In the Subaru world, three letters are synonymous with fun: W, R and X. Prepare for a polarizing shift if you switch those with the pragmatic, family-first Forester. That is, unless the boxy bread wagon bears an XT badge on its caboose.
|1. A new turbocharged 2.0L boxer engine delivers 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque with a 0-60 mph time of 6.2 seconds.
2. A new CVT offers six simulated gears, or eight in Sport Sharp mode.
3. Fuel economy is 23 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.
4. Priced at $28,820 for the Premium, a top-level Touring starts at $33,820 (destination included)
The Forester XT was born two generations ago with a turbocharged version of Subaru’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. With an available manual transmission, aggressive styling and shocking torque, the car had street cred.
Jump to the 2014 model year and Subaru is offering an all-new Forester and the XT is faithfully in tow. Or is it?
Much has changed since the tuner’s friend graced North America in 2003 with its WRX-like hood scoop. The 2.5-liter turbo engine is gone and so, lamentably, is the stick shift (although that’s nothing new, as it wasn’t offered in the 2nd generation XT either).
In their places, Subie chose a continuously variable transmission and a 2.0-liter, turbocharged version of the Boxer four found in the new BRZ. At 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, the smaller engine does have more pluck.
A CVT is now also used, and while that might seem like a bad thing, it’s not. After all, the old automatic was nothing but a 4-speed. Add the new box to those higher output numbers and the result is 0-60 time closer in line with the original XT, sitting just above the six-second mark.
NEWLY MATURE STYLE
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Even in the previous generation, Subaru made the call to tone the pseudo-racer version down a couple of notches.
Sharp edges and the air-hungry hood scoop melted and gave way to a more organic body style.
The smoother look seems to be a hit because Subaru’s designers chose to keep it, albeit with a handful of more aggressive stylistic touches. Angular accent marks under the headlights are the most notable change specific to the XT model.
Chrome accents, specially styled 18-inch wheels and a mesh-look grille make up the rest of this car’s outside extras; aside from the badge, of course.
There’s a good chance you’re going to miss all that the next time one of these cars passes you with its turbo whistling, however. That’s because the hood scoop isn’t just sanded down; it’s gone.
Is that a bad thing? Maybe from a superficial perspective, but a few thoughtful minutes behind the wheel will convince you otherwise.
The Japanese automaker offers a selection of sport-minded driving modes that deliver power to keep the engine in boost. But it isn’t all about raucous gas wasting — although there’s plenty to be had.
Daily driving defaults to “Intelligent” mode, which keeps the car in a lower rev range while under a light foot. Even there, you’ll likely find the car eager to meet and pass posted limits. Unfortunately that’s also the only place you’re likely to meet the car’s fuel economy targets.
Mounted on the steering wheel, the intelligent button is surrounded by two more modes: Sport and Sport Sharp. Predictably, “Sport” serves as a performance middle ground. Pressing Sport Sharp puts the car at its wildest. It isn’t exactly a tire smoker, but the number of simulated gears rises from six to eight, and you’ll find the car sticking in high revs to maintain power.
That power feels different than any past versions of the Forester XT — once again because of the high-torque and the CVT’s ability to keep the car in the right power range. Acceleration feels liquid smooth after the turbo kicks in.
There’s a delay with delivery, but the car’s turbocharger spools quickly and in a moment it feels like you’re being sucked through a vacuum.
Steering wheel mounted paddle shifters let you pretend to pick gears, and it works to an extent. The response time between asking for a gearing adjustment and getting it still feels a little slow.
Thankfully, the car comes with a stiffer suspension and feels surprisingly planted while cornering. Handling on blacktop benefits from that, while trundling over dirt roads remains respectably hospitable. Then there’s the other driving mode.
X-Mode offers altered driving dynamics, although not with the aim for a stiffer upper lip, so to speak. Instead, it’s meant to improve traction on slippery surfaces and steep hills by altering how the engine and transmission behave.
Predictable as that behavior is, you might be surprised with the car’s fuel consumption. Even with careful driving, the car settled on 18 mpg between city and highway driving with the recommended premium fuel. The EPA ratings suggest 23 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway, or a combined 25.
The shortfall could be attributed to an admittedly liberal exploration of Sport Sharp driving, but gentle driving failed to match the EPA numbers too.
SMALL CABIN IMPROVEMENTS, DISAPPOINTING EQUIPMENT
Fuel consumption wasn’t the only place Subaru’s boxy ex-hotrod left more to be desired. At its least expensive, the “Premium” XT model still costs $28,820 including delivery. Optional equipment including a touch screen, leather seat upholstery and a suite of increasingly common safety features are all missing.
Leather and the touch screen are held exclusively in the top tier Touring trim, while blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and lane keeping assist are part of the one available option package, which costs $2,400. It also isn’t available with the Premium trim.
Fully loaded, the car will set you back $36,220. It raises an important question: who is buying the XT model?
At that price level, it’s probably out of reach for the first generation’s crowd who might have been seen strapping STI parts on for extra power. Then again, performance nuts probably aren’t looking at Foresters any more. Most of them likely abandoned the car with last generation’s 4-speed auto.
Still, there’s room for this powerful compact crossover in the market; from part-time hooligans, to those faithful buyers who picked up the last generation model, to disaffected RAV4 shoppers, now that Toyota dropped the potent V6 from its lineup.
FAR MORE THAN JUST A NEW ENGINE
Aside from the added speed, Subaru made lengthy changes to the new Forester. The A-pillar is moved forward over eight inches to vastly improve sightlines. Blocked vision while rounding a corner isn’t an issue, and the car’s boxy proportions make it practically foolproof to park.
Not only that, but the squared-off styling leaves lots of room for carrying cargo. You’ll have 74.7 cubic feet with the seats collapsed or 34.4 with them raised.
While some people might be turned off by how expensive the car is with leather seats, it probably indicates that Subaru buyers don’t care about smelling rich animal hide.
Instead they care about being able to take on a January blizzard like Tyson on Evander. They care about value and capability. They care about their dog fitting in the back hanging his head over and drooling down collars. And it will do all of these things.
Without its hood scoop the XT may blend in with the rest of the Forester family more than ever before, but thanks to plenty of punch under the hood it’s closer in line with the secret racer box it used to be.
At the same time, for its third coming, the car sheds the last shreds of its youthful image in favor of practical competencies that are meaningful to its customer base. Despite Subaru’s insistence that this is a crossover, it doesn’t feel like one. Instead, it feels like a car that will bring the brood to school come whatever may.