TUCSON, AZ – The Subaru Forester is a peculiarity in the auto industry, as it doesn’t fit any defined automotive segment.

Yes, it’s technically a cross/utility vehicle, but on a recent test drive here on beat-up dirt roads winding through a cattle farm, the new fourth-generation ’14 Forester proves it can handle off-road conditions that other CUVs cannot.

Even at speeds up to 40 mph (64 km/h), the Forester gobbles up mile after mile of pothole-riddled roads, uneven surfaces and loose gravel, and does so while keeping the driver and occupant in relative comfort.

The Forester displays a different side on the more pristine paved roads here with a quiet cabin, responsive steering and well-tuned 4-wheel independent suspension.

The CUV’s non-conformity, a trait found throughout most of Subaru’s lineup, has attracted a growing number of fans. U.S. sales have increased five consecutive years.

For the ’14 model year, the Forester gets significant upgrades, including revamped sheet metal, a new 250-hp 2.0L direct-injected turbocharged horizontally opposed 4-cyl. engine and a number of interior enhancements.

The 250-hp boxer is offered only on the higher-end 2.0XT models, while a 2.5L naturally aspirated H-4 producing 170 hp is standard on base trims.

The 2.0L turbo in the higher-powered Forester offers impressive performance, especially when compared with competitors, such as the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.

With peak torque of 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) available from 2,000-4,800 rpm, the 2.0L boxer pulls the 3,622-lb. (1,643-kg) Forester with ease. In fact, Subaru puts the turbocharged Forester on par with the Porsche Cayenne with its base 3.6L V-6.

Yes, Subaru’s new 2.0L turbo requires premium gasoline, but it’s by far the smart choice of the two Forester engine offerings, as the 2.5L proves underwhelming.

Although adequate in most conditions, when merging onto a busy freeway with a base-level Forester, the 2.5L voices disapproval, making a racket while struggling to get up to speed.

Its 23/28 mpg (10.2-8.4 L/100 km) city/highway fuel-economy rating is respectable, but it trails most competitive engine offerings.

Luckily, both low- and high-end Forester models come with Subaru’s excellent Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system.

Long known for offering AWD standard on all its models (the exception being the BRZ RWD sports car), Subaru keeps improving the technology.

The AWD system utilizes an electronically controlled continuously variable transfer clutch that actively manages power distribution based on acceleration, deceleration, cornering and available traction, transferring more power to the wheels with the best grip.

The setup uses input signals for steering-wheel angle, yaw rate and lateral acceleration from the vehicle dynamics system and responds to the vehicle’s slip angle when turning. 

The system proves remarkably efficient on gritty roads, keeping the Forester pointed forward despite the loose gravel under the tires. Subaru excels at AWD, and it has become a staple of the brand.

High-trim level Foresters get extra stability for off-roading with the new X-mode control, helpful in certain driving conditions.

According to Subaru, X-mode provides the Forester extra capability in low friction environments by adjusting the engine, transmission, AWD system, brakes, vehicle dynamics controls and other components for slippery surfaces and steep inclines.

Activated by a switch on the center console, X-mode can be activated only at speeds under 13 mph (21 km/h). Because all our driving is at higher speeds, we never experience the feature, but an added layer of capability likely will appeal to Subaru customers who love the outdoors.

The Forester comes standard with a continuously variable transmission, with the 2.5i models getting a high-torque version with a manual-shift mode. The 2.5i models also come available with a 6-speed manual transmission, but none was available for test drives here.

While many CVTs have been criticized for providing less-than-spirited performance, Subaru’s system is smooth, efficient and linear. Like Honda, Subaru builds its own CVT, a rarity in an industry where transmission development often is outsourced.

The Forester’s interior is functional but doesn’t stand out among the competition. Subaru made subtle upgrades in response to consumer feedback, including integrating higher seat-hip points, a lower center transmission tunnel and a shorter front console, which provides greater legroom and comfort for rear-seat passengers.

Interior materials are high quality and the layout is straightforward, but the cabin as a whole is not one of the CUV’s strong points.

The ’14 Forester grows in size compared with the outgoing model, also in response to consumer feedback.

Based on a new platform, the dimensions have grown 0.9 ins. (2.3 cm) in wheelbase, 1.4 ins. (3.5 cm) in overall length and 0.6 ins. (1.5 cm) in width. As a result, the Forester is more spacious on the inside, particularly in rear-seat legroom.

The Forester also gets new sheet metal, building on the outgoing model’s SUV-like appearance. The 2.0XT models feature new front and rear fascias, as well as a 1-piece mesh-style grille and chrome-rimmed fog light bezels.

Overall, the ’14 Forester is ideal for those needing a midsized CUV who want the ability to travel off road.

Pricing starts at $21,995 for the base model, with the 2.0XT beginning at $27,995. But it offers something unique to the market and is sure to reel in Subaru loyalists who want to stand apart from the pack.

bpope@wardsauto.com

’14 Subaru Forester
Vehicle type 4-door, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger cross/utility vehicle
Engine 2.5L DOHC horizontally opposed 4-cyl. gas engine
Power (SAE net) 170 hp @ 5,8000 rpm
Torque 174 lb.-ft. (236 Nm) @ 4,100 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 94.0 x 90.0
Compression ratio 10.1:1
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 103.9 ins. (263.9 cm)
Overall length 180.9 ins. (459.4 cm)
Overall width 70.7 ins. (179.5 cm)
Overall height 66.4 ins. (168.6 cm)
Curb weight 3,622 lbs. (1,643 kg)
Base price $21,995
Fuel economy 23/28 mpg (10.2-8.4 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V
Pros Cons
Off-road capable Few will fully utilize capabilities
Interior upgrades Still needs work
Turbo mill available Underwhelming base engine