The engine Subaru expects nearly 95 percent of Forester buyers to opt for is a 170-horsepower four-cylinder teamed to a continuously variable automatic transmission. Doesn't sound like a powerhouse, does it? But the top-sellers in the class aren't far removed. The Honda CR-V, new Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape and Mazda's CX-5 get 185, 176, 173 and 155 hp, respectively.
Look at torque figures, though, and the Forester's 174 pounds-feet of torque compares well against the same group at 163, 172, 184 and 150 pounds-feet, respectively.
In the real world, when merging onto the highway, passing and accelerating from a dead stop, I put the Forester on par with the CR-V and Escape. Its one fault in these areas is the high level of noise during hard acceleration, which is partly due to the CVT.
Once up to speed, though, the Forester is remarkably quiet. Most of today's Subaru vehicles, including the outgoing Forester, allow too much road and wind noise into the cabin. Subaru says this Forester is the quietest vehicle it's ever made, and impressive aerodynamics helps the seemingly boxy SUV's fuel economy, too. Considering how tall the cabin is — with lots of tall windows — the noise level is even more impressive while still delivering terrific visibility.
The one advantage Subaru clearly has over the competition is its standard all-wheel-drive system. That's not just because of how much less a Forester costs than all-wheel-drive versions of the competition — they come standard with front-wheel drive — but just how capable the system is itself.
I took the Forester up a steep — if not extensive — off-road course on the side of an Arizona hill and had few issues with traction. Only while making a turn to descend did it require a second and third attempt to accelerate through the maneuver. The 8.7 inches of ground clearance helps in situations like this, as does a new X-Mode system in higher level trims and the XT turbo. X-Mode allows for more control in certain driving conditions and when equipped, adds hill descent control.
My co-driver and I also traveled more than 50 miles of unpaved public roads of loose dirt and rock at decent speeds ranging from 40 to 60 mph in both versions of the Forester. While the ride had been comfortable on paved roads, we were both a bit surprised at how the little SUV handled these surfaces with barely any jarring effects to the passengers.
Generally you think of people in Northern regions opting for all-wheel-drive vehicles like the Forester, but the trip showed that there are quite a few warm-weather areas that could benefit from the technology. We even passed a previous-generation Forester pulling into a driveway on our unpaved route.
Of course, all-wheel-drive systems generally hurt fuel economy, but Subaru has done wonders with the 2.5-liter's efficiency. It's rated 24/32 mpg city/highway and 27 mpg combined.
Those are excellent numbers even against front-wheel-drive competitors. The combined rating tops the CR-V, the Escape 1.6 and the four-cylinder Chevy Equinox at 26 mpg. Only the underpowered CX-5 outshines the field at 29 mpg combined. Highway mileage is right in line with the CR-V's 31 mpg, RAV4's 31 mpg, Escape's 33 mpg, CX-5's 32 mpg and Equinox's 32 mpg.
With optional all-wheel drive, the above models' combined ratings drop 1 mpg, except for the Chevy, which drops 3 mpg, to 23 mpg.
Our Forester's trip computer relayed 27 mpg during our test of combined and relatively spirited driving on Arizona streets, highways and unpaved roads.
The steering has a surprisingly natural feel for an electric system that adjusts for different driving speeds. At low speeds, it requires little effort from the driver while still getting a decent amount of road feedback, and at high speeds, it stays on center superbly.
The Forester XT is a different beast crafted for drivers who want more speed in their little crossover. Its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder puts out 250 hp and 254 pounds-feet of torque. That matches well against the Ford Escape's V-6 replacement, a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 240 hp and 270 pounds-feet of torque. Few others in this class offer more powerful engines.
To show off its speed, Subaru put the XT on a challenging racetrack for part of the evaluation. While it handled the circuit well, it was the open road where the XT felt really quick. Subaru says the zero-to-60 time is in the low 6-second range, which is about the same as a base Porsche Cayenne.
Off-the-line speed was the one aspect that didn't impress me because the XT's CVT seemed to take too long to rev to redline, even with the optional manual mode. The XT has a manual setting with shift paddles while the 2.5 does not. The CVT in the XT is an upgraded version from the 2.5, and it's significantly quieter under heavy acceleration.
But everywhere else, from long, sweeping highway on-ramps, twisty mountain roads and about 35 miles of the unpaved stuff, the XT was a blast to drive.
Whether it's worth the added price and fuel-economy hit — 23/28 mpg and 25 mpg combined — is another question. We observed 25.8 mpg on our full drive and just 20 mpg after the first leg of unpaved driving.