Monday, January 28, 2013
Subaru Forester 2.5i / 2.0XT Turbo
To recap, there are two Forester models: the 2.5i, which gets a carry-over, 170-hp 2.5-liter flat-four, and the 2.0XT, which gets a new 250-hp turbocharged flat-four based on the BRZ’s naturally aspirated 2.0-liter engine. The 2.5i comes in base, Premium, Limited, and Touring versions; the 2.0XT comes only in Premium or Touring guise. A six-speed manual is restricted to the 2.5i and 2.5i Premium and replaces a five-cog unit; all other Foresters get a CVT in place of the outgoing car’s four-speed automatic. We were set loose on paved and unpaved back roads in rural Arizona in a Forester 2.5i Premium manual, a 2.5i Touring, and a 2.0XT Premium.
The recycled engine in the 2.5i is no powerhouse, but has enough guts for running errands and sweat-free highway merges. The manual’s extra forward gear aids around-town elasticity, and the shorter final-drive ratio adds some pep; its shifter is direct, with closely spaced gates and a satisfying action. In spite of the notion that CVTs are anathema to everything decent and good, the 2.5i’s all-new unit isn’t bad, and the way it oozes the Forester down the road while keeping engine revs low seems like a win for the average crossover shopper.
The 2.0XT’s turbo four is quick, and while no manual transmission is offered, the model at least offers three drive modes. Intelligent mode utilizes normal throttle and transmission responses for daily driving. Sport mode enlivens throttle response and offers six driver-selectable forward gear ratios when he uses the lever or steering-wheel paddles to actuate shifts. Sport Sharp further enlivens engine response and switches the CVT to a pseudo-eight-speed automatic; the eight fake gears are also selectable via lever or paddles.
We primarily stuck with Sport Sharp mode during our drive, finding the sort-of-actual gearchanges more interesting than the regular CVT slurring. The CVT actually does a convincing job of imitating a well-tuned eight-speed auto. Downshifts are immediate—stomp it, and the trans will shoot from “eighth” to “third” fast. Manual operation is only partially satisfying, as the faux-gear engagements are soft. We’d be lying if we said we don’t yearn for a six-speed manual/turbo combo.
On both dirt and paved roads, we found the Forester athletic, with a firm ride and good body control. Hard driving is met by safe, relentless understeer, even in the turbo, with its stiffer sport-tuned suspension and additional chassis bracing. On rough roads, the Forester’s impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance and long suspension travel comes in handy. The setup acquitted itself well when we (semi) unwittingly launched a 2.0XT over a “dip”—as Arizona signage describes four-plus-foot road heaves—at 70 mph.
The CVT-only Forester 2.5i Limited and Touring and all 2.0XT models get a nifty new piece of off-roading hardware called X-Mode. The system works in concert with the cars’ electronically managed all-wheel drive (manual models get a lower-tech, viscous-coupling locking center differential) and summons softer throttle mapping, lower gear ratios, a unique stability-control program to maximize traction, and activates hill-descent control. We tried the system on a steep, rocky mountain path and found it performed as advertised, although we’re not sure many Forester owners ultimately will use it in real life.