As we've noted before, many automotive journalists seem to own Subarus as their personal cars.
We recently spent three days with a new 2014 Subaru Forester XT--the more powerful turbocharged model--driving South Africa's Garden Route along the country's south coast, from Plettenburg Bay to Cape Town.
The drive included quite a few single-lane dirt and gravel roads, along with a few memorable mountain passes. Together, they gave us a feeling for how the new Forester XT coped with the kind of rough roads that Subarus are often used on.
And it let us contrast the bigger 2014 Forester to the 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek we tested six months ago.
NOTE: We drove South African-spec 2014 Forester XT models with right-hand drive, a lower power rating than the North American version, and some other minor differences. For that reason, we are not citing specific equipment and trim features from our test car.
Flat fours and CVTs
Both Subarus we tested used the company's LinearTronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is one of the better examples of CVT.
Paddle shifters behind the steering wheel allow it to be "downshifted" or "upshifted" by mimicking six conventional gear ratios, but otherwise it boosts efficiency by optimizing engine speed to the power and speed requested--without some of the wild revving or engine howling other CVTs can produce.
The Crosstrek has a 148-hp 2.0-liter flat-four engine, which was rated by the EPA at 28 mpgcombined (25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway) with the CVT. It's also offered with a five-speed manual, which lowers the gas mileage.
The 2014 Forester XT has a 250-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter flat-four engine, whereas standard Foresters come with a 170-hp 2.5-liter fuel-injected flat four.
(Our South African Forester XT had a lower power rating, largely due to changes in engine tuning to handle the much more variable gasoline quality in that country, according to our hosts.)
25 to 28 mpg
The Forester XT we drove is rated by the EPA at 25 mpg combined (23 mpg city, 28 mpg highway). The standard model fitted with the CVT comes in at 27 mpg combined (24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway).
Though it had a bit of turbo lag, the turbocharged Forester XT was punchy and delivered good acceleration under pretty much any circumstance, with little whining or engine howl from the CVT.
The conventional Forester engine is less enthusiastic; Subarus have never been among the most powerful cars in their categories, though to be fair, we haven't yet driven a 2.5-liter Forester.
The Crosstrek with its 2.0-liter engine weighs more than the Impreza hatchback with the same power, so we found that it ran out of steam when pressed hard.
The turbo Forester did not have that problem, but we suspect you could do some serious damage to real-world gas mileage if you use its greater power consistently.
We're not quoting any gas-mileage figures here because of our Forester XT's different tuning and power specifications, not to mention the unusual driving routes.
Capacious Forester, shorter Crosstrek
"Bracket creep" is increasingly common as cars expand their footprints to add more structure, letting them comply with increasingly tough crash-safety tests.
The new Forester is only slightly bigger than the previous model, but it feels and drives rather like the 2000-2009 Outback, the previous generation of mid-size Subaru.
The Crosstrek, on the other hand, is clearly a compact hatchback that's been raised and toughened--with larger wheels and tires, and some suspension modifications, but still very much in the middle of the compact size category.
The Forester has 113 cubic feet of space for people, plus 34.4 cubic feet of cargo volume; the comparable figures for the smaller Crosstrek are 97.5 and 22.3 cubic feet.
While both cars have fold-down rear seats, our comparison was somewhat skewed by the fact that South African Foresters are equipped with a full-size spare wheel and tire, meaning their load deck is higher than in North American cars with space-saver spares.
(We'll get a U.S. market 2014 Forester to test soon.)
Confident in the rough
Both the Forester and the Crosstrek cope fine with rutted dirt and gravel roads, mud, and presumably snowy roads too (though we didn't test that on either car).
Both have standard all-wheel drive, long a Subaru hallmark, and on our South African jaunt, we had several occasions to use it.
Our fleet of Foresters scurried up the famous single-lane Swartberg Pass outside Meiringspoort, pausing briefly at Die Top ("The Top") for photos.
Back on more level gravel roads, fast swerves to avoid large potholes showed the Forester to be balanced and responsive, and to retain the practical, capable versatility of its predecessors.
Our biggest disappointment with the Crosstrek was its tendency to wander at high speeds, and the Forester showed none of that.
It tracked straight, and while its electric power steering wasn't the most tactile we've ever driven (hello, Mazda), it gave sufficient feedback and was decently weighted.
Subaru has put effort into making the 2014 Forester's interior nicer than its somewhat plain predecessors, and while it's far from glamorous, it's definitely a nicer place to spend hours behind the wheel.
The Crosstrek, on the other hand, uses the same interior as the basic Impreza compact hatchback.
It uses some soft-touch materials, but there are a number of nicer interiors in competing compacts--the Ford Focus, for instance (which, admittedly, doesn't offer all-wheel drive).
On the road, Subaru has definitely improved the refinement of the latest Forester. Road noise is reduced and in particular, Subaru's weak spot--noise from the large, pratical door mirrors--has been notably cut.
The Crosstrek we tested, on the other hand, was remarkably noisy on certain types of road surfaces. Combined with its tendency to wander and susceptibility to cross-winds, we found it not that pleasant for long-distance highway use.
This is one that the new Forester wins hands down.
Comparable base prices
The 2014 Subaru Forester range, now on sale, starts at $21,995 before delivery.
That gets you a base 2.5i model with a five-speed manual transmission and silver-painted steel wheels.
The 2014 Forester XT turbo we drove, however, is considerably pricier, starting at $27,995 for the Premium trim level.
And the more luxurious Touring model adds another $5,000 on top of that--meaning you can get Foresters from $22,000 to as much as $35,000 with every box ticked.
The 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek in 2.0i Premium trim starts at the same $21,995 as the base Forester. Moving up to the Limited model adds only $2,500, meaning even a Crosstrek should top out comfortably below $30,000 (if there's no dealer markup).
Basic vs high-end
The most basic Forester is missing some features--among them Bluetooth hands-free connectivity--offered on every Crosstrek.
But a fully decked-out Forester offers some features in turn--like a power rear tailgate--that aren't available on the Crosstrek at all, albeit for considerably more money.
Here, you get what you pay for, and it's your choice which mix of features you want to pay for.
The base Forester is a sturdy, no-frills compact crossover that, with its standard all-wheel drive, may be one of the better bargains in the segment.
But the Forester is slightly pricier--and more spacious--when fitted with roughly the same mix of features and options as a comparable Crosstrek.
Late this year, the 2014 Subaru XT Crosstrek Hybrid will launch, the company's first-ever hybrid. Thus far, Subaru has not said anything about offering a hybrid Forester.
Which one to pick?
In the end, choosing between the Forester and the Crosstrek will be a matter of priorities.
If you need a smaller car that still offers all-wheel drive and more ground clearance than a regular compact to handle rough roads, the XV Crosstrek is for you.
The Forester, on the other hand, is larger but offers more interior space and a nicer interior--and we found it smoother, quieter, and more pleasant at highway speeds.
We preferred the Forester, but given that the Crosstrek is selling at roughly twice the rate Subaru had projected, both models seem to be well-received by buyers.
Subaru provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to bring you this first-person report
(c) 2013, High Gear Media.