Fifty years ago, Subaru entered the American market with the pint-size 360 city car. Subaru's vehicles have grown over the years, culminating in the new Ascent three-row crossover, which is the largest car the manufacturer has ever produced. But judging by the redesigned 2019 Subaru Forester, the sweet spot might be somewhere in the middle. Based on our initial impressions of the new Forester, buyers in search of a smaller SUV that still has plenty of capability are in for a treat.
The latest Forester doesn't look much different from the outgoing model. But behind-the-scenes improvements to the ride, seating position and noise insulation, along with more interior space, should make this Forester even better suited to the demands of the segment. We drove the aptly named Forester in the thickly wooded Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding Asheville, North Carolina, to track the changes and judge its on- and off-road performance.
Like the exterior, the Forester's cabin is evolutionary. The design of the center stack, instrument panel, steering wheel and seats will be immediately familiar to owners of the last-generation model. At first glance, the most significant change is to the central touchscreen — both the 6.5-inch and 8-inch displays are larger than their previous counterparts. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto appear for the first time on the Forester and are standard on every model.
Take a closer look, and you'll find that the numerous small tweaks make the cabin feel a bit more stylish and functional. Textured soft-touch plastics cover the dashboard and feature contrast stitching for a premium effect. Orange air vent and console surrounds and stitching help differentiate the midtier Sport model from others, while additional faux leather trim on the top Touring version makes the cabin look that much more luxurious.
The front seats are shaped well and offer a better range of adjustment than before. The previous Forester had seats that some found uncomfortably high, but drivers of all sizes will have no problem with the revised chairs. A wide pedal box and a vast amount of headroom ensure that even tall passengers have plenty of space to stretch out. The front headrests even feature an adjustable tilt feature for greater comfort.
For rear passengers, it's more of a mixed bag. The rear seat bottoms are fairly flat, and the seatbacks cannot be adjusted from their single upright position. Although there's plenty of legroom in the back, the elevated seating position means that taller rear passengers might brush their hair against the headliner. On the other hand, if you're not that tall, you'll likely enjoy the commanding outward visibility and the ample under-thigh support.
It's not the largest in the segment, but the Forester's cargo area is impressive nevertheless. Behind the rear seat is 35.4 cubic feet of room (33 cubes with the sunroof), more than most competitors but a few cubic feet shy of the Honda CR-V and the outgoing 2018 Toyota RAV4. And the sunroof-less Forester boasts the largest cargo area in the compact crossover category thanks to the 60/40-split rear seats, which fold nearly flat to expand cargo space to 76.1 cubic feet (70.9 cubes with the sunroof).
Smart Safety Tech
The 2019 Forester deepens Subaru's association with safety. Large windows and narrow pillars allow for excellent outward visibility, while migrating to the Subaru Global Platform vehicle architecture enables the new Forester to absorb more energy in the event of a crash.
While it was optional on the majority of last year's models, Subaru's EyeSight suite of active safety features comes standard on all 2019 Foresters. EyeSight driver assist features include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and mitigation, and a precollision warning system with automatic braking. A blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert is standard on Limited and Touring trims and optional on Premium and Sport models. On the Touring trim, the system will automatically apply the brakes if you're about to strike an object while reversing.
In the real world, most of these systems work well. Adaptive cruise control feels totally natural, even when the vehicle following distance is in its maximum setting. It doesn't slam on the brakes too early when the car in front slows, nor does it hammer the throttle when traffic in front begins to clear. One system we didn't love was the lane departure warning. It is very conservative and sounded a few false warnings on our test drive.
Notably, a new safety system called DriverFocus debuts on Touring models. Near-infrared cameras use facial recognition software to track the driver's head position and monitor for signs of distraction or fatigue. Audible beeps and a warning in the information display are triggered if the driver's head dips or eyes close.
On (and Off) the Road
With the exception of wind noise at higher speeds, the Forester does a great job of isolating inhabitants from auditory intrusions. We also like the composed, comfortable ride. Body roll isn't as tightly controlled as in some other crossovers, so a deliberate approach is advised when navigating mountain roads. This Subie would be a great road trip car, though, assuming the rear passengers can find comfortable seating positions.
Under the hood, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine (182 horsepower, 176 pound-feet of torque) is a little more powerful than last year, but it doesn't feel much gutsier in the real world. With light to moderate throttle application, the Forester can feel quite sprightly. But the engine runs out of steam when you ask for more. Merging onto the freeway or overtaking at higher speeds will require some planning. Unfortunately, the optional turbocharged 2.0-liter engine that gave last year's model a much-needed jolt of adrenaline is no longer available.
Fuel economy for the new Forester improves slightly to 29 mpg combined (26 city/33 highway), making it one of the most fuel-efficient small crossovers.
Happily, the Forester's ability to traverse muddy terrain has returned unscathed. With 8.7 inches of ground clearance and standard all-wheel drive, the Subaru is more capable than other small crossovers if you get the urge to travel off-road. All but the base model come with the driver-selectable X-Mode system, which manages the engine, brakes, stability control, and other parameters to maximize traction on slippery surfaces. X-Mode is bundled with a hill descent feature that allows the Forester to crawl down hills without the driver pressing the brakes. Sport, Limited and Touring models come with an additional X-Mode setting for increased vehicle stability.
The 2019 Subaru Forester starts at $25,270 (including destination and handling charges), or $560 more than last year's base model with the continuously variable automatic transmission. (A manual transmission is not offered on the 2019 version.) For that, you get a basic features list that includes LED headlights, the EyeSight system, a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and, of course, all-wheel drive. Next up is the Premium ($27,670), which counts alloy wheels, a sunroof, roof rails, and X-Mode among its upgrades. The Sport ($29,770) further pads on an additional setting for X-Mode, a sportier driving mode, rear USB ports and unique exterior styling elements.
The luxe Limited ($31,770) has some of the Sport's features but nixes the exterior accents. It also includes a power tailgate, leather upholstery and an 8-inch touchscreen. The range-topping Touring ($35,270) pulls out all the stops with a navigation system, upgraded audio, heated rear seats and the DriverFocus system.
From a pricing perspective, the Forester matches up nicely with other compact crossovers, and its standard all-wheel-drive system means it can be a little less expensive than competitors with optional AWD.
The Bottom Line
The 2019 Subaru Forester is an affordable, well-constructed small crossover that doubles down on safety tech and all-weather capabilities. Make sure to put it on your short list if you're in the market.