You won’t spot the most important changes to the new-generation Subaru Forester on the specifications sheet. Here’s our full review chock full of comparisons to the outgoing generation that stole our hearts.
What is it?
Plainly stated, the two-row Subaru Forester crossover would be our first pick for driving in the woods, on the beach, on a frozen lake, or on the way to a snowed-in cabin. Or pretty much anywhere interesting for that matter. With nearly nine inches of minimum ground clearance standard, the Forester comes ready to go with what is effectively a lift kit. For generations, Subaru has been refining its “symmetrical all-wheel drive” system to the point where it is simply unstoppable in the toughest conditions. What may be most impressive is that the extreme capability is not shackled to a vehicle that is a bear to drive. Rather, the Forester is completely normal and comfortable on a commute to work. And has one of the best fuel economy ratings in the segment.
The Forester enters a new generation for 2019, and during our most recent week of testing this new Forester in its Limited trim we also had on-hand a 2016 Forester and both a 2018 and 2019 Mazda CX-5 for back-to-back drives and comparisons. Two weeks prior, we tested the new 2019 Nissan Rogue. It has been raining crossovers on BestRide and we could not be more pleased that we had these vehicles to compare and contrast to the all-new Forester. We should mention that your author owns a 2016 Forester 2.5i Premium with Eyesight and has owned four Subarus. This review is for the serious Subaru shopper.
Pricing and trims
For 2019 Subaru offers five trims of the Forester; Base, Premium, Sport, Limited, and Touring. The Base starts at about $25,400 and the Touring starts at about $35,400. We tested the very well equipped Limited trim with an as-tested price including destination and delivery of $33,465.
Subaru has established itself as a safety leader in the industry. The 2019 Forester aced every crash test, something the prior generation did not do, and Subaru wisely includes Eyesight, its forward collision prevention system, on every trim. That is a big change from the prior generation which added Eyesight to most trims at a steep price. Higher trims of the Forester add more safety gear like auto high beams, blind spot detection, rear auto braking, and more. Be sure you look closely at what content the Subaru Forester you are shopping for has.
Our tester had all of them and our opinion is mixed. Like the prior generation, there is no way to turn off the annoying lane departure warning without having a bright yellow icon on the dash. If you live in a rural area as we do, that system is going to beep constantly as you move over to avoid joggers, dog walkers, bicyclists, and potholes.
Subaru missed the top score on the IIHS rankings due to its headlight rating. We found the adaptive (swiveling) headlights on our Limited trim to be outstanding. We had a Mazda CX-5 on hand for back to back driving and found that they two had very similar adaptive headlights and the Mazda’s are scored higher by IIHS. Subjectively, we can’t see any difference.
Performance – On Road, Off-Road – Snow, Ice
BestRide is fortunate to have the full support of Subaru for testing. This past fall, we had a chance to drive the Forester off-road on a course designed by Land Rover in some extreme conditions. You can read that report in full here, but suffice it to say, by comparison to Jeep Wranglers we had on hand to compare the Forester to it was amazing. Ground clearance is never an issue and the Forester’s simple to operate dual X Mode system handles all of the wheelspin for you. Deep mud and snow mode actually allows all four wheels to spin and get you through extreme mud and snow.
Luckily, it both snowed and iced during our week of winter testing. Here we have mixed results to report and it is all due to Subaru’s tire choices. Before we start, if moving forward is your only objective, the Forester will never fail you. Period. However, we are fond of turning and stopping at BestRide and in snow and on ice the Forester’s standard all-season tires could be better. This was also true of the prior generation. We had a 2016 Forester shod with Blizzaks and we drove them back to back. The difference is immediately apparent. If you are going to use your Forester on winter adventures, like we like to, do yourself a favor and buy some winter rubber. You will not regret it. Subaru needs to consider adding standard rubber with the “mountain snowflake” rating like Ram now does on some of its vehicles.
On-road the Forester is sweet. There are huge changes to how the Forester drives since the new platform was adopted for 2019. We have to credit our passenger for nailing the feeling. She said that by comparison to our 2016 Forester, the new 2019 feels more “substantial.” It does not bounce around as much and the up and down bobbing over frost heaves on back roads is gone. Perhaps most importantly, the brake feel is dramatically improved. The 2019’s pedal is much more firm. We expected the CX-5 Grand Touring comparison vehicle to be more enjoyable to drive on back roads and highways, but we were wrong. The new Forester handles great and is super smooth on the highway. The improvements are significant.
Subaru’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder “boxer” engine feels smoother and quieter for 2019. Power is plentiful and the smooth Subaru constantly variable transmission is our overall favorite in this segment. Both the engine and CVT had some low probability quality issues leading to extended warranties for the prior generation Forester. We looked carefully at the data on CarComplaints and Consumer Reports and as far as we can see, those issues are now behind Subaru.
Only one change disappointed us. That is the new auto stop-start system. We are not against stop-start, but in the Forester it seems more abrupt than in other brands. On the other hand, Subaru is the only automaker we know of that lets drivers see via the infotainment screen how much fuel they are saving from using the system. We like that.
Ride and handling
We are very pleased to report that the open and airy sensation that only the Forester has carries forward. If there is a better vehicle for overall visibility we have not found it.
Another big improvement for 2019 is the Forester’s seating comfort. We are not comparing apples to apples by jumping from our 2016 2.5i Premium to the new 2019 Limited, but the new Forester’s seats are better. In fact, they were even more comfortable than the CX-5 Grand Touring we had on hand. The heaters are also strong and they stay on when you set them. The Limited has a heated steering wheel as well, and we will never buy another winter vehicle without that feature. Kudos to Subaru for making it available lower than the very top trim. It is optional on Limited and standard on Touring.
The new Forester felt a bit larger in the back seat area compared to our 2016. Subaru says it increased rear seat room by 1.4 inches. That is where the majority of the new added wheelbase length was spent. We packed five occupants into the 2019 Forester one evening, four adults and one child, and everyone was very comfortable.
For 2019, Suabru widened the bottom of the opening of the cargo area by about five inches. However, the whole rear is not widened. The distance between the wheel wells is the same. In total about one cubic foot of volume is added. The Forester is now one of the largest in its class in terms of cargo space. With the rear seats up there is 35.7 cubic feet of volume and with the rear seats folded 73.1 cu ft. By comparison, the CR-V has 39.3/75.8 cu ft. The Mazda CX-5 has 30.9/59.6 cu ft. We like that under the cargo floor there is a nice neat storage area above the spare tire.
Infotainment and controls
Although its interior was not the most luxurious in its class, the prior generation Forester did have outstanding infotainment. For 2019, the screen gets more useful and the dual-information displays are still there. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both available, and we used both. They work great and the native Nav in our Limited trim was also very easy to use. You won’t find Android Auto in a new Toyota RAV4.
The new 2019 Forester has changed in ways that any prior Forester owner will appreciate. Those new to the Subaru brand will be impressed by just how refined this Forester is and how real-world user-friendly it is. The Forester line is unmatched off-road in this segment (honestly, there may be a single trim of the Jeep Cherokee that can match it), but on-road it holds its own against our benchmark for driving enjoyment, the Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring. If you lean towards Subaru as a brand buying a new Forester is a no-brainer. If you are cross-shopping the Forester against your first pick, be prepared for a hard decision. The Forester makes no mistakes and leads this class in many practical ways important to crossover shoppers.
Image note: Some images show other Forester trims.