June 26, 2013
Bill Howard

Subaru Forester review: The best small SUV thanks to EyeSight

Stereoscopic cameras in the windshield with 3D vision give the Subaru Forester compact SUV an exclusive and affordable array of driver assists including adaptive cruise control and pedestrian collision avoidance. Add 35 mpg fuel economy on trips and serious room-for-five plus cargo, and you’ve got what is currently ExtremeTech’s pick for the best compact SUV. In fact, the Forester would be a landslide choice were it not for a modest navigation system that is out of place on such an otherwise competent vehicle.

The Forester has some undeniably great tech we’ll take a look at first, and then we’ll look at the Forester as an automobile.

2014 Subaru Forester with EyeSight

Two cameras, many functions

Subaru EyeSight comprises a pair of day/night video cameras mounted at the top of windshield, 14 inches (36cm) apart, five times farther apart than your eyes (to give it great depth perception). When you press the adaptive cruise control button, the stereo eyes track the car in front of you. It’s full-range (stop and go) ACC that goes all the way down to 0 mph and then back up to speed. (See: What is adaptive cruise control, and how does it work?)

Whether ACC is on or off, EyeSight provides forward collision warning if the distance to the car in front quickly becomes perilously close. At a traffic light or in stop-and-go traffic, EyeSight warns gently with a beep if the car in front has started up and you’re still daydreaming. On the other hand, if you start up too quickly, EyeSight modulates the throttle and slows you down.

EyeSight also functions as the lane departure and sway warning system (if you swerve but stay within the lane, you’re alerted) that on other cars is done with a single camera. A single camera doesn’t have the power to handle adaptive cruise control but it can provide forward collision warning; GM does that on vehicles such as the GMC Terrain.

2014 Subaru Forester with EyeSight

EyeSight’s last trick is low-speed collision prevention with pedestrians or other vehicles, similar to Volvo’s City Safety feature. At speeds under 20 mph, if EyeSight detects a pedestrian or car crossing in front of you, it quickly stops your car. Subaru warns that if you modulate the throttle (that is, step on the gas) in this kind of situation, EyeSight defers to your judgment, so you may well hit the object.

The driver and passenger can monitor EyeSight in a small LCD at the top of the dash (pictured above). It shows your car, the car ahead once detected by EyeSight, the relative distance, the ACC set speed, and your actual speed (the curve marked 0-50-100). Also, this is minor but delightful: When EyeSight applies the brakes, red tail lamps illuminate in the car icon.

Next page: Adaptive cruise control, navigation, and other smart stuff…

Adaptive cruise, especially effective at legal speeds

A week before driving the Subaru Forester, I drove a BMW 3 Series with radar ACC ($2,400) and found it picked up cars farther ahead on similar roads. That was more of a comfort than safety issue: I knew farther in advance that my car saw the other car. Radar-based adaptive cruise control has a claimed range of as much as 200 meters (660 feet). Subaru on the other hand says “[EyeSight] provides a detection angle wider than that of radar-based systems.” Whether that matters is unclear, since radar is single-purpose and just has to measure the lane ahead and a bit to the sides for curving roads.

On roads where you could do 75 mph, the BMW’s setting for greatest separation seemed to be farther than Subaru’s max-separation setting. Once you were in the 50-60 mph range, they seemed more alike. The distance setting with adaptive cruise control is typically in seconds of separation, not feet, in keeping with the three second rule that you should (ideally) maintain three seconds spacing, which would be 198 feet at 45 mph, 288 feet at 65 mph, and 333 feet at 75 mph. BMW says its ACC works to 180 kph or 112 mph, where you chew up 492 feet every three seconds on the Autobahn.

The other difference is cost. EyeSight has an advantage over full-range ACC. Subaru’s EyeSight package comprises EyeSight, keyless entry and start, and xenon low-beam headlamps, for $2,400 total. BMW charges $2,400 for ACC alone, another $900 for steerable xenon headlamps, and $700 for lane departure warning that can also read speed limit signs. Some ACC systems cost as little as $1,000 (Ford) or $500 (imputed price in a package) on the Lexus IS, but those only work down to 20 or 25 mph before shutting off.

EyeSight is available on the Subaru Forester SUV, Legacy sedan, Outback wagon, and the Tribeca full-size crossover. If you’re buying a Suburu, EyeSight is the first option you want.

ForesterNaviScreen

Small, clunky nav system (but nice audio)

140_2014ForesterThe 2014 Forester 2.5i Touring that I tested came with a combined navigation and Harmon/Kardon audio system in a double-DIN (7×4 inches) slot in the center of the dash. The touchscreen is just 6.1 inches diagonal and when you allow audio information to strip down the left side, what’s left for the moving map isn’t much bigger than a good smartphone. Ergonomics were challenging, with just one knob for volume, none for tuning, and three small, almost flush-mounted pushbuttons.

You may need to read the manual to figure out how to peform some tasks such as to cancel a navigation route (“cancel navigation” as a voice command didn’t work, but one I never thought of, “delete route,” does). You can also eject the SD card in the faceplate to kill navi, although Subaru warns of dire consequences to the integrity of the card if you yank it without going through an eject SD card menu. A couple times I arrived at the destination to be told, next time I started the car, that I was not yet there. On the plus side, I did get where I needed to go every time. Trouble is, you can say the same of every smartphone navigation package.

The 440W Harmon/Kardon audio system worked well. It has the usual iPod jack, satellite and HD radio, and Aha (owned by Harman), a cloud-based radio aggregation service that works through your smartphone. Bluetooth is standard on all Forester models.

142_2014Forester

Dual center stack LCD displays

145_2014ForesterXMODEThe Subaru Forester is another vehicle with dual LCD displays in the center stack. The main display is navigation/audio. The smaller top display is for the backup camera, for EyeSight adaptive cruise control, trip information, and the Subaru X-Mode that maintains stability and traction on uneven surfaces. It’s exciting to watch the X-Mode, although when you’re on a slippery road, it’s probably not what you should be staring at.

As the backup camera display, the top LCD seemed a bit small, especially since there’s no parking sonar that might pick up smaller objects, or when the sun is low in the sky and causes flare on the display.

Next page: The car stuff and our verdict…

The car stuff: roomy, well made, just not plush

If you buy a Subaru Forester, you’re probably looking for something to haul lots of luggage or sports gear, you’ve got passengers who eat and spill food, and dogs that shed. From the side, the Forester looks tallish, but it’s pretty much average in length (181 inches) and height (66 inches) for the so-called “cute-ute” category of compact SUVs. The relatively boxy design allows for more cargo carrying capacity than the swoopy and upscale Lexus RX that’s a half-foot longer. Back seat passengers have very good leg room and head room.

2014 Subaru Forester with EyeSight

The Forester has decent acceleration. The-four cylinder engine and “Lineartronic” continuously variable transmission (CVT) were noticeable under hard acceleration or going uphill, relatively quiet at cruising speed. Handling and traction benefit from the low-mounted boxer engine where the cylinders lie flat, two left and two right of the car’s centerline, and from standard all-wheel drive.

On one day-long trip — mostly highway — I got 36 mpg but you could do better if you’re careful. (The EPA rating is 24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway, 27 mpg combined.)

EyeSight makes long trips safer, especially late in the day when your attention might be lagging. The audio was comforting. The navigation did its stuff passably. The ride is a bit firmer than some others in the category. When I got stuck in traffic jams on interstates around New York City, EyeSight eased the car to a stop every time and then started up again. All in all, it was a reasonable highway cruiser, fine on unpaved roads, great in big city traffic, and small enough to park almost anywhere.

Should you buy? Do safety, mpg, and practicality matter?

There are a half-dozen decent small SUVs worth considering. EyeSight is unique (developed by Subaru’s parent company) and affordable for what it does. The Forester is hyper-practical and gets the best mileage of any non-hybrid compact SUV. If you can hold it to 60 mph on the interstate, you’d get close to 40 mpg. The Forester handles reasonably well and it’s reasonably quiet on the highway at steady speed (translation: It could be quieter). It’s the most competent small SUV going off-road; off-road meaning gravel roads with small rocks, not rutted paths with boulders. Adaptive cruise control is rare in this segment (Ford Escape has it) and if you want full-range ACC, you’ll want the Subaru.

If the softest ride and thicker padding on door panels is important, look elsewhere. If you need  to use navigation a lot, not occasionally, this is not your car, either.

The competition includes Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, both of which have been recently redesigned and are competent all-round vehicles. The Ford Escape has an higher-end cockpit, mommy-friendly features such as the tailgate that opens when you kick you foot under the back end, and better navigation if you are okay with MyFord Touch. The Mazda CX5 handles the best.

If you like Subaru but want something more along the lines of a station wagon, consider the Subaru Outbook: longer, lower, about the same interior capacity, and also available with EyeSight.

Now read: The future of cars is autopilot, not self-driving