In an era where the trend is toward soft, Subaru is taking a hard line with the 2014 Forester.
In recent years, we've seen an increasing migration away from sport utility vehicles with substantial off-road capabilities toward softer crossover utility vehicles that can venture off-road, but not very far.
By definition, an SUV is truck-based with body-on-frame construction and rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive and perhaps optional V8 power. A crossover, in contrast, mimics an automobile with unit-body construction, front-wheel or all-wheel drive, and four- or six-cylinder power.
The trend has been away from SUVs, not notable for fuel economy, and toward CUVs, which do better at the pump. Examples include the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, which used to be trucks but now are car-based CUVs.
Subaru has never played any of those games. It has finessed both the transition toward and away from SUVs. Its Legacy station wagon got jacked up and became the Outback, one of the original crossovers. Its major claim to fame is that it equips all of its vehicles with all-wheel drive, with one exception.
That is the new BRZ, an affordable rear-wheel-drive sports car jointly developed with Toyota, which markets it as the Scion FR-S. The cars, which are identical except for minor trim differences, use Subaru engines and transmissions.
The engine is horizontally opposed, as are all Subaru engines and some of those at Porsche, the elite German sports vehicle manufacturer. Horizontally opposed engines, also called boxer or flat engines, have the cylinders lying feet to feet on opposite sides of the crankshaft, instead of leaning sideways or standing upright as in V or in-line engines.
A big advantage of boxers is that they enable a lower center of gravity for better balance and handling, which is evident even in a tall crossover like the 2014 Subaru Forester.
That's what contributes to the revised personality of the new Forester. From its inception in 1998, it has been a pleasant crossover with modest off-road capabilities, a viable competitor to the likes of the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape.
Now it has that but also has morphed into a performance machine that can handle rough stuff in the boondocks but also can hold its own on a racetrack. But it depends on the model you choose.
As noted, all Subaru models except for the BRZ have all-wheel drive, so there's no figuring out whether you're OK with front drive or want to spend an additional $1,500 or so for all-wheel drive. Even the entry-level Forester has all-wheel drive at a starting price of $22,820. That's with the base 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual gearbox.
That model also is available with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which uses a system of belts and pulleys to seamlessly deliver the engine's power to the wheels. It is very much like the Foresters buyers have come to know.
The hard liner is the tested Forester XT, which uses a turbocharged 250-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine linked to the CVT. More than the extra power, the tested 2.0 XT Premium includes suspension and steering modifications to enhance handling and overall performance. The result is a relatively tall CUV that can modestly acquit itself on the twists and turns of a road-racing track.
Subaru says it can accelerate to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds. Highway fuel economy is rated at 28 mpg -- not, of course, if you're drag racing the guy next to you.
In addition to its stability prowess on a racetrack, the tested XT manages a degree of off-road capability. The all-wheel-drive system can move the Forester uphill on icy terrain even if only one wheel has traction, and it has 8.7 inches of ground clearance to chug along rutted forest roads.
However, there is no low range in the transmission or locking differentials for the really rough stuff. The Forester does have hill descent control, which automatically applies the brakes to slowly maneuver down steep grades off-road.
The XT Premium has a base price of $28,720, which includes such amenities as a panoramic sunroof and classy and comfortable cloth upholstery with strategic vinyl trim. Add a navigation system and it checked in at $29,820, which is right in the garage with competitive and less capable crossovers.
Model: 2014 Subaru Forester 2.0 XT Premium four-door crossover utility vehicle.
Engine: 2.0-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder, turbocharged, 250 horsepower.
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic with manual-shift mode and all-wheel drive.
Overall length: 15 feet 1 inch.
EPA passenger/cargo volume: 108/34 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,622 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 23/28/25 mpg. Premium fuel recommended.
Base price, including destination charge: $28,720.
Price as tested: $29,820.