Subaru is not exactly known for its styling prowess, or for radical change. So it came as no surprise when it pulled the wraps off the 2014 Forester at an exclusive preview in Japan and the four Canadian auto journalists in attendance had to look closely to detect the difference between the new and outgoing model.
But within an hour, it was obvious that beauty is indeed more than skin deep. The new Forester may look a lot like the current one, but it positively bristles with change, innovation and technology.
Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru's parent company, bought a mountain here about 20 years ago, a big hill actually, in the middle of nowhere three hours north of Tokyo, cut the top off and, within the resulting hollow, created the Subaru Test and Development Center, away from prying eyes.
We were the the first Canadian journalists to visit the site which, unlike others in South Korea, Japan, Europe and North America, makes no attempt to impress. Nothing fancy, this is a working facility, with numerous industrial buildings and an amazing array of roads contained within a steeply banked 2.5-mile high-speed oval rimming the dug-out mountain.
We drove several pre-production, fourth-generation Subaru Foresters on- and off-road, on handling courses, 40-degree slopes and the big oval.
The Forester is an important vehicle for Subaru Canada, one of two key pillars of the company's growing Canadian presence, alongside the Impreza. The two account for almost two-thirds of the company's sales. While it will launch in other global markets first, the new Forester is coming to Canada in March.
The visual changes may be evolutionary, but the number of changes to fuel efficiency, performance and differentiation between the two models are sufficient to warrant all-new status. The 2014 Forester will have a heavily revised version of the 2.5-litre boxer engine utilized currently while the turbo gets a brand new 2.0-litre engine. Both are paired with new transmissions, a six-speed manual and CVT for the 2.5 and a different CVT with the turbo.
The exterior is most changed at the front and this is where the two new models will also differ most. The A-pillar has been moved forward 20 cm and a small triangular side window added for more visibility close to the vehicle sides. The new Forester is 35 mm longer, 15 mm wider and 65 mm taller. The wheelbase has grown 25 mm and the track by 20 mm.
The hip point for the new seats is 30 mm higher and the side sills moved in 30 mm and wrapped by the door when closed so road dirt does not get on the sill and then transferred to slacks, skirts or legs when getting in or out. The sill itself is 20 mm lower for ease of entry/exit. There is 30 mm more shoulder room and 100 mm more legroom augmented by a lower tunnel height. Child seat installation has been simplified and there is more rear-seat leg and head room despite the fact they have been raised 25 mm for added visibility, which remains among the best in the industry due to a low belt line, thin pillars and lots of glass.
Cargo space has grown 12 per cent and a roomy divided carrier is found beneath the cargo floor. Second-row seat backs fold flat with a tug of a lever in the cargo compartment. Soft-touch surfaces on top of the instrument panel and arm rests are a pleasant upgrade as are two-tone interiors.
The 2.5-litre FB25NA engine carries over. The new FA20DIT engine has direct injection and produces 250 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque compared to 224 hp/226 lb-ft for the outgoing model. Even more impressive are the gains in fuel efficiency. It is too early for official ratings, but Subaru expects them to be in the range of 10.2 litres/100 km in the city and 8.4 on the highway compared to 12.4 city/9.8 highway for the current Forester.
Thanks to the CVT, which replaces the aged four-speed offered previously, the Forester with the base engine accelerates from rest to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds compared to 9.9 for the current model (6.2 seconds for the turbo, compared to 7.4); the V-6 Porsche Cayenne takes 6.1 seconds.
In addition to the significant power increase, the turbo version gets a unique front bumper and grill, larger wheels and tires, heavily reworked suspension and a stiffer body structure. It also will be available with SI-Drive with three driver-selectable modes: Intelligent, Sport and Sport Plus. There are also paddle shifters that, in manual mode, simulate six-speeds in I and S modes and eight in Sport Plus.
On the various courses provided within the test facility, we had the opportunity to compare the new Forester with a Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Toyota RAV4 and the outgoing Forester. The first thing I noticed was the reduced NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) and stiffer chassis. Wind noise was noticeably reduced thanks to significantly improved aerodynamics.
A new X-Mode for the all-wheel-drive system offers considerable advances on slippery surfaces. A slip-and-grip system, it detects and reacts to a loss of traction much more quickly than competitive systems. It operates at less than 40 km/h with a second more intense mode available below 20 km/h. Think of X for Extra slippery.
Other new features: pre-collision adaptive cruise, Pre X throttle that shuts off power if it detects Drive has been engaged instead of reverse when backing out of a garage for example, lane departure warning that uses a camera instead of radar to better differentiate between objects, Subaru's Eye-Sight system, a 4.3-inch multi-function display that can be set to remember and remind you of birthdays, anniversaries and other important dates, 440-watt Harmon/Kardon audio system, a power tailgate with lots of tricks [it can be preset to open to a specific height and will automatically reverse when going up or down if it encounters an object].
The new Forester is a significantly changed vehicle disguised by a mild makeover.
2014 Subaru Forester
Type: Compact SUV/CUV
Base price: To be announced
Engines: 2.5-litre, horizontally opposed (boxer), four-cylinder/turbocharged 2.0-litre boxer with direct injection
Horsepower/torque: 170-hp/174-lb-ft for 2.5-litre; 250-hp/258 lb-ft for turbo
Transmissions: six-speed manual or CVT for 2.5-litre; CVT for turbo
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Not available
Alternatives: Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Toyota RAV4, Volkswagen Tiguan