Barbed wire, tall concrete walls — even a watchtower — greet us as we enter the complex. Cameras, cellphones and voice recorders are taboo, so guards confiscate them at the gate. I almost feel I have to sneak in a pen and notepad. Such is the security at Subaru’s testing facility, located in the Tochigi prefecture, about 120 km north of Tokyo. I’m here for a sneak peak at the 2014 Subaru Forester.
Numerous changes define this fourth-generation Forester, beginning with its outer shell. The front clip is entirely new, with redesigned fenders, hood, headlights and grille. The biggest external change is the relocation of the A-pillars, which have moved forward 20 cm and are at a shallower angle. This has given the Forester a blunter, more muscular nose and more streamlined profile. It’s also 3.8 cm taller.
There are two different bumpers available, one is a more conventional, smooth-edged design, and the other, available on the up-level and turbo models, is more aggressive and features Veloster-like gills on its outer flanks. Notably, and perhaps in an effort to give the Forester a more mature presence, the WRX-like hood scoop has been nixed on the turbo model.
There’s more room inside; front occupants now have 25 mm more elbow room and 18 mm more headroom, while the driveshaft tunnel height has been reduced by about 80 mm to provide more legroom in the rear. There’s 55 more litres of rear cargo space, an increase of 12 per cent, and the cargo space floor is now almost level, with just a two-degree slope.
The undercarriage boasts a more rigid chassis. Frame crossmembers have been thickened, stabilizer diameters increased and thicker frame walls are used, all contributing to a chassis that is 150 per cent more rigid compared to the outgoing Forester. Suspension spring rates and damping force have been increased by 20 per cent for a firmer, sportier ride and wheelbase has been lengthened by 25 mm, now measuring 2,640 mm. Standard wheel sizes are now 17-inch on naturally aspirated models, and 18-inches on the turbo, an increase in diameter of one inch in both cases. All 2014 Foresters will have electric power steering, something currently available only on non-turbo models.
As on the current Forester, there will be two engine choices: A 170 hp naturally aspirated 2.5-litre boxer four, and an all-new, 250 hp 2.0-litre turbocharged boxer four. The turbocharged engine is half a litre smaller than the current turbo engine, but it produces 25 hp more and promises better fuel economy.
A more significant change in the drivetrain is the choice of transmissions. A six-speed manual will replace the current five-speed, while a Lineartronic CVT will supplant the four-speed automatic. Non-turbocharged models will be available with either transmission, while the turbocharged model will only be available with a high-torque CVT.
CVT-equipped Forester models will be available with X-Mode, a new traction-management system meant to enhance low-speed grip on slippery surfaces. A demonstration on a steep ascent with a Forester’s two left wheels placed on rollers reveals the effectiveness of the system. With X-Mode activated and accelerating from a stop, the Forester barely rolls back before power transfers to the wheels with grip and it begins moving forward. A Toyota RAV4 and a Hyundai Tucson used in the same demonstration roll back enough that their rear wheels fall off the rollers, which in turn gives them enough traction to finally move forward. X-Mode disengages automatically above 40 km/h.
At the test track I’m offered the opportunity to test drive turbo and non-turbo prototypes of the new Forester, as well as a current model for comparison. It’s a very brief drive in an unusual setting for an SUV — a couple of laps around a high-speed oval with a short interlude on an infield course that simulates public roads.
I’m told not to exceed 160 km/h on the oval, and there are six “safety observers” and 11 cameras to make certain that I don’t. The extra security isn’t needed as I have little interest in exploring the Forester’s upper limits of speed. I’m more interested in seeing the difference the changes have made, and there are a couple of notable improvements.
The first thing I notice is that the new Forester has a quieter cabin at speed, a result of improved soundproofing. It also feels much more taut going through turns on the road course, with less body roll and a firmer ride than the current model. The stiffer chassis and improved handling make the current Forester seem almost unwieldy in comparison.
The other big difference is experienced on the turbo model, and more specifically with the new CVT transmission. It has three drive modes, but because of my limited drive time I can only sample one of them — Intelligent mode — which is tuned to maximize fuel economy. Acceleration is seamless in this mode, with no gear changes as the speed increases. The other options are S and S-sharp mode, which simulate gear changes through six and eight ratios respectively. You can also shift gears manually.
Among the various safety systems will be Subaru’s EyeSight. This driver assist system uses cameras to detect surrounding traffic and obstacles, and will activate pre-collision braking at low speeds and pre-collision throttle management, as well as help operate the adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning systems.
The 2014 Subaru Forester should be arriving in Canada in early 2013, however pricing has not yet been determined.
2014 Subaru Forester
ENGINE: 2.5 L boxer four; 2.0 L turbocharged boxer four
POWER/TORQUE (hp/lb.-ft.): 170/174; 250/258
TRANSMISSION: six-speed manual or CVT
FUEL ECONOMY: N/A
COMPETITION: Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV4, Volkswagen Touareg
WHAT’S BEST: Turbocharged engine has more power and claims better fuel economy than the current model; improved ride
WHAT’S WORST: A fun-killing CVT is the only transmission available on the turbo model.
WHAT’S INTERESTING: Subaru’s testing facility boasts better security than most military compounds.
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