Car Reviews First Drives

2019 Subaru Forester First Drive: Improving What Customers Want Most

Safety, cargo room, and amenities are priorities, power not so much

Safety, cargo room, and amenities are priorities, power not so much

There’s something soothing and reliable about a Subaru Forester, a crossover whose last two generations  were both named Motor Trend SUV of the Year. So it was with great anticipation that we came to Asheville, N.C. to get behind the wheel of the 2019 model.

The Forester has a reputation for getting families and their gear wherever they need to go, whatever the conditions. Perversely, traveling to the Carolinas that had been battered for days by Hurricane Florence, was an appropriate way to test the mettle of the latest iteration.

Asheville is far enough inland that it got pelted with rain but not hurricane-force winds. The sun even came out for our drive along gorgeous roads with enough curves and rough pavement to see what the 2019 Forester is made of.

The chassis and suspension are stellar. The Forester becomes the fourth vehicle to move to the new Subaru Global Platform that underpins the Impreza, Crosstrek, all-new three-row Ascent, and now the Forester. The ride quality is excellent on the revised suspension. A more rigid body and heavy use of structural adhesive ensure the ride is comfortable and free of excessive noise, harshness or annoying vibrations. Body roll is almost nonexistent.

Steering is effortless but you still feel like you are the one driving; it’s not a numbed-out experience. Subaru redesigned the steering to reduce the delay between input and response and added torque vectoring for better cornering. Brakes are smooth and controlled; less pedal stroke before braking gives the driver confidence.

Our biggest quibble is with the engine, which is underpowered. The Forester debuts a revised 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine that generates 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque. It is now direct injection and the continuously variable transmission was redesigned with a lighter and quieter torque converter.

Subaru is convinced consumers like the sensation of shifting so there is a seven-speed manual mode with paddle shifters for the CVT on the Sport and Touring. For those who agree, the good news is that it does a good impersonation. For those who dismiss the exercise as foolish, the good news is that it isn’t distracting.

But the engine does not have enough power for our liking. It takes an inexcusable amount of time to get to highway speeds, especially after about 60 mph, and passing at highway speeds requires plenty of runway to get it done. The engine is also loud and sounds like it is working too hard to get to speed, especially on any kind of incline. For those who enjoy a leisurely cruise, the crossover’s initial torque might make this not an area of concern.

Subaru dropped its 250-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four from the lineup because the take rate was only five percent, suggesting power is not a priority for the Forester buyer. Also gone is the six-speed manual that was standard on lower trims

New for 2019 is auto start/stop. The only other model to have the fuel-savings system in the U.S. is the upcoming Crosstrek hybrid. Start/stop can be turned off but must be done each time you turn the car on. If you are a hot shoe, the slight hesitation between foot on the pedal and restart will be noticeable. Interestingly, the car will not turn itself off in a variety of scenarios where it thinks you will need instant power, such as when the turn signal is on for a quick getaway, a light has turned green so you need not stop as planned, or at a high altitude. Another feature, Auto Vehicle Hold, lets you take your foot off the brake while stopped at a light.

Start/stop contributes to best-in-class fuel efficiency of 33 mpg (7.1 L/100 km) on the highway—with AWD. That equates to 548 miles (882 km) or about nine hours between gas station stops for the strong of bladder. It gets 26 mpg (9 L/100 km) in the city for a combined 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km).

Style-wise the Forester has not changed much and that was deliberate; the belief is loyal buyers don’t want dramatic change. Let’s face it, even a completely camouflaged Forester looks like a Forester. The updates include a character line and some sculpting on the sides, nicer materials, larger rear seat with more legroom, foot room under the seat, and places to stash things. Heating and cooling vents were redone to be more quiet and efficient and keep those tootsies warmer.

Recognizing that Foresters like to travel, there is an impressively large cargo area for gear with a flatter floor, better lighting and a 51.2-inch wide rear gate opening—up 5.3 inches—that dwarfs most in its class and even some in the next-largest segment. That is all the more impressive given that the Forester grew slightly in size but remains midpack in the segment in terms of length and is more narrow than most of the competition, which owners appreciate when parking. Thinner doors made the interior 1.2 inches wider. There are also more roof tiedowns to strap on just about anything, including a roof tent. All important given that 47 percent of Forester owners hike and 45 percent own a dog.

Among the helpful new touches: Subaru finally added auto door locks, which can be set so all doors unlock when the driver touches the door to unlock it. The sun visor is wider, the seats more comfortable.

All-wheel drive is standard and Subaru has enhanced X-Mode which provides traction when the vehicle starts moving. The new dual-mode adds a second setting to add traction when the vehicle is already underway and bogs down in deep snow or dirt.

Subaru prides itself on being on the forefront of safety and the 2019 Forester gets more technology and expects to achieve the highest safety ratings.

The EyeSight package of driver-assist tech is now standard on all trim levels and Subaru takes it to the next level with the introduction of DriverFocus to battle distracted driving. Offered only on the top Touring trim for now, it reads the eyes and head position for signs the driver is tired or looking down, likely at a phone, instead of the road. After three seconds of inattentiveness, it will beep a warning. The problem is that the Subaru has a plethora of systems that beep warnings, such as lane departure. During our evaluation drive it became hard to tell what was beeping and why, which runs the risk of the driver ignoring them all.

The other advantage of DriverFocus is it can recognize up to five drivers and saves information such as seat and mirror adjustments, climate preferences, and more. As for lane keep assist, the system is extremely mild in nudging the car back into place and turns itself off if it cannot read the lane markings.

The stronger front end absorbs energy better in a crash and there are double pretensioners in the front seatbelts to keep the body well strapped in prior to impact. All this resonates with the Forester’s consumers, which tend to be women and families.

The infotainment system is similar to the one in the Crosstrek and Ascent. No rear seat entertainment system exists, but there is an available kit to hook up your own devices.

The base trim has more standard equipment than the past, and for 2019 Subaru adds a new sports trim with 18-inch wheels and orange trim to continue to grow the model that accounts for 27 percent of Subaru sales in the U.S., second only to the Outback, and which sells with few incentives.

The 2019 Forester starts at $25,270 USD for the base model that accounts for 15 percent of sales; $27,670 USD for Premium; which is the volume trim level accounting for about 38 percent of sales; $29,770 USD for the new Sport that is expected to attract 15 percent of the mix; $31,770 USD for Limited which is 22 percent of U.S. sales; and $35,270 USD for the 10 percent who pop for Touring.

The 2019 Forester is on sale now and should be in dealerships October 1. Subaru is a brand that knows its vision and its buyers well. The improvements should resonate well, yet again.