First drive: 2019 Subaru Forester [Video review]

Subaru's small SUV just got a whole lot better.

Subaru faces a unique challenge when it comes developing an all-new vehicle. That's because, for most of history, it has been something of a boutique brand, selling to a relatively small customer base that had very specific tastes.

But over the last few years the brand's sales have absolutely exploded, as in it's been nearly seven years since Subaru has failed to post a monthly year-over-year sales gain. So now, instead of developing a uniquely Subaru vehicles for the few, the company must come up with uniquely Subaru vehicles for the masses. Enter the all-new 2019 Subaru Forester.

What is it?

The 2019 Forester is a small SUV that rides on Subaru's new global architecture. Like seemingly every other nameplate on the market, the Forester has grown for its new generation, but only slightly. Length is up a modest 0.6 inches and width has increased by 0.8 inches. The Forester's height, however, has shrunken by 0.1 inches.

Even with its larger footprint for 2019, the Forester is still on the smaller side for the class. However, Subaru has done an excellent job packaging the Forester so it actually has one of the roomiest interiors in the segment. In fact, the Forester's rear hatch opening -- which has been widened by five-inches for 2019 -- is larger than that of the three-row Toyota Highlander.

Charting the changes

As mentioned earlier, the 2019 Forester rides on Subaru's new global architecture, which makes for a solid foundation. Torsional rigidity is up by a significant 40 percent compared to the outgoing model, which contributes to a better ride and a quieter cabin.

Under the hood, the 2019 Forester uses a nearly-all-new 2.5L boxer four-cylinder engine (Subaru says 90 percent of the engine's parts are new). Thanks to the inclusion of direct-injection this go-around, Forester's power has increased to 182 horsepower (+12) and 176 lb-ft of torque (+2). Due to slow sales, Subaru has discontinued the more powerful turbocharged engine found in last year's Forester XT.

Gone too is the Forester's manual transmission. In its place is a standard CVT that's been revised to deliver both better economy and performance. Some Forester models offer a simulated seven-speed mode for their continuously variable transmission that can be controlled via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

The Forester is built by Subaru, so naturally it comes with all-wheel drive. All models, save for the entry-level Forester, get Subaru's X-Mode all-wheel drive system, which includes hill decent control. Some Forester models are also available with an upgraded X-Mode that includes settings for deep snow and mud.

Despite coming standard with all-wheel drive, the 2019 Forester is nearly the most efficient vehicle in its class. With an EPA rating of 26/33/29 mpg city/highway/combined, only the front-wheel drive version of the Honda CR-V is more fuel efficient than the Forester, and just barely (30 mpg in mixed driving). No small SUV with all-wheel drive is more efficient than the Forester.

Not wanting to mess with a good thing for the 2019 model year, the Forester (which represents 27 percent of Subaru's sales in the United States) looks similar to last year's model. Subaru made some changes to the SUV's grille and the shape of its rear lights, but it's still instantly recognizable as a Forester.

On the inside the 2019 Forester is familiar, but much improved. The quality of the 2019 Forester's interior -- both in terms of fit and finish and materials used -- is a major leap forward compared the outgoing model. Virtually every surface within the Forester's interior feels premium, and there's luxurious-looking stitching everywhere. Subaru even included a unique-looking dimpled surface that makes ordinary trim pieces look interesting. On the whole the Forester's interior feels much more premium than that of the $56,000 Cadillac XT4 small SUV we tested last week.

Space in the Forester's front seats has improved thanks to thinner door panels. And even though the 2019 Forester is slightly shorter than its predecessor, headroom remains excellent.

On the content front, all Forester models now come with Subaru's EyeSight safety suite, which includes emergency braking, lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control, among other features. Higher-end Forester models can also be equipped with a rear automatic braking system that will bring the vehicle to a stop if it detects an object behind the vehicle.

The most notable tech feature of the 2019 Forester is a new face recognition system that comes standard on the Touring trim. The system uses sensors located in the gauge cluster area to monitor the driver's face for possible distracted or drowsy driving. Say, for instance, the system determines that you're not looking at the road ahead, it'll trigger audible and visible warnings urging you to focus back on the road.

But the coolest function of the facial recognition system is its ability to recall vehicle settings based on your face alone. Like the latest iPhone, the Forester can scan the driver's face and know exactly who's behind the wheel. Up to five people can have a profile saved within the facial recognition system, which will automatically adjust the vehicle's mirrors, driver's seat, climate control and infotainment system to that user's specific settings. It's a neat system that works remarkably well.

Rear seat passengers don't get any gizmos that are as trick as facial recognition, but they do benefit from more legroom -- 1.4 inches to be exact. Subaru has also widened the openings to the Forester's rear doors, which make ingress and egress a little easier.

The Forester's trunk is generous with 35.4 cubic feet of storage space with the rear seats in place; that area grows to 76.1 cubic feet with the second-row bench stowed. And, as mentioned before, the Forester's cargo opening is absolutely massive -- it's wide enough to load a golf bag sideways.

On the road

With the switchover to Subaru's new global architecture, we expected the new Forster's road manners to be incrementally better than before. But they aren't. Instead, the Forester's road manners are miles better, the kind of improvement that typically comes over a couple of generations, not just one.

The new Forester feels planted like a larger SUV, but without the feeling of excessive weight. It just feels rock solid on any road surface. That feeling of solidity is enhanced by a steering system that's direct and well-weighted.

And thanks to that stiffer body structure, the Forester's new suspension setup is able to do its job better. The Forester dispatches road imperfections with ease, but still inspires confident handling.

But the biggest benefit of the Forester's new platform is sound isolation. Whereas the last Forester allowed road and wind noise to penetrate its cabin, the 2019 model is almost luxury car quiet --it's really that good.

The Forester is now powered by a single drivetrain that provides adequate performance. A little more low-end grunt would be welcomed for peppier around town driving, but acceleration in the 2019 Foresters feel about on par with almost everything else in the segment.

The Forester's CVT has been revised for the 2019 model and it does behave a bit better than before. Off the line there is less of a rubber band feeling, and the CVT seems more responsive when asked for more power at cruising speeds.

The 2019 Subaru Forester is priced competitive within the segment. A base model goes for around $25,000, while a fully-loaded Touring model will set you back about $35,000. That puts the Forester on equal footing with small SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

Leftlane's bottom line

With the 2019 Forester, Subaru has managed to develop a vehicle that stays true to the brand's core values while also providing the kind of features demanded by today's small SUV buyers. The 2019 Forester is bigger but still small enough to maneuver in tight spaces, loaded with standard safety tech and extremely fuel efficient for an all-wheel drive model.

If you can look past the lack of a turbocharged engine, you'll find a Forester that's better in every other way.

Photos courtesy of Subaru.

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