A white-gloved security guard waves us to a halt as we approach a gate topped with razor wire. Nearby on a tall pole a surveillance camera stares impassively at our vehicle as our driver steps out for a conference with the sentry.
After a few minutes of animated discussion just out of earshot, a cardboard box is passed around, into which we're obliged to deposit any cameras, cell phones or other recording devices we may have stashed on our person.
Security is clearly tight, but this scene is not playing out at the entrance to a government research lab or the closed set of the next Star Wars movie. We're at the doorstep of the Subaru Test and Development Center in the low mountains about 50 miles north of Tokyo, a place where journalists and their roving eyes are not usually welcome.
Today is different. Subaru has invited us here to its mountaintop lair to see — and drive — a prototype of the upcoming 2014 Subaru Forester, arguably one of the most important cars in its North American lineup.
Behind the Fence
We continue up to a hangarlike garage and are quickly whisked inside, where Mr. Dai, the 2014 Subaru Forester project general manager, is waiting for us with a laser pointer in hand and a PowerPoint projector at the ready. A pair of SUV-shaped objects stand waiting under nearby sheets for the moment of unveiling.
The very first slide sets the tone. It pictures Dai-san standing tall and slender with well-coiffed hair in a tailored suit and designer frames. Next to him is the man who led the development team for the previous-generation Forester, a shorter, stouter fellow with wire-rimmed glasses, a bit less hair and a pen visible in the pocket of his white shirt.
What he's trying to say is this: The all-new 2014 Subaru Forester is more powerful, more efficient and somewhat larger, yet leaner and perhaps a bit more stylish than the current generation it replaces. It's a rare moment of friendly cajoling that we have frankly never before seen in Japanese culture, but it makes us instantly warm up to these guys.
Remove the Sheets
As the wraps come off, we're greeted with a new Forester that indeed looks more powerful and substantial, but also less blocky, too.
It certainly seems bigger than the 2013 Forester sitting nearby, and in fact the 2014 edition is larger in every basic dimension. But it's largely illusory because the increases are small — less than an inch — the sole exception being overall length, which at 180.9 inches is longer by 1.4 inches.
This new Forester is wider, but only by 0.6 inch. Chunkier roof rack rails than last year seem to increase overall height by 1.3 inches, but if you ignore these bolt-ons its true roof height of 66.4 inches represents a mere half-inch gain where it counts. Another 0.9 inch has been added to the wheelbase, now at 103.9 inches.
The most dramatic alteration has to do with the windshield and A-pillars, which have been pulled forward almost 8 inches at the bottom. Good-bye, boxy upright windscreen; hello, grace and aerodynamic efficiency.
Inside, these changes are transformative. The well-finished cockpit feels more airy, and visibility around the windshield pillars is much improved. There's more cabin width at the shoulders to the tune of almost an inch, and the front and rear seats are now an inch farther apart.
You'd think rear legroom would benefit modestly, but the backseat has also been lifted 1.2 inches, so the end result is a massive 3.7-inch increase in rear legroom to 41.7 inches. This and a significantly lower transmission tunnel and a less intrusive front center console make the new backseat a viable three-across proposition for full-grown adults.
All-around seat access is improved, too, thanks to lower rockers that have been sucked in 1.2 inches per side, with extended lower door edges that now close over them to keep mud and slush from collecting where pant legs pass by.
And there's more cargo space with the backseat folded. The 2014 Subaru Forester offers 74.7 cubic feet behind the front seats, some 6.4 more than before. A new power hatch option makes it easier to access, too.
The Goods Under the Hood
The Forester 2.5i model continues on with the same 170-horsepower 2.5-liter flat-4 as last year, but this year it now transmits its power through 17-inch wheels and tires. Last year's five-speed manual and archaic four-speed automatic are history, replaced here with either a six-speed manual or a variable-pulley CVT (continuously variable transmission).
EPA ratings aren't final, but Subaru says the 2.5i six-speed manual will do 2 mpg better overall, while the CVT will best the outgoing automatic by a full 4 mpg.
Meanwhile, the 2.0-liter turbo engine in the Forester 2.0XT is brand-new, but the blatant hood scoop is gone. Instead there's a more muscular grille that subtly directs air into ducting under the hood on its way to the familiar top-mount intercooler. New 18-inch wheels and tires are another giveaway.
This new downsized FA20 engine — a harbinger of what we may see in the Subaru BRZ turbo — has direct injection, a high (for a turbo) 10.6:1 compression ratio, and independently variable intake and exhaust valve timing. It's good for 250 hp on 93-octane unleaded (230 horses on 91 octane) and will scoot from zero to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, according to Subaru.
A high-torque variant of the CVT is the only transmission on the XT, but there are steering paddles and two sport modes: "S" with six-speed gear programming and "S+," which mimics an eight-speed. Driven frugally in the default "I" mode, this powertrain is expected to deliver 23 city/28 highway/25 combined, some 4 mpg better than the weaker 224-hp 2.5-liter turbo it replaces.
Hit the Road
Newly available on the Forester's symmetrical all-wheel-drive system is something called X-mode, a set of off-road drivetrain optimizations that can be triggered via a switch on the dash once vehicle speed drops below 13 mph.
In this mode the differential clutches tighten by 25 percent, throttle response is softened and the transmission holds low gear longer and doesn't lock its torque converter. The brake-based torque-vectoring system more aggressively intervenes to combat wheelspin, and there's an effective hill descent control program.
In terms of its suspension, the 2014 Subaru Forester is similar to last year — struts up front and an upper wishbone/multilink setup in back. But it's all been thoroughly retuned and slightly resized. The front and rear tracks, for example, have been widened by 0.7 and 0.9 inch, respectively. The diameter of the turbo's front brake rotors has been upsized by 0.8 inch. And this generation of Forester now employs electric power steering.
A series of laps around Subaru's high-banked oval and narrow handling course reveals a mixed bag of handling traits. The 2.5i accelerates somewhat smartly compared to the old version, and the suspension is generally better able to soak up bumps and is far more composed if we strike one midcorner. But the new steering is unsatisfyingly vague and doesn't return to center readily enough.
The 2.0 turbo feels decidedly strong, but its CVT is lazy to launch and seems reluctant to "kick down" in simulated passing maneuvers. Steering feel and response are much more to our liking — for a base car — but the directness we associate with a sporty version isn't quite there. Still, it does corner eagerly for an SUV and body roll is well regulated. We could have a bit of fun with this car if the CVT would play along better.
Coming Not So Soon
As we collect our cameras and head out through the gate, we remind ourselves that these were prototypes, and development in these areas may still be ongoing. Mr. Dai's pretty examples in the garage enjoyed auto-show levels of fit and finish, but the ones we actually drove were clearly working test cars that showed signs of previously installed test gear, not to mention a few last vestiges of camouflage tape.
This is to be expected for a car that's still at least six months from the showroom. A lot of these issues could well resolve themselves before the vaguely stated on-sale date of "spring 2013."
But even if they don't work out these kinks, the 2014 Subaru Forester still looks to be a good deal more appealing and capable than the car it replaces. Careful tweaking of key dimensions has generated a lot more useful space, roominess and style without adding excess bloat or weight, and the new engine and transmissions conspire to produce more power and fuel economy.
Mr. Dai, it would seem, has reason to smile. The prospects for his team's generation of Subaru Forester look very bright indeed.