I live in Denver and own a couple of large dogs, which means that I am more or less required by law to own a Subaru. I'm not sure about the exact wording of the state ordinance, but the upshot is that Subarus—often with canine passengers leaving nose prints on all the side glass—swarm every road in the Mile High City.
My wife and I own a 2004 Outback wagon with a 5-speed and the Rocky Mountain Option Package (weather band on the radio, grab bar on the hatch, extra-burly floor mats); it's getting a bit on the hooptie side, and we've started thinking about a replacement. The XV Crosstrek, well suited as it is to Leif Ericson-grade extreme-driving conditions, doesn't have room in back for a pair of tall standard poodles, so our commuter/dog-hauler Subaru choices come down to the Outback and the Forester. We spent the Thanksgiving holiday weekend road-tripping with the dogs in the 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring giving us ample opportunity to test the Forester as dog-schlepper.
Before the dogs went anywhere, however, I had to run an errand to pick up a BMW E30 3-series seat to put in a Chrysler K-Car race car (long story). A friend had a half-dozen E30 parts cars about an hour's drive south of town, so I took the Forester. The seat and toolbox fit easily in the cargo area, and on the way back I decided to try the EyeSight Driver Assist adaptive cruise-control system.
The EyeSight system, which uses a pair of cameras to give the car's brain stereo vision, does a very good job of keeping a preset distance from the car in front of the Forester. It worked well on open highways and on rural Colorado two-lane blacktop; in heavy downtown traffic on I-25, erratic lane-changers and dive-bombers caused EyeSight to do a lot of hard braking, so it's best to turn off the system during traffic jams. Driving directly into the setting sun caused EyeSight to disengage (presumably, the cameras were blinded), but overall it's a nice fatigue-reducer for long road trips.
The poodles, Lucy and Jackson, weigh 45 and 65 pounds, respectively, and the back of the '04 Outback is the ideal size for them to sit, stand, or lie as needed. The '14 Forester's cargo area is a bit shorter, thanks in part to a half-inch shorter wheelbase but mostly due to the better rear-seat legroom in the Forester, but the dogs seemed quite happy in it. The view out the tall windows pleased them greatly. The floor height of the cargo area is no problem for dogs in good health when it comes to leaping in and out of the Forester, but small or elderly dogs might need to be lifted. Jackson is 36 inches tall when standing, and that's a bit too much for the Forester's cargo area. Still, he didn't mind ducking his head or pressing it into the headliner.
We decided to spend the night in a cabin in Estes Park, Colo., located near Rocky Mountain National Park, about 70 miles northwest of Denver. This area was hit hard by flooding in September, and we wanted to do our part to help the local economy. The Forester 2.5i Touring comes standard with a 170-horse DOHC 2.5-liter naturally aspirated boxer four and weighs 3,433 pounds. It's not particularly quick, but it manages to climb steep mountain grades at 8,000-foot elevation without any white-knuckles-on-steering-wheel drama. As is the case with most car-chassis-based crossovers, the Forester looks like a truck but drives like a car.
As a manual-trans snob from way back, and having experienced the misery that was the CVT-equipped Subaru Justy 20 years ago, I was ready to hate the Subaru Lineartronic CVT in the Forester. However, a few days with this transmission has made me a card-carrying CVT convert--this conversion process began with the pretty good CVT in the '14 Mitsubishi Lancer GT I drove in October. The Subaru Lineartronic CVT picks the right ratio in just about every situation, doesn't make any weird noises (though watching the tachometer during acceleration reminded me, disconcertingly, of all the slipping GM TH350 transmissions I've owned), and it allows a tall all-wheel-drive vehicle loaded with two adults, two big dogs and a couple hundred pounds worth of gear to knock out a measured, real-world 26.573 mpg in a combination of city, lead-footed highway and high-altitude mountain driving.
The main reason Coloradans buy Subarus is the combination of car-like manners and the ability to get through serious snow when necessary. I didn't test the Forester with much traction-challenged driving, but we were able to get through the snow to this dog-pleasing hiking trail. The only really frustrating thing about the Forester was the audio interface and Bluetooth system; I kept getting a badly-translated-from-the-Japanese "Connection with the mobile phone was disconnect" message, and navigating the menus for audio files on a USB device was painfully difficult. I'm sure the first problem could be solved, and you could get used to the second in the long term... but I might opt for an aftermarket head unit, were I to buy a Forester.
But I probably won't buy a Forester to replace our aging Outback. Even though it doesn't drive like an SUV or swill gas like an SUV—this vehicle gets better fuel economy than a lot of 5-seat sedans—the ghost of the 1990s SUV boom still mandates that vehicles like this must have SUV-style ride height, military-vehicle-esque slab sides and huge wheel-well openings, especially where I live. Without these design nods to the Mighty SUV Gods of the optimistic late 1990s, the Forester would likely get even better fuel economy and have more usable interior space.
This is no way to feel about such a sensible machine, one that probably becomes lovable after a few months of ownership, so I decided to contemplate this issue in the Forester's natural Denver habitat: the Whole Foods parking lot. Watching the arrival and departure of crossover after crossover (plus the occasional full-frame Detroit SUV), driven by the healthy-looking, high-income, educated-yet-outdoorsy types of marketers' dreams, I realized that my outdated idea about what a truck should be was the problem here. This led to a lot of gloomy thoughts, so I took the Forester to my natural habitat to go shopping for parts for my bouncy, uncomfortable, gas-swilling truck, a 1966 Dodge A100 van.
That accomplished, we loaded the dogs into the Forester and headed out to the off-leash area of Chatfield State Park. The dogs think the '14 Forester is just fine, and most canines in the water-retriever family should feel the same way
2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring
Base Price: $29,995
On Sale: Now
Drivetrain: 2.5-liter H4, AWD, continuously-variable transmission
Output: 170 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 174 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,433 lbs
0-60 mph: 9.3 seconds
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Hwy/Combined): 24/27/32 mpg
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