Now in its third year removed from a complete redesign, Subaru’s compact crossover has only a few changes—among them a few new safety, security, and infotainment features. We view the Subaru Forester as one of the best all-round cars in its segment—and we confirmed that judgment when we spent a few months with a turbocharged Forester 2.0XT across a variety of terrains and driving cycles.
The 2016 Subaru Forester is a compact utility vehicle with wagon-like practicality and standard all-wheel drive. It’s got the capabilities of a crossover, the ride and handling of a car, and the all-weather security and off-road capability that Subaru’s known for. It’s the Japanese brand’s best-selling vehicle line—not to mention the winner of our Best Car To Buy 2014 award.
The Forester’s simple, handsome shape manages to be modern without excess flash. Smart shoppers will notice that it excels in subtle ways that many may overlook. Among compact all-wheel-drive vehicles, it’s relatively fuel-efficient, but it offers remarkable interior volume—both for people and their cargo. Its consistently top scores on safety tests are better-known; this year it’s again an IIHS Top Safety Pick+.
The 2014 redesign was hardly a radical rethink: Subaru simply improved almost all of the Forester’s qualities in ways that real-life users value. It’s slightly taller, a little longer between the wheels, and offers superb outward visibility—in an era where too many automakers use roof-crush standards as an excuse for abysmal rearward visibility. The front end manages to be taller without seeming aggressive, though the XT has a few too many different vents, lights, grilles, and accents. In general, though, we’re big fans of Subaru’s latest, more restrained design language than we were of its cartoonish or just plain odd efforts in past years.
Inside, the controls are simple, logical, and easy to use; it’s a car you can drive for the first time without having to study an owner’s manual. Materials—everything from upholsteries to door trim—are better than in previous Forester generations, though we still find Subaru’s soft-touch surfaces slightly sticky to the touch.
Laudably, Subaru has improved the noise suppression, with more insulation behind both the door panels and the instrument panel. Taller drivers may find the front lower seat cushions a little short, but rear passengers have plenty of legroom and the rear seat back folds close to fully flat with a simple one-touch mechanism.
Foresters are offered with two engine choices. The base engine is a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter flat-4, while the more powerful 2.0XT models have a 2.0-liter turbocharged version producing a substantial 250 hp. With the base models, some drivers will prefer the standard 6-speed manual gearbox over the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT)—and Subaru is one of the few makers continuing to offer a manual in its compact crossover. The turbo 2.0XT can only be obtained with the CVT, though drivers can use the SI-Drive system to reprogram the transmission and throttle settings to make the car behave as though it has a 6- or 8-speed automatic, with paddle shifters to produce quick, if simulated, "gear changes.”
Behind the wheel, the Forester falls on the sportier end of the handling scale—far sportier than the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, or Toyota RAV4. And its combination of standard all-wheel drive and almost 9 inches of ground clearance makes bad weather or off-road excursions feel just as secure as conventional travel on pavement. The steering is nicely weighted, the body doesn’t roll much for a tall utility vehicle, and Subaru’s CVT is the least annoying one we know of. Its gas mileage—as high as 27 mpg combined—is at the top of the class as well, though a new crop of smaller and less roomy SUVs now beat that.
The Forester has earned high praise from the IIHS, including a Top Safety Pick+ designation thanks to it's consistent "Good" ratings on all crash tests—including the difficult small overlap frontal crash—and optional safety equipment. The federal government has been equally kind, earning a five-star overall rating in every test except the frontal impact test, where it earned four stars.
Available active-safety features in the Forester include adaptive cruise control as well as Subaru’s excellent EyeSight camera system for spotting road hazards up to 80 meters ahead, and braking to avoid an accident or reduce its impact. The adaptive cruise control only operates at speeds of 25 mph or higher, however.
But the Forester has fewer compromises than comparable (and pricier) vehicles from those two brands. It’s a perfectly practical, sensible choice for carrying five people and quite a lot of their gear in almost any circumstance. Many owners will never discover those off-road capabilities—though there are a lot of Subarus in areas with extreme winter weather.
All Foresters, even the base 2.5i model, come with Bluetooth hands-free calling, audio streaming, a rearview camera, and a 6.2-inch touchscreen for basic infotainment functions. There are now four trim levels: base, Premium (the most popular), Limited, and the top Touring trim level.
The 2.5i Premium adds a 7.0-inch version of the new corporate infotainment system, 17-inch alloy wheels, and a 10-way power driver’s seat plus reclining rear seatback. Manual-gearbox Premium models have the All-Weather Package as standard; it’s an option on CVT-equipped versions.
Moving up to the Limited model, the CVT is mandatory but you add automatic climate control, an upgraded instrument cluster, perforated leather seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, fog lamps, and a power rear liftgate.
The top-of-the-line Touring model adds premium audio and infotainment. It comes with an eight-speaker, 440-watt stereo, plus keyless ignition and a single-touch folding rear seat back.
The base 2016 Forester 2.5i with a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four and CVT boasts EPA ratings of 24 mpg city, 32 highway, 27 combined, which falls to 25 mpg combined if you specify the 6-speed manual. Direct injection in 2.0XT models helps them attain an EPA combined rating of 23/28/25 mpg, though shoppers should note that premium fuel is recommended in the Forester XT turbo models.