The first goal for Subaru with its all-new, fifth-generation Forester was not to screw it up. The five-seat compact SUV has loyal buyers, and the past generation doubled its predecessor's sales.
The company came up with a 2019 Forester that's literally new throughout, but doesn't trumpet it. If you liked the fourth generation, you'll like the new one better — you just might have trouble spotting it in a parking lot. The Forester's defining characteristic remains practicality. The 2019 Forester is quieter and smoother and has higher-quality materials inside. The Subaru shot from being a laggard to finding a place among the leaders in multimedia technology, even on the base trim level. The automaker's EyeSight safety tech with automatic braking is now standard on all models.
The Forester continues to offer Base, Premium, Limited and Touring trim levels. New for 2019 is a mid-level Sport trim with sportier details and a price between the Premium and Limited. I drove a Sport as well as a top-of-the-line Touring.
Subtle New Look
If you were hoping for trendy, swoopy new styling, you're out of luck. It's not that the 2019 Forester doesn't have a freshened look, but it's a subtle change, with sharper side sculpting and more of a pinched waist, a bigger grille and a stronger face. It's still small and tall, retaining its familiar upright profile with a low beltline and tall windows; the city-friendly footprint is only slightly longer and wider than the 2018.
The new Sport model adds a little unfamiliar attitude. It sports a black grille, black 18-inch wheels, and orange accents low on all four sides as well as up on the roof rails. The Touring, meanwhile, gets some substantial-looking chrome and new wheels for a classier look. All 2019s wear upscale automatic LED headlights.
How It Drives
Subaru's updated 2.5-liter horizontally opposed boxer engine now has direct injection and a higher, 12:1 compression ratio, which help gas mileage. The engine puts out 12 more horsepower, at 182 hp, and a bit more torque, at 176 pounds-feet. Also helping improve throttle response around town is a wider ratio spread for the standard continuously variable automatic transmission (the stick shift is gone). The improved low-speed response is noticeable and welcome, because also gone is the old Forester's 250-hp, turbo 2.0-liter engine — the fun option.
While the boxer engine won't break any records on on-ramps, it's peppy enough for most Forester buyers — few of whom opted for the turbo anyway, Subaru says. The rating is competitive with other top-selling compact SUVs. Real-world performance from a stop and in passing is competitive, too, though with a second or two of lag off the line that seems inherent with CVTs. Compare competitor specifications here.
The Forester masks the CVT's nature with artificial steps meant to mimic a conventional transmission under harder acceleration. That helps cut CVT-induced whine, though the non-turbo four-cylinder needs to be wound up noisily to reach its peak torque and horsepower. You can also take over the CVT with a seven-speed manual mode, including paddle shifters on the Sport and Touring trims. Foresters also offer Intelligent (i.e., normal) and Sport drive modes, the latter of which sharpens throttle response. The Sport trim substitutes a Sport Sharp mode that was a little more fun but still not aggressive.
The 2019 Forester powertrain also offers slightly better fuel economy, with EPA ratings of 26/33/29 mpg city/highway/combined — up 1 mpg versus the past generation for both the combined and highway estimates. Those numbers match or beat all-wheel-drive versions of current mileage leaders, including the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Mazda CX-5. Compare them here.
Body roll on twisting roads is minimal, and body motion on uneven pavement or even washboard gravel roads is impressively controlled. The past generation showed similar capabilities but with a penalty in ride quality. Not so with the smooth-riding 2019: Steering is stable on center, feeling a little light coming off center, but the electric variable assist firms up predictably, with better response as you crank. It's no sports coupe, but the new Forester is stable and confident, from freeway cruising to evasive maneuvers. It was particularly so on rutted gravel roads that probably should have been taken slower — and would have been in many Forester rivals.
Not Afraid to Get Dirty
While the Forester can't rival some versions of the Jeep Cherokee for serious rock crawling, I'd go for it before other compact SUVs for snowy roads as well as on sand or mud. For starters, there are 8.7 inches of ground clearance and short overhangs. Every Forester has a genuinely competent torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, too, rather than a light AWD setup. All but the base model also has Subaru's X-Mode that can be engaged to automatically improve AWD performance in snow or dirt, as well as activate Hill Descent Control. Sport and higher models get a new version of X-Mode with a second Deep Snow/Mud setting that turns off the traction control to allow some necessary wheelspin when digging out.
I checked out X-Mode and Hill Descent Control on a moderate off-road course in a muddy field. Both performed without a hiccup, with Hill Descent Control handling dirt grades to negative 27 degrees — enough to trigger the collision alert at the bottom.
Interior Classier and More Comfortable
Forester interiors have been like sensible shoes: bland but practical and long-wearing. The 2019 Forester has a lot less to apologize for.
The updated dashboard is still logically arranged but looks more upscale. The trim is higher-quality, and the surfaces are mostly soft-touch down to elbow level even in the mid-range Sport and certainly in the top Touring, which now better lives up to its upscale aspirations. Even surfaces that were already soft now look and feel better. The vinyl-trimmed cloth interior of the Sport adds flair with its attractive orange brushed-metallic finish on the climate vents and console, plus orange contrast stitching. Meanwhile, the Touring's top-level leather upholstery has a richer look and feel.
It's still a Subaru, so the design remains eclectic and perhaps a little busy. Yet it works, and the Sport seems more upscale than a mid-level 2018. The seats and fancier dashboard and other trim in the Limited and Touring, while similarly busy, offer suitable luxury and additional features, such as the Touring's new heated rear seats. They can hold their own with competitors' top trims. The redesigned front seats better cradle your back and bottom, but still feel somewhat flat; I wanted more bolstering on the twisting and off-road portions of my test drive. Still, all the interiors give the impression they can handle wear and tear and will be easy to maintain — like sensible shoes.
Adding to the overall classier feel of the cabin is the suppression of wind, tire, engine and road noise. Noise control in the Forester has leapt forward, as have other Subarus that have moved to the new platform. Only back-to-back testing would rank them, but the 2019 Forester is solidly in the mainstream with rivals in terms of noise levels and easy conversation with those in the backseat.
All Foresters except the base model include a large power moonroof that opens over the front seats and extends into the rear-seat area. Subaru calls it "panoramic," which might be a stretch, but it is big and square, not just a little rectangle over the driver's head.
The roomy, tall backseat of previous models — already a high point — got a bit roomier for 2019 thanks to the new platform's 1.2-inch-longer wheelbase, which contributes to 1.4 inches more rear legroom. Rear access is improved, with doors that open nearly 90 degrees, along with very vertical door pillars. There's no ducking required to get in, and there's plenty of space at the floor to get your feet in and out with some measure of grace. I also give points to Subaru for minimizing the drop-off in materials quality in the rear, even in lower trim levels. All trims but the base also have center-console climate vents. People who regularly carry adults in the back or wrestle with child-safety seats will appreciate the backseat.
There's competitive cabin storage for a compact SUV, with a bigger-for-2019 front-console device bin and an extra cubby in the space freed up by the new electronic parking brake. There are eight bottleholders or cupholders and ample door pockets, and the divided front seatback pockets make for more organized storage.
Tech Gets Up to Speed
The multimedia touchscreen is a decent 6.5-inch unit on the lower three trim levels, powered by Subaru's latest Starlink system with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. There's a Wi-Fi hot spot on Premium and higher trims (subscription required). An 8-inch Starlink system is optional on the Sport and standard on the top two trim levels; it has all the base features and adds a higher-definition screen, voice control, hands-free text messaging, up-to-date graphics and an intuitive interface. Navigation is optional on the Limited and standard on the Touring. Nine-speaker Harman Kardon audio is an option on the Sport and Limited and standard on the Touring. I liked the upgraded stereo's clean performance, and it helps that the Forester is now quiet enough to enjoy it.
In keeping with what seems to be the 2019 redesign strategy, the many tech improvements won't startle Forester loyalists. You still have real knobs for volume and tuning, plus shortcut buttons for the radio, media, phone and apps. There's even still an old-school CD slot. But the feel of the knobs and switches seems a little cheap.
Also familiar from the previous generation is a second, small information screen atop the dash. It's not a bad place for information such as time and temperature, and I became addicted to the X-Mode graphics there, which display power distribution and angle in degrees as you crawl up or down hills. That screen also handles climate control information, even though the climate buttons and knobs are low on the dash, which is a little awkward.
Connections and power for your devices are as plentiful in the Forester as they are in SUVs that brag a lot more about their tech savvy credentials. All models have a pair of 2.1-amp USB media ports (enough for tablets and large phones) at the front of the console, as well as 12-volt power outlets in the dash, center console bin and cargo area. Premium models and higher add a pair of 2.1-amp USB charging ports on the rear of the center console.
Able to Handle a Load
The Forester already had substantial cargo space for a compact SUV, and the 2019's maximum cargo capacity has grown to 76.1 cubic feet with the rear backrests folded. That's only for the base model, though; the power moonroof on other trim levels cuts that to 70.9 cubic feet — still big. Space behind the backseat is an ample 35.4 cubic feet (33.0 with the moonroof), which is also on the high end among compact SUVs but not at the top, where you'll get up to 37.6 cubic feet behind the second row in a Volkswagen Tiguan and 39.2 in a Honda CR-V.
As important for hauling is the fact that the new Forester has a much bigger, more squared-off liftgate opening that's wider by 5.1 inches, ranging from 51.2 inches at most to 49.5 at the low liftover. The rear seat folds easily, with pull-up knobs on the 60/40-split, folding backrests. The Touring also has release levers in the cargo area. The new Forester's load floor is flatter than the 2018 with the backrests folded, and the space between the wheel wells grew 1.1 inches, to 43.3 inches. A power liftgate is available or standard on the top thee trim levels, but there's no hands-free opening available as there is on some competitors.
Keeping an Eye on Safety, and You
The 2019 Forester doesn't yet have crash-test ratings. When available, they'll replace the 2018 results here.
The safety and driver-assist technology that's now standard on all models keeps it a leader in this regard among compact SUVs. All trims have Subaru's full EyeSight package, including a full-speed front collision warning system with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist. Also standard is a trailer stability assist feature that uses selective braking. Optional on all but the base model and standard on the top two trims are blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert. Also offered on Sport and above is reverse automatic braking up to 9 mph (standard on Touring).
The Touring also offers a first for a mainstream compact SUV: a camera that watches you. The new Driver Monitoring System with facial recognition watches for signs of driver fatigue or distraction and triggers an alert when necessary. It can also recognize up to five faces, then greet them with a chosen name and serve up their seat, mirror and some climate preferences.
Beyond its fancy safety tech, the Forester retains an old-school safety feature: really impressive visibility. The 2019 Forester's pillars are slim by today's standards, the beltline is low and the windows are picture-window massive all around. The windshield pillars are pulled back toward the driver, and the side mirrors are down on the doors, giving you an extra triangle window in the lower corners. The result is minimal blind spots compared with most new SUVs.
Driving Value Against Tough Competition
The base 2019 Subaru Forester starts at $25,270 (all prices include destination). That's $560 more than a base 2018 when equipped with its then-optional CVT. The base 2019 Forester offers a lot of standard value, including the EyeSight package as well as all-wheel drive, a multimedia system with plenty of connectivity, and automatic climate control. It does come with plastic wheel covers (yuck!), but 17-inch alloy wheels are a $600 option.
A key Forester selling point is that its base price with standard AWD, $25,270, is competitive with rivals' front-wheel-drive versions. The other 2019 redesign, the Toyota RAV4, will start at $25,705 with FWD when it goes on sale in late 2018, and you'll have to pony up $27,105 if you want to put down power to all four wheels. The 2019 Honda CR-V has not been priced as of this review, but a 2018 starts at $25,245, and adding AWD bumps that up to $26,645. A 2019 Nissan Rogue starts at $25,845 and jumps to $27,195 with AWD. Compare these vehicles and their features here. (Specs for the 2019 RAV4 are not yet available.)
The new Forester Sport middle child might be the new "value edition," adding features like heated seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a better information display, as well as additional available options, at a starting price of $29,770. The Sport I drove had a $2,045 option package that added the 8-inch media system, upgraded audio, a power liftgate, blind spot and rear cross-traffic warning, and rear automatic braking. It tipped the scales at $31,815 — still a moderate price these days for a well-equipped compact SUV.
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