The Subaru Forester, with its rugged disposition and all-wheel drive prowess, has long been a favorite in snow-belt states. Turns out, it should also resonate with customers on the brighter side of the country as well.

Here in the Sonoran desert, somewhere southwest of Tucson, Ariz., the latest version of the popular crossover is showing why.

Careening down a dirt road and kicking up dust, the 2014 Forester gives its occupants a surprisingly smooth ride. Blazing across a private racetrack, it flaunts good acceleration and generous stability through tight turns. Climbing up a rocky embankment, it earns some legitimate off-road credibility.

Back in reality, plodding through traffic-clogged Interstate 10, it demonstrates a few features that more practical and less adventurous car buyers will find equally appealing.

The 2014 Forester is significantly different than its previous generation, offering customers a bigger cabin, more cargo space and some serious improvements under the hood and in fuel economy.

From its beginnings as a wagon 13 years ago, this Forester completes the model's transition into a full-fledged crossover. There are substantial changes to appreciate.

One example: Engineers pushed the car's front pillar forward by eight inches and extended the windshield, allowing for great visibility and, once you look past a plethora of dust-choked trailer parks, a beautiful view of the Santa Catalina Range. Subaru lengthened its panoramic moonroof too. Along with a boost in seat height, those alterations give the driver a terrific view, whether its road or scenery.

But it's not only what's outside that makes the Forester a surprisingly fun car to drive, it's what's inside too. There are some technical and performance enhancements that really put the ' 14 Forester, at dealerships in March, at or near the forefront of its crossover class.

Read on to find out how they help the Forester:

The Basics

The Basics

MSRP: $22,820 to $33,820
Invoice: $21,995 to $32,995

Engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder that produces 170 horsepower or 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine offered in XT models that produces 250 horsepower. The latter is based on the same engine that’s in Subaru’s BRZ sports-car standout.

Transmission: A six-speed manual is offered, though Subaru expects the bulk of its sales to carry its completely redeveloped continuously variable transmission (CVT), an upgrade over its first iteration.

Seating: 5.

Cargo: Capacity increases 9 percent from the Forester’s previous generation to 74.7 cubic feet of space, the best in the CUV class. A caveat: That’s with the rear seats down. With rear seat up, the ’14 Forester ranks third behind the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 in terms of space offered.

Choose a trim level with the panoramic moonroof and approximately 3 cubic feet of space are lost. (Worth the tradeoff, incidentally, unless you plan on utilizing every inch of the space).

Fuel Economy

Fuel Economy

Manual-transmission models expect to achieve 22 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway. Models with the CVT earn 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway, while the turbocharged XT gets 23 mpg city/28 mpg highway.

Note that Subaru recommends using premium gasoline on XT models.

Exterior

Exterior

The Forester completes its evolution from station wagon to crossover utility vehicle, which makes sense considering America's growing crush on CUVs. In doing so, it grows substantially, which goes against the industry trend of smaller and leaner cars. Compared to the previous model, the '14 Forester is longer, wider, taller and heavier.

Specifically, it is 1.4 inches longer, bringing it closer to the industry average and 1.4 inches taller. The driver's seat has been raised 1.5 inches. Most significantly, there's 8.7 inches of ground clearance, which helps give Subaru some more cred in the off-road department. It's about 240 pounds heavier. To the credit of the Forester's engineers, the growth comes with no ill effects on fuel economy.

The car gets heavier, incidentally, because engineers added a significant amount of high-tensile steel to the front-quartering sides of the vehicle to account for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's new small-overlap crash test. It's there to keep occupants safer in one of the most common types of fatal accidents.

Purists will note the XT models get their own distinctive grilles to set them apart from other trim levels. Overall, the exterior design becomes a little less boxy and a little more refined than previous Foresters.

Interior

Interior

Subaru has taken flack for its plain and plastic interiors of the past. While not perfect, the Forester has made advances.

Start with this no-brainer: Designers have replaced the square cup holders of the past with round ones.

And it's both longer and wider. Rear occupants get an additional 3.5 inches of legroom than on the last Forester. I spent some time sitting in the back seats. There's now enough room for a 6-foot-0 occupant to enjoy a far more comfortable ride. In the front, there's another inch between driver and front passenger.

All the seats, in fact, have been redesigned. In the back, parents will be pleased to hear that rear seats have been redesigned to better fit the shape of car seats, and the rear doors have been widened to ease entry and exit.

In the front, there's now a tilt-adjustable head rest and redesigned seats that help drivers stay comfortable over the duration of a six-hour drive. Part of that comfort comes from the fact Subaru moved the instrument panel forward by 4.5 inches, so there's no need to lurch out of the driver's seat to reach it.

The simplicity of the center dashboard is also a big plus: a screen and three big knobs. There's no distraction of trying to figure out which button you're pushing here.

The simplicity of the interior still makes the Forester ultimately look a little plain at times, but it's a small quibble that most consumers won't mind. There's no question that on the inside, it's both bigger and better. 

Driving Dynamics

Driving Dynamics

In a few short hours of testing, we ripped across curvy dirt roads in the Arizona desert, climbed a rock-strewn hill and twisted around a race track littered with tight turns. In every case, the Forester proved itself to be an utterly stable vehicle.

Even if you're not pushing the car beyond ordinary limits, that blend of stability and versatility will translate nicely for everyday commuters who face a range of weather and traffic conditions.

The redesigned symmetrical all-wheel drive system maximizes traction, and Subaru has added a system called X-Mode that electronically augments the car's all-wheel drive by controlling hill descent at lower speeds and distributing torque across the sides of the car.

Although it comes at a fuel-economy price -- it gets lower gas mileage and Subaru recommends premium fuel, to boot -- the XT Turbo model is tremendous fun to drive. The base CVT model comes with a 0-to-60 time of 9.5 seconds, which felt pretty ordinary. The CVT is more refined than its past iteration. It's an upgrade that prospective buyers should not overlook, but it gets noisy and slightly lags while accelerating at higher speeds.

Tech and Infotainment

Tech and Infotainment

Customers complained about the last Forester's audio system, so Subaru revamped it with an eight-speaker system implemented by Harman Kardon.

Overall, the biggest beef with the Forester is that using its multifunction display is not very intuitive and a step behind competitors. It takes a while to figure out, and then some.

Its Touring model comes with a 6.1-inch navigation screen in addition to the standard LCD screen at the top of the center stack. Information on fuel economy, outside temperature, tire pressure and climate control are displayed there, and it looks cluttered.

Another small annoyance: Trip mileage, displayed above the odometer, disappeared when the cruise control was in use. Turn off the cruise control, and the trip information returned.

In terms of safety equipment, a rear-view camera comes standard on all models except the base Forester. It seems odd to omit it from the base model, considering the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is poised to make rear-view cameras standard on all new cars anyway. Optional packages include Subaru's EyeSight system, which adds some pre-collision braking and throttle control, adaptive cruise control and lane-departure and sway warnings.

Bottom Line

Bottom Line

When you're a mainstream automaker making a mainstream car, it takes some chutzpah to compare your vehicle to both a Porsche Cayenne and a Land Cruiser.

That's what Subaru did during a presentation to reporters, sizing up the Forester's 0-to-60 speed against the Cayenne's and its off-road performance against the Land Cruiser's slope-angle limit.

No one is going to confuse the Forester with those cars. But to Subaru's credit, if there's some weird corner of the universe where German engineering and a mud-spraying SUV intersect to form a durable Japanese automotive offering that can appeal to adventurous spirits and families alike, they have found it.

The Forester and Cayenne have comparable 0-to-60 mph times, and the Forester and Land Cruiser both boast 36-degree slope limits, per Subaru's internal testing. So perhaps it's proper to say that Forester nods to the spirits of those more esteemed vehicles.

Speaking of bravado, it takes even greater gumption to totally gut and redesign a car at the height of its popularity over a 13-year period. We all know the cliché, "If it's not broken, don't fix it."

Subaru ignored that advice, and is better for it, crafting a far better automobile than the outgoing model, one that should appeal to a wide audience.

Consider that Consumer Reports ranked Subaru as the most reliable car brand last year, and along with the Mazda CX-5, the new Forester should be right at the top of any CUV shopping list.



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