SANO, Japan – There are more than 30 million people in the greater Tokyo area, but I suspect few of them are aware of the unique Subaru test facility here, about two hours northwest of their city.
Fuji Heavy Industries, (FHI), Subaru’s parent company, bought a mountain, a big hill actually, in the middle of nowhere, cut the top off it and within the resulting hollow, created the Subaru Test and Development Centre, well away from prying eyes.
A small group of Canadian auto writers were here for an advance look at the 2014 Subaru Forester, months before its public introduction at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. The new Forester will arrive at Canadian Subaru stores in the spring of 2013.
The test and development centre is not a fancy facility; it is a working environment with industrial buildings and no attempt to impress. But it contains an amazing array of roads, including off-road and handling course sections within a steeply banked, 4-km-long oval track.
Once through a very elaborate security system where cameras and cell phones were confiscated – in a very friendly, but serious, manner – we were led into a large hangar-like structure, where a group of American journalists were already sitting at tables within a curtained-off area.
Takuji Dai, project manager for the new Forester then outlined the plans for the day – a deep dive into the new Forester followed by a variety of drives and exercises designed to show its prowess on and off-road in back-to-back comparisons with competitive vehicles.
The curtains parted and covers were drawn from two versions of the new Forester and a current model.
At first it was difficult to tell the differences. Let’s just call them evolutionary, not revolutionary. The design team was deliberately conservative – after all, the Forester is an immensely popular vehicle with an industry-leading owner loyalty.
Upon closer examination, however, the changes became more obvious.
The 2014 Forester will again come in two models, normally-aspirated and turbocharged, but they have been more clearly separated visually. The front and rear ends are different, not only from the outgoing model, but from each other.
The A-pillar has been moved forward 20-cm and a small triangular side window added for more visibility close to the side. The mirror moves back unto the door.
The new Forester is more compact on the outside – 36-mm shorter, 15-mm narrower and 36-mm lower – and it rides on a 25-mm shorter wheelbase with a 20-mm narrower track.
It's 25 kilos heavier than the current Forester, but it's also 150% stiffer, NVH has been reduced considerably and aerodynamics improved radically from 0.37 to 0.31.
The turbo model is differentiated by a unique front bumper and grille, larger wheels and tires, heavily reworked suspension and an even stiffer body structure.
Bigger changes inside
While the exterior changes are subtle, the inside has been significantly updated. One of the big changes is ease of entry/exit, already one of the Forester’s strong points.
Vastly improved seats have a hip point that's 30-mm higher than before for even better visibility, which remains exceptional thanks to a low belt line, copious amounts of glass and relatively narrow pillars.
The side sills have been moved in 30-mm and are wrapped by the door when closed so road dirt does not get on the sill and thus transferred to slacks, skirts or legs when you get in or out. The sill itself is 20-mm lower for ease of entry/exit.
There are soft-touch surfaces where there used to be hard plastic and a lighter look thanks to two-tone materials. Front occupants will also find 30-mm more shoulder room and 100-mm more legroom.
Second-row accommodations include more room and easier child seat installation. The seats are 25-mm higher for better visibility out the front and yet there is still plenty of headroom.
The centre tunnel is lower and the seat backs fold flat with the simple tug of a lever in the cargo area, which is 12% larger despite the more compact exterior. There are 505 litres of space behind the second row and a roomy divided carrier beneath the cargo floor.
Power is supplied by the FB25NA boxer (horizontally-opposed) four-cylinder engine displacing 2.5-litres and sending 170-horsepower to all four wheel via a six-speed manual or new CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) automatic. This is the same engine used in the new Subaru BRZ sport coupe.
The 2014 Forester Turbo gets the FA20DIT engine with Direct Injection and CVT only. This one produces a hefty 250-horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, compared to 224 hp and 226 lb-ft from the outgoing version.
It also boasts considerable improvement in fuel economy. It is too early for official ratings but Subaru expects them to in the range of 10.2 L/100 in the city and 8.4 on the highway compared to 12.4 and 9.8 for the current Forester.
Similar gains have been made in performance. Thanks to the new CVT, which replaces the aged four-speed automatic offered previously, the Forester with the base engine accelerates from 0-to-97 km/h (60 mph) in 9.3 seconds compared to 9.9 for the current model and 6.2 compared to 7.4 for the turbo.
For comparison purposes the V-6 Porsche Cayenne takes 6.1 seconds. The CVT remains my least favorite type of transmission design, but there is no arguing with its efficiency.
That new transmission comes with Si drive when coupled to the turbo engine. There are three modes: Intelligent, Sport and Sport Plus.
Paddle shifters allow you to pretend it is a conventional automatic with six simulated speeds in I and S modes and eight in S .
New AWD capability
The all-wheel-drive system features a new X-Mode, which offers considerable advantage on slippery surfaces. Still a slip and grip system, it detects and reacts to a loss of traction much more quickly than competitive systems, something we were able to experience firsthand.
Basically it operates under 40 km/h with a second and more intense mode under 20 km/h. Think of X for Extra slippery.
For the various driving programs on the off-road, handling and high-speed courses Subaru supplied a Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Toyota RAV4 and current model Forester for comparison purposes, and it fared more than well.
There are a number of other significant advances in the new Forester too numerous to get into here:
•Pre-collision adaptive cruise control
•Pre-X throttle which shuts off power if it detects Drive has been engaged instead of reverse as when backing out of a garage, for example
•Lane departure warning system that uses a camera instead of radar to more accurately differentiate between objects.
•Subaru’s new Eye-Sight system
•A 100-mm multi-function display that can be set to remember and remind re birthdays, anniversaries and other important dates.
•A new power tailgate that can be preset to open to a specific height and will automatically reverse when going up or down if it encounters an object.
Unless you own a current model, you might have to look closely to identify a 2014 Forester. But it is certainly worth a closer look.