UCLUELET, BC—The drive from Nanaimo to Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island is a challenging one at the best of times.
It’s even more of a test when you do it at night because for much of the journey in this rugged area there is nothing to light up your way other than the headlights of your vehicle.
To get to Ucluelet, you make your way north to Parksville and then head west through Port Alberni.
It is from here that you encounter constant elevation changes as the road snakes back and forth through tricky mountain passes en route to your destination in the spectacular Pacific Rim area.
That was the scenario my driving partner and I faced as we arrived in Nanaimo and joined the first wave of journalists in the country to test Subaru’s redesigned Forester compact sport ute.
A flight delay meant that we didn’t get into Nanaimo until near dark and then we faced a two-and-a-half hour drive to our destination.
But it soon became evident the new fourth-generation Forester that we were driving was easily up to the challenge.
We were given the keys to a performance-oriented 250 hp XT model that features a new 2.0-litre direct-injection twin scroll turbocharged engine, mated with one of the best continuously variable transmissions (CVT) I have tested.
The Forester’s full-time all-wheel drive system evoked a feeling of confidence as we made our way through the twisty bits, particularly in one area where the pavement was a bit damp and greasy with snowdrifts off to either side of the road.
For casual observers, the exterior styling of the 2014 Forester will appear little changed, but Subaru aficionados will notice that the look is bolder this time around. While the footprint of the Forester is not much different, the cabin is roomier in both front and rear.
Meanwhile power in the performance Forester XT model has been increased by 20 hp, yet the fuel economy is best-in-class for all-wheel drive models and near the top of the entire compact SUV category.
The Forester, which first debuted in 1997, is among Subaru’s most important vehicles as it accounted for 23 per cent of the company’s 31,003 units sold in Canada last year.
So when Forester project manager Takuji Dai set out on the path for the 2014 model, his goals were to enhance the core strengths of the previous generation—safety, utility and performance—and improve on the weak points such as fuel economy, interior roominess and the transmission.
From early indications, he was successful in all areas.
The 6.2L/100 km highway fuel economy rating is tops in class for AWD models, while there is more rear seat legroom and the new Lineartronic CVT is a step forward. With the new direct injection turbo 2.0-litre, power is up from 223 to 250 hp even with the improvements in fuel economy.
As always with Subaru, safety isn’t forgotten as the 2014 Forester has once again been named a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS in the US.
For those who aren’t performance oriented, the Forester comes standard with a naturally aspirated 2.5-litre horizontally opposed Boxer engine, producing 170 hp and 174 lb/ft of torque. A new six-speed manual transmission is standard with the 2.5i entry-level model, starting at $25,995.
At the top end is the Forester lineup is XT Limited with navigation and the Eyesight pre-collision safety system, priced at $37,995.
The manual transmission is available on the 2.5i entry level and the Touring package as is the CVT as an option. All other trim levels get the CVT only, while a high-torque version of the CVT with six- and eight-speed manual shift models with steering wheel paddle shifters is standard on the direct-injection turbo model.
All CVT models also get a new feature called X-Mode and Hill Descent Control that works together with the all-wheel drive system to provide extra control in slippery driving conditions.
Among the other new features for 2014 are anti-whiplash front seats, a driver’s knee airbag, brake override and impact sensing fuel system cutoff.
For those who enjoy off-road adventures, the Forester enjoys 220 mm of ground clearance—higher than many crossovers and SUVs. Electric power steering is standard this time around.
Subaru engineers made the 2014 Forester more passenger-friendly with lowered side sills (38 mm lower) for easy ingress along with wider rear door openings, making it easier to accommodate child seats in the rear.
Outward visibility was already outstanding in the Frontier, but the 2014 model has been improved even more with tweaks like higher front seats, relocation of the exterior mirrors and the A-pillar and the addition of a rear view camera for all models except the base.
Greater use of high-strength steel has improved body rigidity on the new Forester and thus suspension performance is a cut above the outgoing model. In fact, during our time with the Forester it appeared composed at all times, except for an encounter with one huge pothole that would have shaken up the occupants of any vehicle.
The XT model also gets something called SI Drive that gives the option of using I (Intelligent), S (Sport) and S# (Sport Sharp). I, for normal driving situations, provides smooth power output and improved fuel economy, while S increases use of higher engine speeds and S# gives sharper throttle response and eight-speed stepped shifting.
The compact sport utility segment in Canada continues to grow at a rapid rate with sales up 25 per cent from 2008 to more than 311,000 units in 2012.
It is also an extremely competitive segment with 26 models now on the market.
Even in this competitive environment, with the changes for 2014 the Subaru Forester will no doubt grow market share, bringing in new customers to the brand while holding on to the loyal Subaru followers who love them because of their commitment to safety and reliability.
The 2014 Forester is available at Canadian dealerships now.
Subaru Forester 2014
Body style: four-door, compact sport utility vehicle.
Drive method: symmetrical full-time all-wheel drive.
Engine: 2.5-litre DOHC 16-valve horizontally opposed four-cylinder Boxer engine (170 hp, 174 lb/ft) with six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT); 2.0-litre DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder Boxer engine with twin-scroll turbocharger and intercooler with CVT.
Cargo capacity: with rear seat up 974 litres, with rear seat folded 2,115 litres.
Towing capacity: 453 kg (996 lb).
Fuel economy: 2.5i manual 9.5/7.0 L/100 km city/hwy; 2.5i CVT automatic 8.3/6.2; 2.0 XT 8.9/7.2.
Price: $25,995 to $37,995.