2014 Subaru Forester, all over the map: Motoramic Drives

Because of how I pay my rent, I get a lot of people asking me what kind of car they should buy. I’ve driven a lot of really nice machines, but I rarely find myself recommending a Lexus GS hybrid, or a Range Rover Sport, or a Mercedes CLS. Very few of my acquaintances can afford luxury. To those who seem concerned about gas mileage and nothing else, I usually end up saying, “Just get a Prius.” But others want to drive something more than a fuel-efficient toaster oven. Inevitably, the conversation turns to Subaru.

A Subaru was once considered a novelty item in the industry, a vehicle with little more prestige than a jet ski, but the company has slowly and competently climbed into the top five in several major U.S. markets by making safe, unpretentious, reasonably priced cars that are relatively fuel efficient, easy to take camping, and pretty fun to drive. It seems like a logical formula, but it’s also one that’s remarkably hard to pin down.

The 2014 Subaru Forester fits the company’s profile perfectly. When the Forester debuted, it was little more than a quirky station wagon with a bulbous roof, a community-college math professor’s nerd-car, but in the last few years it’s evolved into a more standard looking compact SUV. This year’s edition has the same unfussy attitude as the 2013 model.

We drove the new Forester in southern Arizona for seven hours on a recent weekday afternoon. The people who buy the Forester are going to mostly use it to make Trader Joe’s runs, but Subaru gave us a more catholic look. First, we took a Turbo edition, jacked with speed from its 250-hp boxer four engine, and buttressed with a tight suspension. There were straight-up highway runs, windy desert side roads, and many miles of rutted dirt, which the Turbo Forester handled zippily. I’d recommend the Turbo wholeheartedly, except that it gets 20 percent worse fuel economy, and the base model runs seven grand more, than the non-Turbo edition and its 170-hp unit.

The interior was comfortable though hardly lush, the dashboard display pretty low-tech, and the steering and handling excellent. As Subaru showed us earlier, there was plenty of storage space. With the seats folded down, the Forester can handle 238 yoga mats glued together, or 241 spools of hemp twine, if you ever have use for such a thing.

I found two major flaws. First, though the car has an excellent Harman/Kardon sound system, the radio can only be controlled through a touch screen, which is hard to figure out, not to mention extremely distracting. There’s no way to change stations without taking your eye off the road; you’d almost be better off texting.

The second, more important, fault involves braking. For short distances, and at speeds under 40 mph, the system seems to work fine, but when you’re going fast and have to stop suddenly, which happened to me a couple of times during my test, you have to apply a lot of pressure. That seems self-explanatory, but the car offered up more than the expected amount of resistance. Sudden stops on the highway could be a problem.

But I still enjoyed driving the new Forester, especially once we arrived at a racetrack, which sprouted up among the rocks and scrub east of Tucson like some sort of obscure cactus flower. There, we put on helmets and listened to a handsome British guy tell us that we needed to follow him for a lap. Then we’d get two solo runs. This wasn’t a race, he said. We were merely there to see what the Forester could do. It’s not a racecar, but it did just fine.

After not once running ourselves off the track, we sat in a weird glassed-in viewing platform, decorated with racing paraphernalia, which overlooked the facility. We ate barbecue while merciless desert winds rattled the glass. Then we got into a conventional, non-Turbo Forester, which wasn’t as fast or as powerful but was just as good with the off-road shenanigans. Our minders ordered us to drive the Forester up a white metal ramp, bolted to a tall platform. A series of hoses were continually spraying the ramp. Arizona had been going through a cold snap, so even though the water didn’t freeze, the ramp still had the consistency of ice.

We maneuvered toward the ramp, locked the wheels in place, hit the accelerator, and lurched up. At the top of the platform, we balanced precariously. An equally slick ramp pointed the way down. I punched the car into “X Mode,” which, despite its superheroish name, didn’t make wings grow out of the Forester’s side. “X” was short for “Xtreme,” and it revealed the machine’s hidden high-end off-road capabilities. I hit the gas, revving the car once, and then removed my foot from the pedal. The Forester’s Hill Assist feature kicked in, and the SUV glided down the slick ramp without any fuss.

After that, we took a couple of fun loops into the hills, over an extended dirt clod, flipping into X Mode for a pretty steep decline. Again, the Forester handled the challenge with no problem. Then we did some more dirt track driving, some of it on windy country roads with tight, dangerous turns, and a quick residential street run before finally docking just before sunset.

The Forester isn’t a car without flaws, but you can get a perfectly nice version of it for under $25,000, which strikes me as a good deal for a family sized vehicle that can easily drive over an ice ramp but still gets an average of 32 mpg on the highway and 27 mpg combined. I’ve done a lot of test drives, but not many that varied. Few cars could accomplish as many tasks as the Forester had, and as well. “It’s like a Swiss Army Knife,” said another car hack on the trip, and while I hate to crib his description, it was perfectly apt. Like a loyal working dog, this is a car that will do anything you ask.