The 2014 Subaru Forester Drive Event (Review)

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I spent March 6-8, 2013 on Vancouver Island, off of B.C. World renowned for its beauty, its vistas, its desolate stretches and its wet weather, it is, without question, a bucket list place to visit. I’ve been here before but I always love coming back.

For these three days, it became the backdrop for Subaru Canada’s launch and test drive event for their new 2014 Forester.

red XT sunset

On the morning of March 6, I packed my gear, kissed the family good-bye and flew from Edmonton to Vancouver, and then on to Nanaimo. By the way, the Nanaimo airport is the cutest airport in the world. And the flight from Vancouver to Nanaimo is 14 minutes long. Awesome.

Nanaimo sign

My Forester XT was waiting for me at the Nanaimo airport. It’s instantly recognizable as a Subaru, a Forester even, but styling is fresh, and has some nice new touches including very nice wheels. The XT adds a couple of aggressive splashes to the slightly more sedate styling of the 2.5i – it’s immediately noticeable at the front.

headlights

The 2014 is an all-new platform, and it is marginally bigger in every aspect than the previous generation. It’s taller, wider, longer. The additional space is used wisely. The A-pillar was moved forward a significant 8.9 inches, allowing for a new front-quarter window. The rear door openings are wider and access is excellent through any of the doors, which open very wide.

wheel

So, what differentiates the two models (the 2.5i and the XT) from each other? It’s not just styling. The XT takes the already great 2.5i, and stuffs a direct injection, turbocharged 2.0-litre boxer engine into it. (This engine deserves to be in the BR-Z STi – but I’ve said too much) This mill sings, to the tune of 250 horsepower at 5600 RPM and 258 lb.ft of torque at a very accessible 2000 RPM. But Subaru didn’t just give it bigger balls. They equipped it with higher spring rates, low-friction dampers and a rear subframe – all of which make a difference in handling, ride and stability.

By the way, the XT’s turbo (as well as the 2.5i’s engine) will both run harm-free on regular fuel. Premium is recommended for the XT, but only to help it yield the full 250 horsepower. It drops a few horsepower with regular gas, but no harm will come to your engine.

engine bay

After a couple of instructions and an introduction to my Aussie-accent navigation guide, whom I named Audrey, I was on my way. By the way, Audrey sounds hot. The first half of the drive, while scenic and gorgeous, was a highway run for the most part. It allowed the Forester to stretch its legs, and it proved itself as a fantastic highway car. Planted at all speeds, riding very smoothly and comfortably and never allowing any big hits to make its way through to the cabin, it soaked up the miles with ease.

mountain drive sunset

The Forester XT’s interior catches up with the most current Subaru interiors. That is to say it has soft-touch plastics and smooth, simple lines. Is it pretty? Not a chance. It seems that Subaru is still willing to forego any real stretch into adventurous styling, sticking instead to the functional. Hey, it’s not a work of beauty, but it does everything really well.

dash wide

The heated, power-adjustable leather seats are comfortable, albeit a bit slippery. I’d also prefer a little more effective bolstering for sportier driving. The perforated leather looks good front and back, and sports some nice stitching.

front seats

This high trim came loaded. In the center of the dash is a hooded bin holding two small screens – one for the climate control system and a color driver information screen. Below that sits a touch-screen navigation/media system – feeding an excellent harman/kardon audio unit – and at the bottom, the dual-zone automatic climate control.

The bottom of the stack opens up to a very usable open storage area. The center console starts behind that, and houses the “gear” selector, a traditional parking brake, two cupholders and an armrest with storage underneath.

drivers view

The cabin always felt roomy for my 5’10” frame. The sunroof does eat into the headroom, but I still had plenty. The rear seats are very comfortable, although they lack any sort of bolstering whatsoever. Legroom is great, access is very good and there are two sets of LATCH connectors for kids’ seats. The middle seatback folds down to become an armrest with two cupholders. Otherwise there’s not a lot going on. No adjustable air vents, 12V or 120V plugs. Nothing. That’s too bad, because it’s a bit spartan in terms of convenience and tech.

rear seats

The base engine feeds through a CVT or a manual transmission, the turbo only comes with the CVT.

Off the line, it jumps ahead but with the typical CVT smoothness – as with most engines that provide enough power, the CVT driving experience was excellent. The engine always had ample of power on tap, and that allowed the CVT to wind up when accelerating and quickly bring the revs down to within reason. I typically dislike CVTs with smaller, less powerful engines, because they will cause the transmission to hang up at higher RPMs and sit there and whine until you get to where you need to be. Not so here.

drive modes

Want to make things a bit more sporty? All the XT models (but not the normally-aspirated 2.5 Foresters) have three drive modes, selectable with buttons on the steering wheel. It starts in “i” mode, which is essentially normal driving/eco mode. To pick things up a notch, there’s Sport mode, which will sharpen the response a bit, and hold on to revs longer. Put the CVT into manual shift mode (using the gear selector or the shift paddles), and the CVT will simulate 6 gear ratios. Finally there’s the strangely-named Sport # (Sharp) mode. It tightens the car’s throttle response up even more, and reprograms the CVT to simulate 8 gear ratios. Manually shift through them, and it feels as though you have a high-performance 8-speed auto doing the work for you. It works really well.

green 2.5i forest

The halfway point from Nanaimo was Port Alberni, where we were instructed to take a break, and grab a coffee. A crew waiting for us topped up the fuel and handed us a Starbucks card. After a quick snack and caffeine infusion, we were back on the road.

green 2.5 at ocean

The second part of the trip was the interesting one. Twisty, undulating, meandering through the countryside. Often flying through hair-raising switchbacks and crazy off-camber, acute angle corners, it was an absolute blast! The Forester absolutely impressed me here. It’s a tall vehicle, and you’ll definitely find some body lean around those corners, and yes, you’ll feel the height. But it never felt like it was going to come unglued and it never felt very heavy. I was flying through some of those corners at speeds that were easily… well, let’s say probably illegal. Never once did the vehicle feel unsettled. It always came up with enough power, even up the steep climbs (thank goodness for passing lanes!) and the all-wheel drive system did a fantastic job making sure the front end grabbed, and the rear end kept up.

far bay

Speaking of the all-wheel drive system, it’s very, very good. Transparent during normal, dry road driving, the system uses active torque splitting and is very effective at shifting power to where it’s needed when things get a bit hairy.

Ucluelet

The drive terminated in Ucluelet, a beautiful place that is far removed from civilization, yet offered us a ridiculous amount of civility. Because Subaru put us up at the stunning Black Rock Resort.

Black Rock Resort

Stunning because of the architecture, stunning because of the location and the views, stunning because of the hospitality and the incredible food. I highly recommend it, and I’m not sure what all the rooms are like, but mine was a 1-bedroom suite with a bathroom that is practically a spa, a living room with a fireplace and a full kitchen – and a view to die for. That night, Subaru gathered us all in the Wine Cellar Room for a dinner that can only be described as exceptional.

sunrise sunset

The next morning, breakfast was served and followed by a classroom session where we learned more about the new generation of Forester, how it was developed and where Subaru was coming from as it approached the redesign. I found it interesting that the Honda CR-V was used as a reference point occasionally. Subaru is positioning the Forester as a true SUV. A quick walk-around of both models (which were parked beside the 2013 models for comparison) and we were off.

walkaround

The new Forester offers EyeSight on the upper trim levels. This combines a lot of driver assistance tech into one package – pre-collision throttle management (to stop those pesky drives through store windows), pre-collision braking (to stop those pesky rear-end accidents that are your fault), lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control.

center stack

The morning was spent in the 2.5i paired with a new 6-speed manual transmission. This engine puts out 170 horsepower at 5800 RPM, and 174 lb.ft of torque at 4800 RPM. We were sent into the mountainous passes we came through on the way to Ucluelet. I wondered how the 2.5i with 80 fewer horsepower would do, but truthfully, I had just as much fun with it and the manual transmission as with the turbo XT and the CVT. The manual is slick, although not Honda slick, and the ratios suit the car well. It never felt underpowered, and the suspension, while feeling slightly less buttoned down than the Turbo’s, was very effective. It soaked up everything the highway threw at it, remaining comfortable at all times, and handling those corners with aplomb.

mountain driving

At lunch, we convened in Tofino, at the famous Wickaninnish Inn, where we were treated to lunch at The Pointe Restaurant. This location is sterling, to be sure, but nothing beats the views from the restaurant.

wickaninnish inn

It juts out over the surf – during storms, the waves splash on to the restaurant’s windows. The view of the surf is simply unparalleled, and the receptionist was overheard taking reservations for over a year in advance.

The Pointe view

After that, we got back on the highway toward Ucluelet, but took a turn onto a deserted road. Behind barricades sits a beautiful oceanside golf community called Wyndansea. It only got so far before the money ran out, and it’s in receivership now. 360 acres, sitting there. Doing nothing. Just waiting for some Subaru Foresters to come on a conquest. And they can. The 2014 Forester has 220 mm (8.7″) of ground clearance, more than any of its competitors.

Wyndansea

It was a strange feeling, almost like a ghost town, driving down perfectly paved roads, complete with streetlights, hydrants, etc. Not a soul to be found. Except our guides from VDG (Vehicle Dynamics Group) that had set up several off-road courses to test out the Forester’s chops. There were gravel roads, up and down hills, tight corners, and a hill descent course where we tested out the X-Mode.

xmode

X-Mode is a low-speed (activated below 20 km/h, turns itself off over 40 km/h) off-road driving mode, switched on with a console-mounted button – it comes with all CVT-equipped models. It uses electronics to control brakes, engine, transmission, the all-wheel drive and the differentials to save your butt when you head off the beaten path. Letting the car do its own thing, and not touching the brake or the gas is a creepy sensation, but the car got it right every time, controlling every motion with the brakes and differentials.

hill descent

 

We also tested it on an incline with rollers under one side. We were first given a Hyundai Tucson to try it in, which had a very difficult time getting any grip whatsoever. The Forester quickly shifted all the torque to the side with wheels on the road, and got up the incline just fine.

incline test

 

Finally, there was a hill climb. If you’ve ever been off-road, this wouldn’t be that impressive, and is probably closer to soft-roading. But the incline was likely more significant than 99.9% of Foresters will ever see, and the substrate was gravel, and I was very impressed by the way X-Mode handled the ascent.

hill climb

After these adventures, it was time to call it a day and head back to the hotel, where we enjoyed dinner and some great company.

Friday morning came, and after breakfast, it was time to pack up our Foresters.

Foresters in front of hotel

A power liftgate is finally an option, and it’s activated on the dash, the tail gate itself or your key fob. The cargo capacity is large (974 litres), the opening is very accessible and the wheel wells don’t intrude into your space. Fold the 60/40 split rear seats down using small pull-up knobs (or the cool power-actuated seat release switches in the trunk), and you’re looking at a best-in-class 2115 litres. Nice.

trunk

Fuel economy ratings range from 8.3 L/100 km in the city and 6.2 L/100 km on the highway for the 2.5i with a CVT to 8.9 L.100 km in the city and 7.2 L/100 km on the highway for the XT. Truthfully, I never paid attention to what I achieved because this was about experiencing the car’s abilities over three days. The only time I checked was on the last day. Over the course of the 2 hour, 180 kilometer trip – through those same crazy mountain passes, hard on the go pedal, uphill (some 12% and 18% grades!) and often exceeding the speed limit by 30 km/h or more, as well as some more typical highway travel, I averaged around 11.5 L/100 km (20.5 mpg). This in the XT with the turbo. Not bad, considering how aggressively I was driving the entire time. The fuel tank holds 60 litres.

bagding

Once we got through Nanaimo and to the airport, we were all on our way home – wherever that was.

The Forester is important for Subaru. It represented 23% of their sales last year, and it embodies their key attributes of adventure and versatility, as well as safety and longevity. During the presentation, it was very clear that passenger safety is part of the Subaru brand DNA. They brought up a ton of little things that appear in the Forester. Many of them aren’t requirements, but were things that mattered to Subaru. Things like a wider back door sill, with a larger non-slip surface – for your kids. I appreciate details like that.

front:rear quarter

When can you get the 2014 Forester? It showed up at dealers while we were at the Test Drive event, so if this is your kind of ride, you can check them out right now. They start at $25,995 for the base 2.5i with a manual transmission, and go up to $37,995 for a maxed-out XT (including Navigation, EyeSight, and everything else). With freight and taxes, you’ll have a tough time getting much higher than 40 grand. Very competitive, considering what you get.

blue xt downhill

The Forester is absolutely MY kind of ride. Our family is considering ditching our much-loved Honda Odyssey van. We no longer need the extra space for a stroller, a playpen, or the multitude of other gamechangers that infants require. We want something that has tidier proportions, but is roomy enough for 5. We want something that offers plenty of cargo space for when we head to the cabin or the mountains. We want something that drives well in the city and on the highway, and gets reasonable fuel economy in both places. And we want something that will keep us safe, isn’t a complete drag to drive and will last us a long time. Pretty nasty checklist, no? It’s a tough one to satisfy. But I found myself liking almost everything about the new Forester, and being able to check off every need and want. And with Subaru keeping it under $40,000, it makes this vehicle a serious contender for anyone in the market, including my family. Not only would I recommend the new Forester, I’d also put my own money up. This could be the new Wildsau family ride. I’d go with a loaded-up white XT, thank you very much. Stay tuned…

Thank you kindly to our hosts from Subaru for the opportunity to check out the Forester, and for the amazing canvas of Vancouver Island they chose as the backdrop for this adventure. It was a great time, and they introduced a great revision to the Forester. Even if you can’t drive the 2014 Forester in a test drive event, make sure you add the island to your list of places to visit if you haven’t. It’s stunning, and offers so many unique things to see and do.

All pictures here are from this 3-day event.

I’ve done a full review on the 2014 Forester since this event – if you’re interested in checking that out, you’ll find it here.

white XT big tree

Disclosure: Subaru Canada paid for my airfare, accommodations, meals and fuel and provided the vehicles for this test drive event.

If you enjoyed this review, feel free to check out more of them under my vehicle reviews tab at the top of my blog.

beach

blue XT on inlet

console

door ledge

side view mirror detail

harman:kardon

upper center stack

white XT face

mushroom

dead old growth forest

flowers

inlet

sunset

nightfall on the bay

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