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2017 Subaru Forester Test Drive Review
When you’re looking for a vehicle that can do almost anything and travel almost anywhere, without costing much money and while providing impressive levels of safety and crash protection, the 2017 Subaru Forester is a good bet.
Two distinctly different Subaru Forester models exist. The Forester 2.5i provides everything that is good about this compact crossover SUV in a sensibly priced package. The Forester 2.0XT adds power, performance, and a handful of exclusive features in an apparent bid to inject excitement into the SUV, but it comes at both cost and compromise. The version you select is entirely dependent upon what you value most, and both are ready for a significant overhaul beyond the minor sprucing up that happens for 2017.
Look and Feel4/ 10
Subaru will tell you that the 2017 Forester is redesigned, but that’s not true, unless you define the word “redesign” as a new grille, new front and rear lights with C-shaped signatures, and new aluminum wheel designs. Otherwise, the Forester remains the box on wheels that people have come to know and love.
Subaru has upgraded the compact crossover SUV’s EyeSight driver-assistance technology this year, has improved its Starlink infotainment system with Siri Eyes Free capability, and has enhanced both the standard and available equipment levels for most versions of the Forester. The company also says the interior is quieter and that the turbocharged 2.0XT version is more fun to drive.
You can buy a 2017 Forester for as little as $23,470, but you’d better know how to operate a manual transmission. Most people want an automatic at a minimum, and the Forester’s continuously variable transmission, or CVT, runs an extra grand. Upgrades include Premium, Limited, and Touring trim levels. Choose the turbocharged 2.0XT version, and your choices include Premium and Touring trims.
Naturally, I wanted to sample all the improvements for 2017, so Subaru loaned me a loaded 2.0XT Touring painted Sepia Bronze Metallic, a new color for the year. My test vehicle, equipped with the Navigation and EyeSight Package, was priced at $36,795. You can push that price closer to $40,000 by liberally dipping into the Subaru dealer-installed accessories goodie bag, and I have no doubt that lots of Forester buyers do just that, what with their active lifestyles and all.
The Forester is not a good-looking vehicle, but it is cute and lovable in the same way that a pug might be. Based on the previous-generation Subaru Impreza platform, the company maximizes interior space like a New York real-estate developer: It builds the Forester up rather than out. The result is a tall, boxy thing supplying lots of function but little in the way of form. And while the new Sepia Bronze paint expertly hides dirt, it doesn’t look much better when the SUV is freshly washed, which, come to think of it, might be the point.
Inside, the Forester’s interior reflects a hodgepodge of functional design, modern technology, utilitarian materials, and in Touring trim, upscale details. My test car had the new Saddle Brown leather, accompanied by leatherette in the same color applied to the door panels, dashboard, and center-console armrest. So equipped, the Forester took on a premium appearance it has heretofore lacked.
If you’re not interested in going fast, or you especially like the idea of owning an SUV that meets Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) standards, skip the Forester 2.0XT in favor of the less expensive Forester 2.5i. If, however, you enjoy robust acceleration or you live in the mountains where turbocharged engines prove impervious to thinner atmosphere, the 2.0XT model is the way to go.
The Forester 2.0XT’s turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine makes 250 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque from 2,000 to 4,800 rpm. That’s not quite as broad a power curve as many turbocharged 4-cylinder engines provide, a fact most evident in the Forester’s unfortunate low-rpm turbo lag, but the engine nevertheless gets the Forester up to speed right quick, especially when temperatures are cooler.
A CVT is the only transmission offering for the 2.0XT model, and depending on which Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-Drive) setting you’ve selected, it provides either 6 or 8 programmed ratios for a more natural sound and feel, as well as to provide the driver with greater control over power delivery.
This is not as effective a solution as a dual-clutch automated manual transmission would be, and the Forester’s CVT isn’t among the more refined solutions among similar transmissions. From the cheap feel of the shift lever while selecting gears to the frequently uneven, surging power delivery, it seems that this CVT requires refinement.
And it’s not like the CVT is doing a great job delivering on promises of fuel economy, the whole point of using one in the first place. The EPA thinks the Forester 2.0XT should get 25 mpg in combined driving, and I got 21.3 on my test loop. Granted, I was cycling between the three different SI-Drive powertrain settings, and I did drive the Forester in sporting fashion on twisty two-lane mountain roads, but that’s still a significant disparity between official estimates and reality.
Every Subaru Forester is equipped with standard all-wheel drive (AWD), and the system in the 2.0XT actively sends power to the rear wheels as is necessary. Additionally, for 2017, the 2.0XT Touring model gets Active Torque Vectoring to help make it more engaging to drive. All 2.0XT models have paddle shifters, bigger brakes that are ventilated at each corner, and stiffer suspension tuning. Subaru even added a quicker steering ratio to all Foresters for 2017.
Despite these performance-oriented upgrades, though, the 2.0XT isn’t the WRX of SUVs.
The Forester's steering might be quicker, but it still isn’t crisp, sharp, and communicative. It has paddle shifters, but they aren’t particularly satisfying to use. The brakes may be larger, but they still faded under duress on a day when temperatures were in the mid-70s. The suspension might be tighter, but there is still too much body roll in corners and too much body motion over uneven pavement.
The tires are a limiting factor, too, as the 225/55R18 Bridgestone Dueler H/L rubber is a compromise designed to perform adequately on paved, dirt, rain-drenched, and snow-covered surfaces.
With that said, the Forester 2.0XT works well in urban, suburban, and rural environments, and thanks to 8.7 inches of ground clearance and an X-Mode traction system with hill-descent control, it can travel farther off the pavement than a typical crossover SUV can. Its ride is good on the highway, it does a decent job of soaking up crumbling pavement, it zips through traffic with ease, and it is super easy to park.
In other words, the Forester 2.0XT tackles the daily commute and weekend adventuring with equal ease, and its turbocharged engine adds welcome zest no matter where you’re headed.
Form and Function7/ 10
With the 2017 Forester, Subaru emphasizes function over form. This approach results in three key benefits that people frequently overlook when choosing a new vehicle, and they all make everyday life more enjoyable.
First, it's super easy to get into and out of a Forester, because the seating hip point is at a perfect height and the doorsills are relatively narrow. You need not stoop, or climb, or step over a wide sill to get into or out of this vehicle.
Second, outward visibility is extraordinarily good. Thin windshield pillars, tall oversize windows, and huge side mirrors make whipping the Forester around a city, the suburbs, or wooded trails really easy.
Third, the cargo space measurements might land mid-pack among compact crossovers, but because the area is cube-shaped, an owner can make maximum use of it. The Forester has 31.5 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 68.5 cubic feet with the rear seat folded down. Notably, the trunk provides handy switches to release and fold the rear seats, and a height-adjustable power tailgate is new for 2017.
My only gripe with cargo room is that it’s tough to put full-size suitcases into the Forester and then cram a compact folding stroller between them and the liftgate. Also, trunk lighting after dark is awful, the area illuminated by a single light located on the right side panel. An overhead light, or dual lights embedded into the inner liftgate panel, would be a superior solution.
One of the big changes for the 2017 Forester is added soundproofing, along with acoustic laminated windshield glass and thicker door glass. The goal is to quiet the Forester’s interior, and I think the effort proves successful. However, I also think I would have preferred that Subaru had spent that money installing soft material on the upper door panels, and better padding on the center-console armrest, because this vehicle is lacking in comfortable surfaces on which to rest elbows.
It would’ve also been nice to get some tinting for the panoramic sunroof glass, too. Open the sunroof shade on a warm and sunny day, and prepare to bake, a situation that draws attention to the fact that you can’t get ventilated front seats in a Forester no matter how much money you are willing to spend.
Subaru does, however, offer 2-stage heated front seats and a heated steering wheel, and most Foresters are equipped with heated side mirrors and a wiper de-icer system, so this SUV is clearly ready to tackle winter weather.
Aside from the fact that there isn’t a place to comfortably rest your arms, the Forester’s interior is comfortable. The front seats sit up high off the floor, and the rear seats can easily accommodate three kids, or even three adults for shorter trips. However, given that even a top-of-the-line Forester doesn’t have rear air vents, heated rear seats, rear USB ports, or even so much as a 12-volt power outlet, passengers might not remain happy for long.
Tech Level7/ 10
Two versions of Subaru’s Starlink infotainment system are offered for the Forester, and all but the base model get a larger 7-inch display screen. This upgraded version features text-messaging support and gains Siri Eyes Free compatibility this year, but Subaru still isn’t offering Apple CarPlay or Android Auto in the Forester.
My test car had a top-of-the-line version of Starlink with high-resolution graphics, a gesture-control screen, voice-recognition technology, and a navigation system. It was paired with a Harman Kardon premium sound system that delivered far too much boom in terms of bass, even when I dialed it way back.
I like that Subaru supplies separate knobs to control audio-system power, volume, and tuning, and that the display glass resists accumulation of fingerprints. Touch-sensing buttons provide quicker navigational access to the system’s main menus, but this setup really needs an easier way to get from the navigation map to the radio display.
Using the voice-recognition system, it took a few tries before the Forester successfully recognized my Spanish-language street name, so prepare to provide phonetically accurate instructions. For example, instead of pronouncing “Calle” properly (ky-ay) I needed to say (kal-ee).
Subaru provides Safety Plus subscription services in the form of automatic collision notification, SOS emergency calling, and enhanced roadside assistance. Also, three years of SiriusXM traffic information is included with this version of Starlink, but apparently doesn’t show accurate, up-to-the-minute traffic tie-ups on the map display, a critical feature when attempting to navigate metro Los Angeles.
Unrelated to Starlink, another new feature for the 2017 Forester is perfect for people who actually do have active lifestyles. Thanks to an available new keyless entry system with personal identification number (PIN) code access, you can leave the Forester’s key fob inside the vehicle while you go and play, which means you don’t need to worry about losing it.
This year, a new EyeSight system debuts in the Forester, equipped with color stereo cameras providing a wider and longer field of vision. The result is smoother and more accurate operation of the adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and forward-collision warning systems. That does not mean they always worked flawlessly or accurately, though.
On numerous occasions, whether in traffic or approaching curves with guardrails, or when a car ahead moved mostly onto a highway shoulder to make a right turn, EyeSight issued commands that I, as the driver, would not have. Actions taken by the technology were subtle rather than sudden, which I absolutely appreciate, but this continues to underscore the challenges associated with fine-tuning such systems for the planned future of semi-autonomous driving.
I’m also not a fan of Subaru’s lane-keeping assist system. It works just fine, but because the steering lacks meaningful feel and response to driver input, it is hard to recognize when the system is engaging or when the car is simply exhibiting a delayed reaction to input from the driver. Generally, this system is disconcerting to use, making it feel like there is a ghost somewhere in the machine.
New for 2017, the Forester is available with a Rear Automatic Braking (RAB) system, and the default setting each time you start the vehicle is “on.”
At first, I dreaded this inclusion on my test vehicle, because a Subaru Outback I tested earlier this year had this feature, and the car couldn’t exit my moderately steep driveway without slamming itself to a stop unless I was traveling at a crawl. And since it takes Starlink about 20 seconds to fully activate after starting the car, I wasn’t willing to wait around and manually shut the RAB system off with each departure from home.
Thankfully, as applied to the Forester, the RAB did not activate at the bottom of my driveway. It did, however, engage during a 3-point turn on a dirt trail, and for no other reason than tall grasses located behind the car. Grrrrr.
New automatic high-beam assist, steering-responsive headlights also debut for 2017. The latter feature worked beautifully on the dark streets of my subdivision. The high-beam assist system, however, did not activate in several situations where they were warranted. Plus, to engage the high-beam assist system, you push the turn signal stalk forward, and that moves it out of its normal position. A separate button would be a better solution, but perhaps not as easy or cost-effective from Subaru’s standpoint.
No discussion of the Forester is complete without talking about its crashworthiness, and it remains one of the safest choices in the small SUV segment. Only a 4-star rating from the federal government for front passenger protection in a frontal impact collision mars an otherwise flawless performance. If you want to keep your loved ones safe in a collision, the Forester is highly recommended.
If you are concerned about cost effectiveness, get the Forester 2.5i model, trading the 2.0XT’s turbocharged power and slight improvements in handling for a less expensive vehicle that gets better gas mileage. Plus, the 2.5i might even be more affordable to insure while retaining a greater percentage of its original price over time.
Either way, I understand why the Subaru Forester is so popular, in spite of its boxy design and boldly utilitarian interior. This vehicle has a clear purpose, which is to do almost anything you want it to no matter the weather conditions, and it brilliantly executes on its mission while delivering decent reliability, good value, and great safety. You can use and abuse one without caring too much about a scratch here, a stain there, or dents and dings everywhere.
However, in my opinion, Subaru needs to further refine the Forester’s details, and especially if it wants to convincingly play in the tested 2.0XT Touring’s lofty price range.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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