Should Subaru still be considered a niche car manufacturer? In some ways it still is as its product line and sales are skewed toward utility vehicles. At the same time, this manufacturer has seen its US sales triple since 2007, an amazing trajectory that no other manufacturer has matched.
Indeed, Subaru sales are now approaching 50,000 units per month, and are just behind Kia and ahead of GMC. With only three factories in the world, including one in the US (Lafayette, Indiana), this Japanese manufacturer is not simply surviving, but thriving and making do with what it has.
A recent weekly media fleet driver was a 2016 Subaru Forester 2.5i Premium model. It provided a very good comparison with my wife’s 2013 Toyota RAV4, one of several competing models in the compact utility vehicle segment. I’ve driven a handful of these models, including the Nissan Rogue, Hyundai Tucson, and the Ford Escape.
Other competitors include the Kia Sportage, Dodge Journey, Honda CR-V, Volkswagen Tiguan, and the Chevrolet Equinox. Seating for five, standard front-wheel drive, and available all-wheel drive mark the competitors. The Rogue and Journey, however, offer an optional third row seat, providing room for seven.
The Subaru Forester is the middle product in the brand’s current three-model utility vehicle line up, wedged between the smaller XV Crosstrek and the larger Outback. The three-row Tribeca SUV is no longer made as it was cancelled in 2014, but a new model is slated to arrive in 2018.
All Subaru models, except for the rear-wheel drive only BRZ, are all-wheel drive only. All-wheel drive, top safety scores and excellent quality have benefited Subaru immensely. Most importantly, its growing legion of loyal customers have also noticed.
With a starting price of $22,395, the Forester comes in right where its competitors can be found. But will all-wheel drive standard, it is priced below the Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, and the Honda CR-V. It does that by offering a 6-speed manual transmission as standard equipment — a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is a $1,000 option.
Six trim levels are available — 2.5i, 2.5i Premium, 2.5i Limited, 2.5i Touring, 2.0XT Premium, and 2.0XT Touring. The 2.5i models are powered by a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine making 170 horsepower; 2.0XT models enjoy boosted love as these models are powered by a 2.0-liter, turbocharged engine making 250 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of twist.
With a base price of $24,595 and coming in at $28,540 delivered, the 2.5i Premium delivers 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels, a power moonroof, and power accessories. It also offers something I’m seeing much less of these days — an ignition key. Keyless entry is standard as is a tilt and telescopic steering column, air conditioning, a 10-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support, a 7-inch color display featuring Subaru’s STARLINK smartphone connectivity system — Bluetooth, et al — a rear vision camera, and three 12-volt outlets. You also get two USB ports and an auxiliary input port.
Bucket seats are up front and a 60-40 split-folding bench seat is in the rear. Very good room can be found all around — you can fit three in the rear without feeling cramped. The standard storage area is ample too, measuring 34.4 cubic feet. That makes for plenty of room for bringing your gear. You can also fold down part or all of the rear seat or make use of the roof rails on top for additional storage possibilities. Do you need to tow a skiff or a small trailer? The Forester’s 1,500-pound towing capacity makes that possible.
From stem to stern, the Forester has wagon-like lines with a rising belt line, a long roof line, and the requisite high lifting tail gate. Up front, large wraparound head lamps hem in the horizontal grille. The lower grille opening is offset by a pair of pockets containing the available fog lights.
Side character lines, rocker panel embellishments, and available aluminum-alloy wheels (steel wheels are standard) are among the Forester’s more noteworthy profile features. At the rear are large combination lamps, reflectors, and a single exhaust tip.
The test model came equipped with a CVT, although I wouldn’t have minded giving the 6-speed manual transmission a try. Manual gearboxes continue to fade in popularity — likely, most Forester buyers opt for the CVT or choose a higher-end model where one is included. In this case, from the Limited edition on up.
The Subaru Forester offers excellent visual range for the driver. You sit in the usual SUV command position with a broad windshield to view the road ahead. Narrow pillars all around limit your blind spots — this model has an open and airy feeling.
Step on the gas and the engine moves this model with precision. The large circular tachometer and speedometer displays are easy to read through the steering wheel. In the center of it all is the digital driver’s information center with the remaining driver data presented therein. The transmission shifter is located between the seats at the base of the center console.
Press hard on the accelerator and you’ll reach wide open throttle. You’ll also experience what some driving enthusiasts find an uncomfortable experience — the CVT and its rubber band feel. Its an unavoidable experience too — listen to the engine strain as the RPMs push up and up. Just before you think all mayhem will break out — or a cylinder head blows — the effect eases. Unfortunately, much of that noise intrudes into the cabin. You can also hear wind noise seeping in through the front windows; happily these are the only two demerits of note worth mentioning.
As far as SUVs go, the Forester steers, handles, and brakes with the best of them. Actually, it even tops them when you consider that all-wheel drive is standard and the Subaru symmetrical all-wheel drive system distributes torque to all four-wheels at the same time. You’ll notice the difference when roads are slick or twisty — handling is simply improved and secure. Head to the road less paved — as in gravel, dirt or light sand — and the Forester is up to those tasks too.
Safety features are a Subaru hallmark too. Besides having a fleet of vehicles that routinely excel in crash testing, you can also opt for the EyeSight driver-assist system. EyeSight includes adaptive cruise control, a pre-collision throttle management system, pre-collision braking, lane departure warning, and lane sway assist. EyeSight is a $1,295 package upgrade and one that may be well worth the investment.
With a RAV4 to compare the Forester with, I can say that these models are about even. The Forester handles better, but the Toyota is quieter and comes with a 6-speed automatic. Personally, I prefer the Forester’s panoramic roof to the RAV4’s tiny sunroof and when it comes to fuel economy, both models are similar, delivering just north of 25 mpg.
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Photos copyright Auto Trends Magazine.