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Review: 2017 Subaru Forester is sensible, but likes to play in the mud

It’s like an echo of the perfect storm. Three years ago, the flood waters came to Alberta, wreaking havoc and destroying property on a massive scale. In the small town of High River, they’re still rebuilding, showing great community resolve in the face of adversity.

Today heavy showers in the foothills have washed the gravel from the road, leaving a muddy, rut-gouged earthen track that snakes through the trees in slippery hairpins. It’s an unexpected challenge, a soupy mire waiting to swallow lesser vehicles. Good thing we’re in a Subaru.

Photos by Brendan McAleer

This year, the Forester comes to us mildly refreshed with light cosmetic changes, and fitted with more technology. We’ll get to the improvements in a minute; in the meantime, thankfully, all the old capability is still here.

With a ground clearance of 220 mm, aggressive approach and departure angles, and one of the best full-time all-wheel-drive systems on the market, the Forester remains satisfyingly competent off-road. While lacking the low-range gearbox and massive articulation of a proper 4x4 vehicle, it proved easily capable of handling terrain that varied from the dry broken stone of an old slide to the ice-slick mud of a rain-soaked forest track.

More photos: 2017 Subaru Forester inside and out and off-road

Let the record show, however, that the road-friendly Yokohama Geolander tires weren’t quite up to the boggiest portion of our tire route; with the treads packed with mud, they struggled for grip. Momentum proved our saviour more than once – until a submerged rock knocked a rear tire into a slow leak. But even then, the Forester’s mechanical guts proved unflappable, hauling us along on the doughnut spare. We went a further 20 kilometres on puddle-strewn gravel without issue.

The first takeaway lesson is, AWD or no, buy proper tires for the occasion: snow tires in winter and more aggressively treaded tires for the rough stuff. The second takeaway lesson: If the rough stuff is what you’re after, the Forester will gleefully enable almost any exploration.

For the 2017 model year, Subaru has successfully kept its bread-and-butter crossover’s off-road poise, while improving its on-road behaviour. New LED headlights and tail lights freshen up the look, but from the outside, it’s basically the same hiking boot as before. The best thing you can do to improve the look is dunk your Subie up to its doorhandles in mud.

Under the skin, however, Subaru has fitted a great deal of sound-deadening material, as well as a new acoustically-insulated windshield. The continuously-variable transmission has been reprogrammed for both smoothness and a more satisfying feel, and there are slight improvements to fuel economy.

The 2.5i models get a 2.5-litre horizontally opposed transmission making 170 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 174 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Be aware that a flat-four engine offers a lower centre of gravity than a standard inline four, but is harder to service and oil consumption may occasionally be an issue. A six-speed manual transmission is still available on some models (and it’s the only stick-and-AWD crossover game in town). Most Foresters will come with a CVT, with new shift programming and reduced internal friction for 2017.

Get a so-equipped Forester out on the long, straight, high-speed Alberta highways, and the difference is marked. The Forester’s acceleration up to speed is competent rather than vigorous (we’ll have to wait for the turbocharged XT model), but the noise it makes getting there is hugely reduced.

Probably the No. 1 complaint for those shopping the Forester against the competition was the slightly agricultural feel of the car. Here, the boxer engine is muted even under hard loads, and road-noise when cruising at the posted 110 km/h speed limit falls well into acceptable ranges. It’s now far less wearying to take your Forester on the long drive to get away from the city.

The Forester is also fast catching up in the technology department. The Eyesight suite of driver aids now includes lane keeping to nudge you back into your lane, collision avoidance or mitigation at up to 50 km/h, automatic cruise control, and a blind-spot detection system that can detect vehicles far back but closing fast. Subaru’s lane-keeping system isn’t as capable as the Mercedes or Honda versions. It’s more a gentle nudge in the right direction than a step toward a semi-autonomous car.

However, there’s much to recommend the Eyesight package, especially to those who are looking at carrying children. It’s an extra layer of active safety surrounding an already strong crash structure.

And that’s a nice way to sum up the 2017 Forester. The bones here were already good, practical, hardy, and excellent in the dirt. Subaru has simply polished off the Forester’s rough edges to make it an even safer choice. Add in excellent resale – thanks in part to Subaru hardly ever offering discounts – and you have a sensible vehicle with which to do silly things in the dirt. The Forester is ready for anything you might throw at it, come the everyday commute, Hell, or high water.

You’ll like this car if ... You think mud ought to be an optional paint choice.

TECH SPECS

Base Price: $25,995

Engines: 2.5-litre flat-four; 2.0-litre turbocharged flat-four

Transmission/Drive: Six-speed manual, CVT/All-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (CVT-equipped) (litres/100 km): 9.2 city, 7.4 highway

Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5, Jeep Cherokee, Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson

RATINGS

Looks: Less bland thanks to some new tweaks, the Forester remains as stylish as a pair of cargo shorts. This is a car where form is entirely dictated by function: never mind how the new optional LED headlights look, instead care that they can now swivel, “looking” around corners for you.

Interior: The Forester’s proportions should fit most average drivers. However, those long in the torso will find both driver and passenger seats high-mounted. Throw in the big panoramic sunroof and headroom becomes an issue.

Performance: With a new, quicker steering ratio, and firmed-up suspension and damping, the Forester feels slightly nimbler than before. It’s fine on tarmac, but to really have some fun, get it on gravel. There’s a little bit of rally car beneath the skin.

Technology: Those considering a Subaru because of consistently excellent safety ratings will find much to like about the camera-based Eyesight system. The newest development is a sonar-based automatic braking system that will prevent or mitigate collisions when backing up. It demonstrated enough sensitivity to stop before hitting a child’s bicycle.

Cargo: Being boxy has its advantages, and the Forester can boast best-in-class interior space with the seats folded.

THE VERDICT

8.5

Improved on-road manners and more available technology make the Forester that much better.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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