When Subaru first offered a turbocharged Forester XT model to US customers for the 2004 model year, the shoe-shaped second-gen model fell into a ready-made competitive set of small, V6-powered crossovers and SUVs. The XT might have been more of a raucous shopping-trip companion than, say, a Ford Escape V6, but the basics of the cars offered a clear differentiation from the naturally aspirated, four-cylinder models found just a bit downmarket. Here in 2013, the V6 breed of crossover in this size class is all but extinct, and turbocharged four-cylinders with the power to compete with the XT are not thick on the ground.
In many ways, the comparative analysis gets most interesting when you start looking around for CUVs to match up with the all-boxes-ticked Forester XT Touring that we had as a tester for a recent week. The top of the line Touring trim means that the Forester comes with features like 10-way power seats, leather, navigation, a Harmon Kardon sound system with HD radio, Bluetooth and more. In fact, our Forester also had the only option package available on the XT Touring; one that included keyless access, HID headlights and Subaru's EyeSight system (adaptive cruise, lane departure warning and pre-collision braking).
And, of course, because of the XT trim, we knew that we were getting one of the most powerful crossovers in this segment, too. Subaru's turbocharged, direct-injection 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder lay under the hood, ready to pump out some 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque at the flex of an ankle. Combined with a light-for-the class curb weight of around 3,600 pounds and Subaru's grippy all-wheel-drive system, the XT feels pretty quick in town and on the freeway.
Add all of that up, and you've got a strong-performing, content-laden crossover, all for the sum of just $36,220 as tested...
The price really threw you there, didn't it? We'll admit that our default mental pricing of a Forester still hovers somewhere in the mid-$20k range – the XT's sticker threw us for a loop, too. What Subaru hopes is that this top-end XT can offer more excitement than the most tricked-out of its mainstream competition, along with nearly as many features as the middle-luxury models that hover just above it.
The price really threw you there, didn't it?
In terms of the performance part, we're nearly onboard. Our second run-in with the XT proved out Zach Bowman's thoughts in his First Drive feature this past January. The boxer turbo has been smoothed out in terms of power delivery and makes good use of its very broad torque curve to provide a kind of effortless, drama-free pull from most any speed. The continuously variable transmission is neither droning nor artificial in most scenarios.
Our biggest complaint with the powertrain is that it lacks the verve of previous generations of turbo'd Foresters, though that's mostly the case in the "Intelligent" (could also be called "Normal") mode of the three-mode driving program selection. Sport and Sport Sharp are the other two options, with Sport Sharp proving the best overall for those who need a blast of adrenaline.
The CVT really does a pretty good job of impersonating a dual-clutch transmission.
Thusly sharped, the XT's throttle pedal goes from rubbery to responsive, and initial acceleration is dramatically improved right off the bat. Here also, the slight turbo lag evident in the 2.0-liter engine is less noticeable, and the action via the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters is a lot quicker. Sharp mode allows the transmission to offer eight fake gears instead of six, and the CVT really does a pretty good job of impersonating a dual-clutch transmission.
We'll say that Sport is a better all-around driving mode than Intelligent in our experience, too – the latter really causing a lot of the XT's power to be dulled. Fair warning: neither Sport nor Sport Sharp modes are available when the Forester has a cold engine. The car must reach peak operating temperatures (noted when the blue water temp light switches off) before Intelligent mode can be overridden. In our experience, this happened after the first five or ten minutes of driving, on average, in a rather chilly climate.
Fair warning: neither Sport nor Sport Sharp modes are available when the Forester has a cold engine.
The XT has a "sport-tuned" suspension that lesser Foresters don't get, but don't be fooled into thinking that this transforms the vehicle into an XL WRX. While grip from the AWD system is good, the skinnier tires, added ride height and softer springs all mean that the CUV will not corner with the same fierceness as its rally-forged brand mate. The XT generally defaults to safely understeering when pushed into a corner, though we will say that it pulls much harder coming out than do any of its prime competitors.
As we listed before, the feature set of the XT Touring is fairly impressive, but we're not convinced that the litany of gizmos quite brings it up to the near-luxury level. While the fun-to-drive factor of the turbocharged Forester is higher than far-costlier crossovers like the Volvo XC60, Acura RDX and maybe even the Audi Q5, the interior design and material quality of the cabin still falls short.
Actually, we never would have even thought to go down this path, had it not been for one of our passengers during our loan period. A female friend of ours, not particularly well-versed in the world of autos, hopped in the backseat for a ride to dinner. Not knowing what she was riding in, the woman asked/guessed, "Is this a new Audi?" Without reading too much into an unschooled, snap judgment, we found it impressive that a layman could mistake a Subaru cabin, even for a moment, for that of the always-vaunted Audi interior.
We found it impressive that a layman could mistake a Subaru cabin... for that of the always-vaunted Audi interior.
And, when you look around, it does feel as though Subaru has raised its game to the level of say, Volkswagen's last generation of cars. We don't mean that as a thinly veiled insult, either. Our test car had reasonable leather (a little too free of natural grain and shiny to feel premium), nice contrast stitching and a subdued suite of black and silver plastics; none of it unlike what you'd expect from a Jetta or a Passat. The noise, vibration and harness quotient is pretty low, too – arguably as quiet as a mainstreamer like the Ford Escape, though less tomb-like than a proper lux crossover like the new RDX. Subaru's audio and navigation interfaces continue to need help, however. In short, the new cabin is nice, but it doesn't differentiate itself in the luxury arena the way the XT engine does in terms of performance.
Even in its basic formulation, the 2014 Forester is usefully sized, with great room in the rear seating and cargo areas especially. It has looks and a driving style that are unlike most of the CUVs in its class, and it should really appeal to the legion of Forester lovers around the world.
With the XT's 2.0T engine added to that equation, we think that a lot of drivers who value exciting vehicles will find just enough to love in the high-po Forester to make it interesting, too. Now that the CVT is less of a penalty box, and despite our longing for a manual transmission with this engine, there's a lot of fun to be had behind the wheel. And, as only the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T, Kia Sportage SX and Ford Escape 2.0T can really match the XT in terms of power output, price and utility, the options are pretty narrow.
Were it our money on the line, we'd probably still save a few grand by opting for the XT without all the niceties of the Touring trim and the technology package. That combination leaves one with a comfortable, well-driving machine that leaves the wallet intact, and the soul unsullied by industry-standard CUV dullness. It may not have a natural home, or a straight-on segment, but the Forester XT wouldn't really be a Subaru if it didn't have just a touch of weird, would it?