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2019 Subaru Forester Test Drive Review
The 2019 Subaru Forester continues to set the curve in a segment it helped make popular more than 20 years ago.
Consumers are hungry for all-weather capability, plenty of space for passengers, and plenty of space for the gear that comes with those passengers. Crossovers can offer all of this, while also providing solid fuel economy. So, it makes sense that crossovers of different sizes and price ranges are dominating the new car market. Nearly every automaker out there today offers at least one, if not multiple crossovers, in their showrooms.
But while this is a new trend for some brands, Subaru has been offering multiple vehicles that fit the crossover formula for decades.
In particular, the Subaru Forester has been around since 1997. When it arrived, the Forester provided standard all-wheel drive, reasonable fuel economy, plenty of cargo space, and an affordable base price. It was not the first vehicle to come standard with all-wheel drive—that would be the AMC Eagle of the 1970s. But the AMC brand is no more, and the '97 Forester offered all these attributes while also being incredibly reliable, and thus set the blueprint for the modern crossover craze.
The modern compact SUV market includes popular vehicles like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5, Volkswagen Tiguan, and more. With all these rivals, can the all-new 2019 Subaru Forester once again set the curve in this segment?
Look and Feel
The new Forester is slightly larger and slightly wider than its predecessor. The exterior design is that of a scaled-down version of the new Subaru Ascent, which makes sense since earlier this year we called the Ascent a scaled-up version of the Forester, complete with a third row.
That inspiration continues in the cabin, which looks modern but doesn’t go for the same smooth aesthetic as some competitors. The Forester puts function above all else, so design choices are a luxury that comes after making sure all utility aspects are considered.
The Forester is available in Base, Premium, Sport, Limited, and Touring trims. Every trim features standard LED headlights as well as Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive (AWD) and EyeSight driver-assistance systems. The base trim comes quite well equipped, with 60/40 split-fold rear seats, a helpful multifunction display, dual front USB ports, and a 6.5-inch touchscreen. It also features four large bottle holders and a clever under-floor storage tray.
Moving up to the Premium trim adds 17-inch alloy wheels, a roof spoiler, raised roof rails, body-colored side mirrors, and a large panoramic moonroof. Inside, the Premium also adds 10-way power front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, reclining rear seatbacks, a backseat fold-down armrest with cupholders, and 4G Wi-Fi capability.
The Sport brings additional substance and style. For starters, it features unique styling touches inside and out, including orange and black accents and sport seats with unique orange stitching. It also adds larger front disc brakes, 18-inch alloy wheels, LED fog lights, a chrome exhaust outlet, and one of the smartest car features for colder climates: a windshield wiper de-icer. Inside, the Sport trim adds push-button start, heated front seats, dual USB ports for the second row, paddle shifters, and an upgraded color multi-function display.
We drove the Limited, which features unique 18-inch wheels, fog lights, and LED steering-responsive headlights. Inside, it adds leather upholstery, a power rear tailgate, dual-zone climate control, and the larger 8-inch touchscreen. It also comes standard with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
The Forester is also available in the Touring trim. It adds features like the LED fog lights from the Sport, satin chrome side mirrors with integrated turn signals, a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, navigation, and one-touch quick-release folding rear seats.
The Limited and Touring trims come with a larger 8-inch touchscreen featuring Subaru's Starlink infotainment system. And while the Forester Premium and Sport come standard with the 6.5-inch touchscreen, the larger screen is available as an option on the Sport. The Limited and Touring trims come with navigation and a Harman Kardon premium stereo system.
When you open the hood, you might be surprised to find the near-comical amount of open space in the new Forester's engine bay. This has been a recent trend among many automakers, building up the height of the fenders and hood well above the small engine within. This is often done to protect the car's structure against crashes as well, but in the case of Subaru, much of that open space is due to the automaker’s use of boxer engines.
Rather than the inline 4-cylinder engines many automakers in this segment use, the Subaru boxer engine is comprised of two banks of cylinders, laid flat and opposing each other. The two banks of cylinders literally “punch” at each other, hence the name. These types of engines run smoothly and provide a much lower center of gravity compared to inline engines.
In the case of the 2019 Forester, it's a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder boxer engine, making 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. Those numbers are up from 170 hp and 174 lb-ft in the previous Forester. The 12-hp bump is welcome, but the torque increase is just 2 lb-ft, and that’s important to note. People think horsepower is the only number that matters, but when you step on the gas, it’s the torque that helps your car make that initial leap forward. And neither this vehicle nor its predecessor had adequate torque.
But the outgoing 2018 Forester was at least available in the 2.0XT trim, which featured a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, making 258 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque. But this new 2019 Forester? No XT option available. The only engine offered to buyers is this lackluster one.
It is perhaps ironic then that Subaru offers the new Forester in a “Sport” trim, complete with the weak engine as the only option. Subaru may eventually offer a more potent powerplant in the future, but for now, it’s funny how a Sport is offered the year they remove the actual engine that would help the trim live up to its name.
The Forester comes standard with symmetrical AWD, and power is routed to this system through a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. These transmissions are typically designed for efficiency over performance, and the Forester's is no different, resulting in underwhelming acceleration.
There is some hope, as Subaru makes SI-Drive standard across the trim lineup to help get a bit more oomph out of this engine. It works a lot like a drive mode button in other cars, tuning the throttle response, CVT tuning, and power delivery to “I,” for Intelligent, or “S,” for Sport. The buttons are located on the steering wheel. This is a far more logical place for them than down by the shifter, which can be seen in other cars.
You still get toggles down by the shifter, including the dial for the X-Mode terrain-management system. X-Mode works with the AWD and hill-descent control, and it modulates throttle and CVT tuning for optimal power delivery in various driving conditions. All trims get X-Mode, but Premium, Sport, Limited, and Touring trims come with a dual-mode X-Mode system. The dial down below the shifter can select Normal Mode, Snow and Dirt Mode, or Deep Snow and Mud Mode.
Any great automotive feature should be able to perform its task and avoid detracting from the vehicle as a whole. For example, this writer happens to love the Jeep Wrangler, but recognizes that its incredible off-road capabilities come at the cost of general on-road driving manners. This is where Subaru excels, because it has been offering standard AWD for years.
So, despite all the off-roading gadgetry, the Forester has a really smooth ride. It’s light on its feet around town, and despite being on the tall side, doesn’t have too much body roll in corners. Highway driving is refined as well, and the suspension does an incredible job soaking up bumps in the road. It’s one of the few car-based crossovers that doesn’t make me wince right before I drive over a big pothole. Acceleration is still its weakest point, but press S when getting on the highway and you’ll be fine.
Fuel economy for the 2019 Forester is 26 mpg city, 33 highway, 29 combined. In my time with the Forester in mixed driving conditions, I found fuel economy of 28.9 mpg.
Form and Function
As previously noted, the new Forester is slightly larger than the 2018 model. It’s only a few inches longer and a hair wider, but its tailgate opening is an impressive 5 inches wider. Typically going for the base model of any car means giving up on a few creature comforts, but selecting the base trim of the Forester means you get something the other trims can't offer: a class-leading 76.1 cubic feet of cargo space. All other trims have a still-respectable 70.9 cubic feet. For cargo-space context, the 2018 Toyota RAV4 has 73.4 cubic feet, the Honda CR-V has 75.8, and the Volkswagen Tiguan has 73.5 cubic feet.
The new Forester’s larger wheelbase results in more backseat space, and its 8.7 inches of ground clearance are great for clearing dirt and snow. But the combination of ground clearance and seat height is also a value-add for older buyers, who may struggle with the low seats of a sedan or the high step-in height of trucks and full-size SUVs.
Subaru is one of the few brands that embraces my favorite philosophy: “Function First.” The cabin looks sharp enough, but it has cubbies, compartments, and bottle holders everywhere. The tall greenhouse provides a commanding driving position with plenty of legroom and tons of headroom. The greenhouse, combined with the driving position, also provides excellent rearward visibility. This aspect has become a rarity among modern crossovers, where massive C-pillars and small rear windows have made reversing cameras, blind-spot monitoring systems, and rear cross-traffic alert systems almost a necessity in most rivals.
Whether it uses the 6.5-inch screen in the base and Premium trims or the 8-inch screen that’s optional in the Sport and standard in the Limited and Touring, the Starlink system is quite good. Subaru’s infotainment system is responsive, has high resolution, and provides standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Swiping through menus and navigating the screen is very intuitive, and the icons, colors, and fonts are all easy to read. Transitioning from Starlink to CarPlay and back is quite seamless, which isn’t always a guarantee with modern infotainment systems.
Subaru’s EyeSight suite of driver-assistance systems is mostly about safety, but one particular component is a fantastic tech-based feature. It’s called Lead Vehicle Alert, and it works like this: Say a driver of this new Forester is queued up at a stoplight, the light turns green, and the driver hasn’t noticed it. If the vehicle ahead of the Forester pulls away, and the driver hasn't moved, Lead Vehicle Alert provides an audible beep and a graphic alert. There are many things to distract drivers these days, and Lead Vehicle Alert is a way to make distracted driving less of a nuisance for other drivers on the road.
The rest of EyeSight’s driver-assistance features are incredibly helpful, and all come standard on every 2019 Forester. They include forward-collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and adaptive headlights. Every Forester also comes with lane-keeping Assist, which looks for the lane lines and provides small steering inputs to keep the vehicle centered in the lane.
Other standard safety features include a full array of front- and side-impact airbags and a reversing camera. All these high-tech systems together make for a very safe vehicle, and the Forester's great visibility ensures you can use your own two eyes to stay aware of hazards on the road as well.
Base MSRP for the 2019 Subaru Forester is $24,295. That puts its pricing right in the same neighborhood as the CR-V, CX-5, RAV4, and Tiguan. A Premium trim starts at $26,695, and a Sport starts at $28,795. The Limited starts at $30,795, and our Limited with options came in at $33,495. The range-topping Touring starts at $34,295.
While its pricing is very much in line with the competition, the Forester gives you so much more at each price point. The AWD, the infotainment, the EyeSight system, and even the spacious cabin—they all make the Forester a fantastic value. Subaru has always marched to the beat of its own drum, and this Forester is no different. There might be options in the compact SUV segment with more performance or more luxury, but if utility and value are your top priorities, the Forester is the vehicular Swiss Army Knife you want.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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