With the introduction of the 2014 Forester, Subaru is sending a clear message: when it comes to pummeling, it is better to give than to receive -- and the time has come to start throwing some punches.
Not that Subaru is doing badly. Sales in the United States have increased in each of the last four years, setting records. But the Forester -- last reworked in 2008 -- has not been part of that growth, with sales shrinking some 10 percent in 2011 and stalling at that level last year.
The Forester has, in part, been a casualty of the brawl in the compact sport utility market in recent years, with automakers landing blow and counterblow by improving fuel economy while adding luxury, performance and safety features previously unseen in this class. Chasing market leaders like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, the major automakers are updating or introducing new models very quickly, said Tom Libby, senior forecasting analyst at Polk, the automotive data firm.
Now Subaru joins that melee with a Forester that offers more room, new features and better fuel economy, all based on the underpinnings of the redesigned Impreza introduced in 2011. Subaru's two-pronged market strategy continues: there's the standard Forester 2.5i and then the 2.0XT, a sportier turbocharged model.
Prices start at $22,820 for a 2.5i with a 6-speed manual transmission; a continuously variable automatic is $1,000 extra. The least expensive sport model is the 2.0XT Premium, priced at $28,820.
But picking the fancier 2.0XT Touring version and adding a package of high-tech features that includes lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, high-intensity-discharge low-beam headlights and precollision braking can push the price past $36,000. That figure suggests high hubris, given that Foresters have never been considered prestige models, but a richly optioned Escape can also reach that level.
I tested both a 2.5i Premium, which had a sticker price of $26,320, and a 2.0XT Touring ($36,220).
The 2014 Forester is 1.4 inches longer and gets a new look -- lauded by company officials -- that drew little attention in two weeks of driving around northern New Hampshire, a prime habitat of Subaru enthusiasts. But settle inside and the all-around visibility is good; a huge panoramic sunroof, standard on many models, furthers the sense of openness.
Core Subaru values like practicality have not been forsaken. The basic controls for heating, cooling and ventilation rely on an increasingly forgotten and simple pleasure: large, easy-to-use knobs. However, an optional touch screen for functions like the stereo is frustrating, with tiny boxes best suited to dainty little fingers.
An important change is the addition of 3.7 inches more legroom in the rear, which Subaru justifiably felt was needed to attract families with children. That increase means the Forester now has more rear legroom than major competitors like the CR-V, Escape and Toyota RAV4. Behind the second row there's a competitive 34.4 cubic feet of space (31.5 when equipped with a sunroof).
There are also important mechanical upgrades. The quaint 4-speed automatic that hobbled the previous generation's acceleration and fuel economy is gone. It has been replaced with an utterly agreeable C.V.T. that offers a strong and instant response to the accelerator. Fuel economy is greatly improved, by up to 5 m.p.g on the highway and 3 m.p.g. in town.
A 6-speed manual transmission is standard on the two least expensive 2.5i trim levels, replacing a 5-speed manual. All other models get the C.V.T.
The entry-level engine is a 170-horsepower 2.5-liter flat 4-cylinder introduced in the 2012 Forester and then added to the 2013 Outback and Legacy models. With the automatic, it is rated at 24 m.p.g. city and 32 m.p.g. highway. Pick the 6-speed manual and the fuel economy drops to 22 city and 29 highway.
The other engine choice is the turbocharged direct-injection 4 rated at 250 horsepower at 5,600 r.p.m. Available only on the 2.0XT, it is making its North American debut. Mileage with the turbo engine is rated at 23/28, one mile per gallon less in the city and four on the highway than the 2.5-liter engine.
That 250 horsepower is up from the 224 produced by last year's 2.5-liter turbo. However, that gain is offset somewhat by extra pounds. The 2.0XT's curb weight of 3,622 pounds reflects an increase of about 172 pounds, in part a result of bigger wheels and brakes.
Subaru says the base 2.5-liter Forester will go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 9.3 seconds with the C.V.T. The turbocharged 2.0XT is 3.1 seconds quicker.
During two weeks of driving in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, what the 2.5i and 2.0XT proved to have in common was driving satisfaction, albeit in different amounts.
The electric power steering, new for 2014, is predictable and properly weighted, and for an all-wheel-drive vehicle the Forester is pleasingly quick to dig into a turn.
During brisk driving, lifting off the gas also allows a weight transfer to the front tires that nudges the Forester a little more deeply into the turn. That's when the rapid response of the variable transmission comes into play. A slight push on the gas pedal and there's an instant application of power, shifting weight to the rear and scooting the Forester out of the turn.
It is not surprising that the 250-horsepower 2.0XT provides the kind of acceleration that allows passing maneuvers on a two-lane mountain road that the driver of a 2.5-liter model would never dare. Subaru says the 2.0XT takes about 6.2 seconds to reach 60 m.p.h. A pair of switches also lets the XT driver select two sportier modes that speed up the powertrain response.
But the 2.0XT gets more than extra power. The suspension is firmer, the brakes are larger and there's a brace to stiffen the rear suspension. It also gets 18-inch wheels instead of the 17-inch rims of the regular Forester.
In theory this should provide better handling, and the XT's responses do seem sharper, although the steering felt lighter.
But there's a cost-benefit matter. The standard Forester already has more than enough cornering power for all but the most ruthless enthusiasts. In addition, the XT's ride on a rough surface is stiffer than the standard Forester's, which already can be somewhat harsh. The XT would be, I suggest, a more successful package if the suspension settings were recalibrated a bit toward to the comfort end of the scale.
Like its predecessor, the Forester has 8.7 inches of ground clearance, improving its chances in deep snow or on a rough, muddy road. There's also a new feature called X Mode designed for particularly challenging, slippery surfaces. Select it and the computer makes changes aimed at limiting wheelspin.
The 2014 Forester was also the only small utility wagon to get top rating in a new small overlap front crash test conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In addition, the Forester earned a Top Safety Pick+ label for its good performance in a battery of tests.
Last year Subaru sold about 76,000 Foresters, while Honda, the leader in this market segment, sold 282,000 CR-Vs. Subaru may never match the sales volume of much larger automakers like Toyota (part owner of Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru's parent) or Ford and Honda. But Subaru hopes to increase sales of the Forester to about 100,000, and with this more serious contender that ought to be within reach.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.