Subaru Product Line Manager Todd Hill sits shotgun as we barrel down a barren wash road somewhere within the Sonoran desert. Our field of view is expansive, thanks to a few of the many changes implemented in the design of the all-new 2014 Subaru Forester.
Pushing the narrower A-pillars forward while pulling the side mirrors back on the doors creates a solariumlike cockpit, from which our chaperone-turned-co-driver, Todd, can attentively scan the dusty road ahead. It doesn't feel very treacherous, as this new Forester features a revised all-wheel-drive system and reprogrammed Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) setup that keeps our slip angles in check and our wheels on the road.
This makes Todd happy, and more importantly, will likely make Forester buyers even happier. Long known for its all-weather capability, the 2014 Subaru Forester is a further refinement of a smart package that's well tailored to the average crossover buyer.
Handles the Dirt as Well as the Road
As our next stopover peers into view, we learn that we could've navigated here entirely on pavement. Subaru instead saw it opportune to drive over miles of roughly maintained, washboard-sectioned dirt road. In most cases, this is exactly the type of road most crossovers in this segment would avoid, but not this Forester.
Along with a new body shell that's 50 percent stiffer than before, this Forester also has 8.7 inches of ground clearance. That's more than a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The rest of the suspension is similar to the previous model, so there are MacPherson struts up front and double wishbones in back. Together, the setup allows the Forester to not only survive this road, it actually makes it fun.
Our all-season tires soon transition from dirt to driveway as we arrive unscathed at a private racetrack facility to further test the Forester's new chops. A Subaru Forester at a racetrack? It's not an obvious combination, but Subaru thinks the Forester is nimble enough these days to impress us even on a twisty piece of tarmac.
Two New Transmissions, One New Engine
The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine carries over from last year's model. It generates 170 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque while the vehicle itself weighs an extra 50 pounds or so depending on the model.
Last year's transmissions, however, get chucked in favor of a new six-speed manual in lieu of the five-speed and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) instead of the four-speed automatic, both of which provide a most welcome gain in fuel efficiency. The six-speed (22 city/29 highway) finds an extra 2 mpg in both EPA-estimated city and highway tests, while the CVT (24 city/32 highway) trounces the old slushbox with gains of 3 and 5 mpg respectively.
In more exciting news, the Forester XT model now sports an all-new 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that develops 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. This is the same basic engine used in the Subaru BRZ sports car, where it makes 200 hp. Subaru redesigned the fuel injection (it's solely direct, rather than a combination of direct and port injection), lowered the compression ratio a notch (10.6:1) and added a twin-scroll turbocharger, good for 17.1 psi of boost when maximum power is summoned.
This results in Subaru's highest specific engine output for the U.S. market (125.1 hp/liter) and it's channeled through an internally reinforced, high-torque CVT (23 city/28 highway), and a CVT only. The power figures are achieved on the recommended 93-octane fuel, though Subaru notes that 87 octane will work fine if you're OK with a 10 percent reduction in power.
Ready To Handle Any Kind of Road
As we blow past our bright orange STI pace car following the sighting lap, speed builds quickly and quietly, with light acceleration oscillations from the CVT riding the turbo engine's torque curve. Bury the throttle to pass and the CVT kick-down will come in a half second at best. Do this in Manual mode and it won't come at all.
The base Forester's six-speed manual still makes business sense from a cost standpoint, but for the majority of future Forester buyers, the CVT is most efficient and best suited to overall functionality. Highest mpg figures aside, the quick, flexible nature of the CVT allows engineers to capitalize on Subaru's electronically controlled, continuously variable transfer clutch, supplanting the six-speed's passive, viscous-locking center coupling.
With the mild road feedback transmitted through an energy-saving electronic power steering rack, we know in our hearts that the production run of Foresters will probably never see a racetrack. However, the decent cornering balance, combined with the way the brakes endured 40-something turns tells us that this Forester isn't likely to disappoint on a highway on-ramp.
The Touring model we're in features a 6.1-inch touchscreen navigation screen with an additional color LCD above it. Though resolution on the main screen isn't stellar, the system features the latest suite of smartphone-integrating apps, even one called Aha that will text-to-speech the news feeds of any forsaken Facebook junkies.
The smaller LCD is used to display information for the climate controls, fuel mileage and a fun-over-function AWD animation. Lastly, it also doubles as a rearview camera feed, a feature that is now standard on all but base models of the Forester. The rest of the interior remains delightfully simple considering how much technology is buried with the controls.
The Forester's exterior footprint expands marginally in every direction, which proves more noticeable inside than out. Rear legroom is up 3.7 inches over the last model, a substantial increase that makes it far more livable in back than before. With the rear seats folded, there are now 74.7 cubic feet of cargo space, an increase of 6.4 cubic feet over its predecessor.
With a base price of $22,820, the new 2014 Subaru Forester costs slightly less than the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, but still more than the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage. Factor in the Forester's standard all-wheel drive and the equation tilts further in favor of the Subaru.
Look beyond the Forester's obvious all-weather credentials and it still stacks up well in the segment. Whether it's passenger space, cargo room or the latest features, this Forester has all the bases covered. And that includes performance if you opt for the XT, an option that not all of its competitors offer.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.