Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: January 5, 2019
I am well acquainted and familiar with the Subaru Forester. There’s a 2016 Forester in our family garage, so who better to evaluate the newly refreshed 2019 model? First thing’s first, I’ll tell you what I like about our 2016 Forester, and what I don’t like. I enjoy the high seating position, the expansive and tall windows that create a welcome sense of airiness in the cabin, and the adept all-wheel drive system that keeps me confidently plowing through snow-ridden streets without breaking a sweat. The Forester 2.5i doesn’t have crazy amounts of power but it does net some stellar fuel consumption numbers. We average roughly 9.4 L/100km on an equal mix of city and highway driving. For a compact SUV, that’s impressive. What I don’t particularly like is its bland steering feel, overly sensitive gas pedal, and droning CVT transmission. The interior is becoming dated, it lacks GPS navigation, and the rather anonymous sheetmetal allows it to blend right into a mall parking lot, making it hilariously hard to spot.
For 2019, Subaru has addressed a few of these concerns. It’s not a huge rework of the SUV formula but there are enough revisions to warrant a closer look. The Forester now sits on a new and stiffer platform that already underpins the Crosstrek and Ascent, and though dimensionally similar, it adds a few extra millimetres of legroom for rear seat occupants.
It is not exactly easy to tell the Forester apart from a 2018 model, though this new-for-2019 Sport trim does make things easier. The Forester Sport adds aesthetic upgrades such as black gloss on the front grill, fog light surround, spoiler, and 18-inch alloy wheels. The Sport also receives a stainless steel exhaust tip, a splash of orange on the exterior body and interior panels, as well as an exclusive Dark Blue Metallic paint colour as shown in our photographs. LED headlights are standard across the board too - no more of those yellow-tinged halogen lights.
In my opinion, the biggest upgrade lies with the interior. Buttoned up and modernized, the refresh keeps the same basic layout but instills higher quality plastics and switchgear that feel great to touch. The new 8.0-inch touchscreen is larger, higher definition, and much more responsive than the outgoing unit. Functionality wise it hasn’t changed much, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, along with Bluetooth audio and USB inputs. The X-Mode button (that controls driving modes for various terrains), which was previously very small, has now morphed into a large dial and relocated straight to the middle of the center console. My guess is that less than 10% of Forester owners will ever touch that dial, so I have no idea why it takes up a such a large section of real estate when it could have been dedicated to more cupholders and storage bins. Perhaps Subaru is trying hard to maintain the Forester’s public image of a go-anywhere kind of SUV.
The list of standard features makes even the base Forester model compelling, with heated seats, a rear view camera with washer, start/stop technology, auto vehicle hold, active torque vectoring, and LED headlights. Common in this segment however is the lack of GPS navigation on mid-spec models, and the Forester isn’t spared. You’ll need to dig deeper into your pockets for the Limited and Premier models for that. On the other hand, a similarly spec’ed Nissan Rogue SV does offer navigation as an option, but the Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, and Honda CR-V only slot it into their more expensive trims.
The standard cloth seats are wide and comfortable and though they may not be as appealing as ones wrapped in leather, cloth isn’t as susceptible to temperature extremes. They don’t get as cold or as hot as leather materials, so you won’t have to cringe your freezing buttocks as you wait for the heated seats to kick in. Speaking of winter, there is no remote engine start like in the Chevrolet Equinox, and you still have those cheap rocker switches to activate the heated seats. There’s still a hefty amount of road noise that seeps into the cabin too (also a criticism of previous Foresters), and you can’t help but feel like you’re surrounded by very thin walls. With what seems like Subaru tradition, the sound system is noticeably terrible. It lacks bass, fails to deliver clear and crisp notes, and listening to the radio is like a monotonous fuzz of sounds. Lacking clarity and with cabin insulation already below par, listening to podcasts or news stations at highway speeds can be challenging.
Gripes aside, Subaru has always aced the safety department. Their suite of safety features, aptly named EyeSight, comes standard on all trims except for the base and Convenience models. It includes pre-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and lane keep assist. There’s even a feature called Lead Vehicle Start Alert, which will ping and notify you on the instrument cluster that the vehicle ahead has started accelerating, and for you to get a move on. Another neat and standard feature is the rear camera washer, which will spray fluid on the rear camera so you can have a clear and unobstructed view, and trust me after driving the Forester for two weeks over the snowy and slushy Christmas holidays, I used this feature at least twice a day.
But out of all of its merits, what gives the Forester an upper hand over its competitors is with outward visibility. Somehow they’ve managed to create a bright greenhouse effect when sitting inside. The thin A-pillars, huge front windscreen, tall side windows, and the new panoramic sunroof that extends to the rear cabin, makes you feel like you’re one with the road and have eyes on all sides of your head. It instills you with a sense of confidence when driving, changing lanes, or making otherwise risky maneuvers.. For previous owners, the true appreciation of this is only apparent when you step out of the Forester and into something else. Only then do you begin to realize just how important outward visibility has become for the commuting safety.
The Forester uses a brand new 2.5-litre boxer engine that pushes out 182 hp and 176 lb-ft, 12 hp and 2 lb-ft more than before. Can I really feel that minor power bump after a back-to-back drive? Nope. The powerband feels exactly the same. There’s an “Si-Drive” button on the steering wheel that remaps the throttle response for hastier acceleration but I didn’t feel much difference to be honest. In fact the most annoying thing about our 2016 Forester was its overly sensitive gas pedal. Whereas most other pedals build on linearly under depression, the first 10% of the Forester’s pedal is like poking a bear. There’s no linearity to it and launches the car into full attack mode with the slightest prod.
In the new Forester, it’s slightly better though the first 10% of the pedal is still too overly sensitive for my liking. It’s been dulled down but you do get a sudden surge of forward acceleration, giving you the illusion of power but the thrust dies down fairly quickly. There’s a fair bit of criticism around our group of editors saying that the Forester could use more power, and I’m inclined to agree, especially at the mid- and top-end of the powerband. But if that means resorting to a turbocharger, I’d take this naturally aspirated unit any day of the week for its friendlier and more predictable personality. If only they could blunt the initial pedal sensitivity even more. Of note, due to poor sales the manual transmission and turbocharged engine options have been axed.
Despite riding on a newer and stiffer platform, the Forester still rides with the same top-heavy feeling. It’s not as buttoned down as I would have hoped, and driving on twistier roads will make you feel like you’re going much faster than you really are. Undulations are not soaked up very well and the sense of body control falters with greater speed. The Forester certainly isn’t as comfortable as the Nissan Rogue or Mazda CX-5, and it’s not as planted either.
The CVT is your only option and it’s bland, as expected. It really shows its dull personality when you’re gunning it or accelerating hard from idle. What follows wide-open-throttle application is decent forward thrust but the accompanying droning noise is sonically abrasive and unpleasant enough for even some of my passengers to complain. The noise is especially loud when the engine is still warming up on a cold winter day. Steering feel hasn’t changed much either, in fact it feels exactly the same as our 2016 Forester.
The Subaru Forester is an impressive compact SUV with outstanding safety accolades, superb outward visibility, and competitive fuel economy. Despite the revisions for 2019, I don’t see much of a reason to upgrade from a 2016 Forester to a 2019 model, as Subaru has played it safe by building on its strengths but forgetting to remedy its shortcomings. The ride is still top-heavy and unnerving especially at higher speeds, the gas pedal still needs more tinkering to reduce initial sensitivity, cabin insulation isn’t up to par with competitors, and the CVT is inherently bland. The Forester walks on a thin line between frugality and quality, and though it lacks spark and emotion from the overall driving experience, this Subaru paves the way in functionality. It is less of an emotional purchase and more of a logical one. In that regard, the Forester succeeds.
Model: 2019 Subaru Forester Sport
Paint Type: Dark Blue Metallic
Base Price: $34,995
Price as Tested: $34,995
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,625 / 1,815 / 1,730
Curb weight (kg): 1,610
Engine: 2.5-litre boxer-four
Horsepower: 182 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 176 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 9.0 / 7.2 / 8.2
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.4