The Forester XT originally debuted in North America for the 2003 model year. Utilizing the powertrain from the then-new Impreza WRX, the XT combined turbocharged goodness with tall-wagon utility. Earlier models were available with a manual transmission, making it possibly one of the most well-rounded-do-anything machines for the money. Later versions of the XT were saddled with a four-speed automatic transmission. While the slushbox did the job, it took away the one item that made the car feel special.
My 2014 Subaru Forester XT tester for the week was a Burnished Bronze Metallic, with the Limited Package. This means you get essentially everything except for satellite navigation and Subaru’s patented EyeSight active safety package. Compared to the base-model Forester I tested earlier this year, the XT Limited brings full leather seating surfaces, a huge panoramic sunroof, turbo-exclusive 18” wheels, HID headlights, upgraded audio hardware, a power rear tailgate, and the most important feature: a 250hp horizontally-opposed Boxer four-cylinder engine. Priced at $35,495, the XT Limited is priced competitively for the feature set that I would be most interested in. Competitors from Hyundai and Kia come close for similar powertrain configurations, and others from Honda and Toyota are priced similarly but do not offer the same amount of horsepower.
As mentioned earlier, the headline feature in the Forester XT has got to be the powertrain. Displacing 2.0L, 250 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque are routed to all four wheels through Subaru’s second-generation Lineartronic CVT. There is no manual transmission available. Firstly, now would be the time where you’d start hearing enthusiasts and manual-transmission purists complaining. But… this CVT is actually pretty good! The infinite range of gearing available means being able to stay on the turbo boost forever, if you wanted to. The CVT is also responsive to kick down into a lower gear range, and it’s also good at keeping the revs down when under a light load. For the majority of urban driving this kind of crossover will see, the CVT makes a lot of sense. If you enable the Sport-Sharp (signified by a “#” sign), you get access to eight “virtual” gears, controllable via shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel. I see this as a bit of a stop-gap for those who need to feel the gear changes – letting the CVT manage is a better idea for optimizing power delivery. Like the WRX with its new CVT option, I don’t see this particular configuration as a bad thing. Interesting tidbit: the oil filter location allows for easy access as soon as you open the hood.
Inside, a lot of interior features are shared with lesser models with the exception of a few important details. Right on the steering wheel, are two buttons: one marked Sport (S), and the other marked Sport-Sharp (S#). Sport mode ramps up throttle response from the standard Intelligent mode, and Sport-Sharp even more so. It also enables those eight virtual gears mentioned earlier. The throttle is almost too jumpy in Sport-Sharp, so I didn’t use it very much. I drove the XT in the standard Sport (S) mode most of the time. Down below, between the heated seat controls, is a button marked X-Mode. This button combines a suite of technologies and functions to make navigating rough terrain simple for the driver. It quickly re-maps the engine controls, transmission gearing (into a super-low gear thanks to the CVT), AWD torque split, and can even control the brakes in a hill-descent situation. Thankfully, I never needed to engage X-Mode as traction was quite good at all times, even through a recent snowstorm. Up top, the central information display is augmented by an available turbo boost gauge and oil temperature readout – both features enthusiasts can appreciate.
The driving experience at first is quite similar to the non-turbo Forester. You get the benefit of excellent visibility all around (low sills nowadays are seriously underrated) and the space efficiency provided by the upright greenhouse design. Then, you put the gear selector into Drive, and the difference between the two models makes itself apparent almost immediately. The power delivery from the turbocharged boxer four is very linear and torque is available at nearly every point of the rev range. The CVT does a great job of managing and smoothing out what little turbo lag that exists. And when the turbo boost does come in, the fact that the whoosh is audible is a great thing. One slightly disappointing item I discovered while safely testing the overall traction limits of the XT (on a closed course) is the intervention of the stability control system. As per the manual, disabling the system by pressing the button to the left of the system should leave the car in a state as if no stability control system was available at all. However, I found it would cut in and put a stop to my experiments.
Most people expect fuel efficiency to be negatively affected when you add turbo boost to the mix. Most of the time, they’d be right. In the case of the Forester, it’s not as bad as you would expect. I averaged 11.0L/100km over the course of a week. While this is higher than what Subaru Canada forecasts, my week with the XT was exceptionally cold and as mentioned, we were hit with a snowstorm which slowed things down significantly nearly everywhere. The numbers I achieved are in-line with the high-end turbocharged crossover market – specifically the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T and the Kia Sportage SX. The one downside is the Forester XT requires premium fuel, in comparison to the Korean cousins that only ask for regular 87-octane fuel.
Subaru has been on a roll lately – many of their new cars for this year are being well-received by the Canadian market. I liked the standard Forester enough to call it my choice in the class because it did everything pretty well. I knew the turbocharged XT would be a lot more fun to drive, but I had my doubts about the mandatory CVT. I think a lot of people consider this one part of the XT a dealbreaker, based on the CVTs we have seen from some other manufacturers. After putting it through its paces for the week, I came away pleasantly surprised – it’s nowhere near as bad as I had expected it to be. With this doubt set aside, I can confidently say that the Forester XT and the standard Forester are my main choices in this class. However, the most important fact is that the upcoming WRX utilizes essentially the same powertrain as the Forester XT. Consider me very excited.
2014 Subaru Forester XT Gallery