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Published: 05/16/2013 - by Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor
Apart from the fact that the 2014 Subaru Forester 2.0XT's styling is undeniably derivative of the Colonial Viper spacecraft from the Battlestar Galactica television series, this bizarre and eccentric SUV is also blindingly rapid.
As in 6.3 seconds to 60 mph rapid. That's light-years quicker to freeway speeds than its nearest rival.
Now we're not saying we don't appreciate the speed (oh, we do) but whether it matters in a segment driven as much by fuel economy as by utility is the real question. Toyota doesn't think so. It discontinued the V6 in its RAV4. Does Subaru know something its Japanese rival doesn't?
The Defiant Starfighter
Toyota isn't all-knowing, and when it makes a move, smaller companies like Subaru don't always follow. The 2014 Subaru Forester's defiance begins with a turbocharged 2.0-liter flat-4 cranking out 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque from a lowly 2,000 rpm. The engine is coupled exclusively to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that's the defining feature in the Forester's mixed persona. And though it's certainly the most entertaining, this isn't the only powertrain available.
Alternatively, a 170-hp naturally aspirated 2.5-liter flat-4 can be had with either the CVT or a six-speed manual transmission. Opting for the lesser engine means you'll also forgo the Battlestar Galactica-themed nose, 18-inch wheels and dual exhaust, so consider your powertrains carefully. Our tester was fitted with the more powerful engine, making it both fast and weird.
Subaru isn't the only company that still believes in horsepower as a selling point in this segment. Ford and Hyundai will sell you small SUVs with powerful turbocharged engines, too. But both are considerably slower than this Subaru and both — as a benefit of their power and conventional automatic transmissions — feature 3,500-pound tow ratings. The Forester is rated to tow 1,500 pounds.
Who, then, is Subaru's turbocharged SUV for?
The Enlightened Customer
Answering that question with a straight face, a Subaru representative noted that it's for the "enlightened customer" who wants the power of a V6 in a small SUV: possibly someone who lives at elevation where the turbocharged engine won't suffer in the thin air. "They want all the off-road capability and safety of a Forester but are...more interested in getting to trails, carrying gear and all-weather capability than towing."
And in these arenas the 2014 Subaru Forester acquits itself well. But it's daily commuting, child hauling and grocery getting that dominate the use spectrum of all small SUVs. So before the Forester proves its off-road mettle, it needs to show that it can handle the routine tasks the segment demands.
It's here that the CVT plays a key role in defining the Forester's driving character. Abundant low-rpm torque prevents the droning so common when less powerful engines are paired with a CVT. In this regard, the pairing is a success. Small throttle openings and little planning are required in normal driving. Passing is effortless, particularly when using the wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The CVT's Drawbacks
But like most CVTs, this one prevents drivers from enjoying a consistent interface with the Forester's powertrain. It lacks the direct connection between wheel speed and engine speed you'd have in a manual gearbox or a modern automatic. Yes, there's a simulated manual-shift option along with Subaru's Intelligent Drive, which provides three modes: Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp. Sport produces six simulated gears and Sport Sharp yields eight.
Mercifully, the power solves the CVT's biggest problem but the transmission still leaves us cold. Downshifts are only half-heartedly rev-matched, and despite sharpened throttle response in the performance modes, there's always a pause between input and response.
So, the 2014 Subaru Forester isn't all that sporty, yet many will be satisfied by what its transmission can do. Many more won't even notice.
In the Boonies
We pitted the car-based SUV against a trail known to challenge dedicated off-roaders and were impressed with its abilities. Though it struggled in aggressive wheel-lift scenarios, it never stopped pulling itself through frame-twisting holes that would strand many of its competitors. Its X mode (activated via a dash-mounted button) provides genuinely useful hill descent control and makes the engine's otherwise instant torque more manageable in low-grip surroundings.
We pushed it hard, nearly rolling it onto its lid in one slow, off-camber mess of trail, yet the all-wheel-drive system kept finding solutions — aided in part by 8.7 inches of ground clearance.
The entire adventure was accompanied by a dash display of lights and arrows representing torque distribution among all four wheels, which was more distracting than useful. But in the end, the Forester proved that its grip on physics is substantial. And its off-road abilities likely exceed the needs of any normal owner.
The Fastest Subaru?
We've already mentioned the Forester's accelerative abilities, but it should be noted that its run to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds (6.0 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as at a drag strip) is a half-second quicker than Subaru's dedicated sports car, the BRZ. There's mild irony in that, sure. But the fact that the Forester (on its Bridgestone Dueler all-season rubber) stops shorter from 60 mph than the BRZ (119 feet vs. 122 feet) is just silly.
Whether these stats beg for a true performance version of the BRZ or serve only to highlight the absurdity of small, powerful SUVs depends on where in the automotive world your allegiance lies. Whatever the case, this is a small SUV that runs a 14.6-second quarter-mile at 96.1 mph. That's between 0.9 and 2.2 seconds quicker than its direct competitors. No contest.
But wait. There's the downside. During more than 900 miles of mixed driving we recorded 21.6 mpg, which is the second worst fuel economy we've measured in any small SUV in recent memory, trailing only Ford's 2.0-liter turbo-powered Escape. It's also well below the EPA's 25 mpg combined rating. Possibly, Toyota was on to something after all.
Handling performance is average for the class. Lateral acceleration of 0.77g and a 61.8-mph slalom speed put it on par with the Hondas and Toyotas in the segment. And on the road the Forester's 18-inch wheels didn't seem to affect its ride quality or overall temperament. It's comfortable and quick and though its limits won't amaze you, its all-wheel-drive system does allow surprising on-ramp hijinks.
With 68.5 cubes of cargo space when its rear seatbacks are folded flat, the Forester XT's total cargo area is only marginally smaller than the class leader, an unfortunate product of not being able to decouple the optional moonroof from the turbo engine. Skipping the moonroof yields class-leading cargo space in lesser models thanks to a slightly higher roof.
Rear passenger space is ample. Six-footers can sit behind tall front passengers with comfort. Reclining seatbacks help, though there's plenty of headroom despite the moonroof. Front seats are flat with little bolstering, but are comfortable on long hauls.
Subaru's three-knob, multi-button HVAC system is simple and effective for managing two climate zones, but its touchscreen navigation system lacks the interface elegance and resolution of the best infotainment systems from the competition. Above the nav screen is another display, which is driver-configurable to show six different screens, three of which are ironically dedicated to monitoring fuel consumption.
The Final Tally
Our test car is the most expensive trim level Forester available: the 2.0XT Touring. Outfitted with one option (the $2,400 Keyless Access and Start, Eyesight and HID package) it tallied $36,220.
At that price, our 2014 Subaru Forester costs a few hundred dollars less than a fully loaded 2013 Ford Escape, but about $4,300 more than a slower, more efficient but similarly configured 2013 Toyota RAV4.
The bottom line with the Forester XT is two-fold. First, only those who truly need the added power will be able to justify its cost. Any small SUV that approaches the $40,000 milestone makes us think seriously about a bigger SUV with more cargo capacity. Second, nothing in this class or the next can match either the Forester's outright speed or its weirdness.
And none of them look as if they belong in the hands of a Colonial Pilot.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.