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Looks can deceive: 2021 Subaru Forester stealth pick for top all-around compact crossover

2020 Subaru Forester Touring

by Chuck Giametta

What changes will make the 2021 Subaru Forester different?

Subaru almost certainly is exploring returning a turbocharged engine to its popular compact crossover SUV. It dropped the turbo option when it introduced the current-generation Forester for model-year 2019. This roomy five-seater is selling well – demand rose 5 percent in ‘19 – so buyers are evidently pleased with the performance of its sole engine, a naturally aspirated 182-horsepower four-cylinder.

But reinstating a turbo similar to the 250-horsepower four-cylinder in the 2014-2018 Forester 2.0XT would be a competitive counterpunch in a hotly contested segment. A host of direct rivals – the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Ford Escape, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5 – offer turbo fours in the 250-horse range.

A sober assessment would concede the 2.0XT, energetic as it was, accounted for barely 10 percent of Forester sales. It was a pricey $3,000 extra, and not particularly fuel-efficient. Maybe it didn’t fit Forester’s young-family, earth-shoes image. But Subaru in early 2020 made Forester’s 2.5-liter engine available in the smaller Crosstrek crossover, addressing the performance deficit of its 152-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder. That demonstrates a willingness to rethink powertrains. What might be in Forester’s future? Please keep reading.

(Conclusions in this review are based on road tests of 2020 Foresters supplied by Subaru. In areas where the 2021 Forester may differ, we withhold judgement.)

Should I wait for the 2021 Forester or buy a 2020?

2020 Forester Sport

Wait if you’re itching for more power and are optimistic a turbo engine will become available for the ’21 Forester. Subaru seems to have a suitable candidate: the turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder used in the Outback and Ascent midsize crossovers. Its 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque would be quite entertaining in the lighter Forester.

More likely, though, the Japanese automaker will withhold any engine changes until this fifth-generation Forester’s midcycle refresh. That would occur for model-year 2022, if Subaru hew to past practice, although some sources peg it for model-year ‘23. Tweaked styling and perhaps some feature shuffling would be part of the deal.  

Also due in that timeframe is the first pure-electric Subaru. The Forester-sized crossover will be an all-new vehicle jointly developed by Toyota and Subaru and sold under each company’s brand. It’ll combine Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system with Toyota’s electrification technologies. That likely rules out an all-electric version of the Forester itself, but not a plug-in-hybrid edition that could borrow its powertrain from the Crosstrek Hybrid.  

2020 Forester Base

For the 2021 Forester, our hope is that Subaru makes blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic detection available on the two least expensive trim levels. Barring that, expect the ‘21 Forester to be a virtual rerun of the 2020. So, feel free to shop the ’20 and avoid that inevitable model-year price inflation.

Either way, you’ll get a conservatively styled wagon with more room, better on-road handling, and superior off-road ability than many truckier-looking rivals. Sans a turbo option, the ’21 Forester will remain far from the fastest in its competitive set. But with Subaru’s outstanding AWD system standard on every model, the refreshingly rational Forester is all the compact crossover most people would ever need.

Look for the ’21 Forester lineup to again start with the Base model and ascend through Premium, Sport, Limited, and Touring grades. Standard again on all will be the company’s lauded EyeSight safety suite. It includes autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane-maintaining and lane-centering steering assist.

Will 2021 Subaru Forester styling be different?

2020 Forester Touring

There may be a new color or two – and a prospective turbo model would get specific badging and trim – but overall, the ’21 Forester’s appearance won’t change. It’ll still look more like an inflated compact station wagon than an SUV wannabe. Don’t be deceived. 

This fifth-generation Forester is a little larger than its predecessor, with a vital 1.2 inches more wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles). That helped increase already generous rear legroom 1.4 inches. Headroom and shoulder room also grew, contributing to more overall passenger space than in the Equinox, Terrain, Escape, CR-V, Cherokee, Sportage, RAV4, Nissan Rogue, Hyundai Tucson, and five-seat Volkswagen Tiguan. 

2020 Forester Touring

The ’21 Forester will again beat most rivals for cargo volume, too, with 33 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 71 with the standard 60/40 split rear seatbacks folded. (The Base model should again have 35 and 76 cubic feet, respectively, because it’ll remain the only Forester without a panoramic moonroof and the resulting ceiling-height displacement.) The hatch opening is an exceptionally wide 51.2 inches. Expect a power liftgate to remain optional on the Premium and Sport models and standard on the Limited and Touring.   

2020 Forester

Visual distinctions among trim grades isn’t apt to change for 2021. Forester’s Base model should retain black power mirrors. The Premium will again get body-colored and foldable power mirrors, plus dark-tint privacy glass and a body-colored rear roof spoiler. Look for the ‘21 Sport to again stand out with a dark-finished grille and wheels and orange accents on its lower body and roof rails.

2020 Forester Premium

Sport models and above will retain fog lamps (LED on Sport and Touring), mirrors that integrate turn-signal lamps, and a stainless-steel tailpipe tip. The ’21 Touring will continue to fancy up with chrome and metallic finishes on door handles, mirrors, and the fog-lamp surrounds. Base and Premium trims should return with 17-inch wheels (steel with plastic wheel covers on the Base, with alloys optional there and standard on the Premium.) Other ’21 Foresters will continue with 18-inch alloys, each model grade getting its own look.

2020 Forester Limited

Big windows, upright seating, and easier entry and exit than many rivals manage will again make the Forester pleasant to live with. Instruments and controls will remain straightforward, switchgear commendably tactile, cabin materials upscale.

Expect the ’21 Forester Base, Premium, and Sport grades to return with a 6.5-inch central-dashboard infotainment screen. A far more-readable 8-inch display should again be optional for the Sport and included with the imbedded navigation system that’ll again be an option for the Limited and standard on the Touring. All but the Base should also return a small but useful LCD screen atop the center stack for supplemental vehicle and trip info. 

Every 2021 Forester except the Base model should again have dual illuminated vanity mirrors, a leather wrapped steering wheel, and rear-seat heating and cooling vents. The Sport interior will get orange accents and exclusive dark-gray cloth upholstery with orange stitching. Expect the ’21 Forester Limited and Touring models to reprise perforated leather upholstery, the Touring complimenting it with simulated leather door and dash trim.

Any mechanical changes to the 2021 Subaru Forester?

2020 Forester Sport

Not without addition of a turbo engine – or a plug-in-hybrid AWD powertrain. As seen in the Crosstrek, the plug-in system combines a 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine with two electric motors for 148 horsepower. It can travel 17 miles on electricity alone; then it operates as a conventional hybrid. A plug-in Forester would likely list for around $37,000 and, like the Crosstrek model, could be available only in a handful of states with zero-emissions requirements.

Certain to return for the ’21 Forester is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque (think of torque as the force that gets a vehicle moving, horsepower as the energy that keeps it moving). This engine employs Subaru’s customary horizontally opposed-cylinder design and links to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). A CVT plays the role of a conventional automatic transmission but without stepped gear ratios.

Also certain is that this powertrain will be a Forester deficit. The engine doesn’t generate enough torque to compensate for the CVT’s lazy response. Acceleration is lackluster and the transmission’s propensity to let the engine rev ahead of vehicle speed as you press the accelerator merely highlights this 2.5-liter’s coarseness. Sport and Touring models will again have steering-wheel paddle shifters and seven simulated gear ratios, but the effect on acceleration is minimal. 

2020 Forester Limited

Standard again on every ’21 Forester will be Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-Drive). It lets the driver select Intelligent mode to save fuel or Sport to sharpen powertrain reflexes. The latter does improve throttle response. But only in the Sport model — where Sport mode becomes Sport Sharp – does it begin to stir Forester from its slumber.   

Too bad, because this little crossover should otherwise remain dynamically satisfying. The taut suspension delivers a firm but controlled ride. Composure in corners is better than in taller-built compact crossovers; so is resistance to body lean. Some indecisive lightness on-center is the steering’s only demerit.

2020 Forester Limited

Every ’21 Forester will benefit from Subaru’s well-engineered Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system. On dry roads, it uses Active Torque Vectoring to help pivot the crossover through corners. In slippery conditions, it minimizes tire spin by continuously distributing power front to rear and side to side. Snow traction is particularly impressive.

And while no Subaru is designed for severe off-roading, the ’21 Forester should again be surprisingly adept on unpaved trails. Credit its 8.7 inches of ground clearance, an advantage matched in the competitive set only by the Jeep Cherokee and Compass Trailhawk. The ’21 Forester Premium will again come with Subaru’s X-Mode, which automatically optimizes powertrain and brakes for off-road conditions and includes speed-limiting hill-descent control. Sport, Limited, and Touring will return with Dual X-Mode, which allows more wheel slip to improve performance in mud and deep snow.

Will 2021 Subaru Forester fuel economy improve?

2020 Forester Sport

Not likely, but no problem. The ’21 Forester should again rate a bit above average for AWD crossovers of this size and power. Expect 2021 Forester EPA ratings to mirror those of the 2019 model: 26/33/29 mpg city/highway/combined.

Will the 2021 Subaru Forester have new features?

2020 Forester Sport

Subaru added a lane-centering function to EyeSight for model-year 2020, and gave every Forester a rear-seat reminder alert to check for kids or pets before exiting. Both bolstered a praiseworthy roster of driver assists. For ’21, expect some minor equipment shuffling, like the model-year-’20 move that made the All-Weather Package standard instead of optional on the Premium model. But addition of major features isn’t in the cards.

As mentioned, we’d suggest blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic detection be made standard on all trim levels. For 2020, that useful safety adjunct was unavailable on Base and Premium models, optional for the Sport, and standard on Limited and Touring.

To Subaru’s credit, every ’21 Forester will again include EyeSight, which incorporates autonomous emergency braking that can automatically stop the Forester to mitigate a frontal collision with another vehicle, object, or pedestrian. It also includes adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, plus lane-departure warning with lane-maintaining steering correction operative above 37 mph.

2020 Forester

The Lane Centering function is designed for use on limited-access roads, such as freeways. It uses EyeSight’s stereo camera to detect lane markings (including Botts’s dots), as well as the vehicle ahead, and gently works the steering to keep the Forester close to the center of the lane. It works only with adaptive cruise control on and requires the driver’s hands to remain on the steering wheel. We found it far less intrusive than the Lane Keep Assist function it replaced because steering correction was much more natural. By requiring hands on the wheel, it falls well short of semi-autonomous driving but has the potential to lessen driver fatigue on long Interstate slogs.

More useful every day is Forester’s standard driver-selectable Auto Vehicle Hold, a traffic-jam-stress reducer that keeps the crossover stationary without requiring constant application of the brake pedal. Also helpful: Forester’s tire-pressure monitor now identifies which tire is low. Same for reverse automatic braking designed to automatically stop the Forester if an obstacle is detected. It has been optional only on the Limited and Touring grades; owners would be well served if it were available on less costly trims, too.

Returning driver assists standard on Sport models and above should include automatic high-beam headlamps that automatically turn off for oncoming vehicles. Limited and Touring should also return with steering-linked headlamps. Expect the ‘21 Touring to also return with a feature Subaru calls DriverFocus. This uses facial recognition software to identify signs of driver distraction or fatigue and trigger visual and audio alerts.

2020 Forester Touring

In addition to aforementioned features, expect the 2021 Forester Base model to again come standard with steering-wheel audio and Bluetooth controls, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and satellite radio. To that, the ’21 Premium should again add such features as a power driver’s seat with power lumbar; a reclining rear seatback; a cargo cover; and the All-Weather Package’s heated mirrors, heated front seats, and head windshield wiper de-icer. Expect the ’21 Sport to return with all that, plus keyless access with pushbutton ignition.

Look for the ’21 Forester Limited to be back with automatic headlight-height control, steering-linked headlamps, dual-zone automatic climate control, and keyless access   among its standard equipment. The ’20 Touring’s standard-features list should again include all that plus LED interior lighting, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, a power front-passenger seat, and memory for the power driver’s seat.

Standard Subaru Starlink connectivity will remain a selling point. For a fee after a trial period, it includes such services as remote engine start, live concierge, stolen-vehicle tracking, and parental monitoring with geofencing and speed notification. WiFi-hotspot coverage is available with the dealer-supplied Starlink Entertainment Anywhere Kit. Priced at $970 for 2020, the kit should again include a pair of 9.7-inch 32GB WiFi iPads with OtterBox cases and Harman Kardon Bluetooth headphones.

Will 2021 Subaru Forester prices be different?

2020 Forester Sport

Expect an increase similar to the roughly $300 hike experienced by all but the Premium model for 2020. The Premium’s base price rose $735, largely because the All-Weather Package was made standard. The 2021 Forester should remain a strong value priced competitively against AWD rivals of similar power and features. Note also that Subaru led mass-market brands in J.D. Power’s 2019 brand-loyalty study, with more owners repurchasing a Subaru after trading in a vehicle on a new purchase or lease.

Base-price estimates here include Subaru’s destination fee, which was $1,010 on the 2020 Forester.

Estimated base price for the 2021 Forester Base model is $25,900. Expect the Premium model to start around $28,800, the Sport around $30,400, the Limited around $32,500, and the Touring around $36,000.

Among key options, look for alloy wheels to add $600 to the Base model. Expect the Premium model to again be available with a package that adds blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection, and keyless access and pushbutton ignition. The package cost $795 for 2020, or $1,345 with the power liftgate.

Expect a popular Sport-model package to again include blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection with rear-autonomous braking, the power liftgate, and the 8-inch dashboard display with a nine-speaker Harman Kardon audio upgrade; it was priced at $2,045 for 2020. The audio upgrade, rear autonomous braking, heated steering wheel, and imbedded navigation should again be included in a Limited option package priced around $1,695. Expect the ’20 Forester Touring model to return fully equipped and with no available options. 

When does the 2021 Subaru Forester come out?

2020 Forester Touring

The 2021 Forester release date should come in the third quarter of 2020.

What are the best competitors to the 2021 Subaru Forester?

Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Cherokee and Compass, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Nissan Rogue, Toyota RAV4, Volkswagen Tiguan

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]