A Mediocre Experience Driving the 2018 Subaru Forester

Subaru is one of the car companies that I think has come the longest way in the last 20-30 years, transitioning from a low cost vehicle manufacturer that eschewed all comforts into a brand with vehicles ranging from entry level up to fancy sedans and sports cars. Living in Boulder, Colorado, it’s also impossible not to see Subaru vehicles on the road and in every parking lot: It sure seems like the Subaru Outback and Forester are vying with the also ubiquitous Toyota Prius for official car of the People’s Republic of Boulder.

My personal experience with Subaru has been far less glamorous, however, ranging from rentals to loaners from the company to test drives and training events. There’s lots to like about the Subaru line, but there’s always something, some hiccup or design error that startles me and reminds me that it’s not Toyota, it’s not Ford, it’s not quite, entirely ready for prime time. I know, you own a Subaru, you love it, and you completely disagree with me. Okay, we can have different opinions.

This time the company loaned me a tricked out 2018 Subaru Forester and I have to admit, it’s a pretty darn nice vehicle. But, as I said, there were some notable problems with the car too, the kind of thing that would definitely frustrate me as an owner. Okay, let’s start with all the good stuff, shall we? I mean, I’m a parent, I know better than to jump right to the criticism. 🙂

On the plus side, it’s a lovely looking SUV:

2018 subaru forester

The lines are very similar to the Toyota Highlander, but Subaru brings some of its own design touches to produce a very nice 5-door sports utility vehicle. Oh, and the logo? Random trivia for you: It’s a representation of the six stars that make up the Pleiades constellation. Now you know.

The vehicle as tested was luxurious inside, with more buttons and dials than you could shake a stick at:

2018 subaru forester dashboard layout and design

The entertainment system / nav system was well designed and certainly front-and-center for the driver, and the deep storage pocket with its 12V power plug behind the gearshift was perfect for smartphones (though should probably also be a Qi charging base too for future compatibility).

It took me a while to figure out the top display, however. Let’s zoom in on that for a minute:

2018 subaru forester - top display screen

What puzzled me was how to control it and change to different display and information options. Turns out that’s what the clumsy looking “Enter” button is just below the emergency signal button. The display can offer a variety of information including fuel efficiency data that can help you learn to be a more efficient driver. And a bright light indicating that the passenger air bag is off. If there’s no passenger in the seat (which the car already knows from the weight sensor tied to the seatbelt sensor) why even show this light?

Notice the mileage I got with the Forester: 24.6mpg. That was driving very conservatively, and it’s a bit lower than I would like. In fact, in a week of driving I had to top up the tank twice, the first time that’s happened in a loaner car in quite a long time. The vehicle is officially rated 23/27 but you might need to adjust your expectations down from that a bit, depending on your driving: Mine was a lot of highway driving which should have produced better fuel efficiency.

I know, I complain about just about every vehicle’s fuel efficiency. That’s correct. I think all cars should get better mileage, particularly as we move into 2018 models and beyond. It’s about time car companies really focused on that, not on lobbying to end the CAFE fleet fuel efficiency standards entirely.

Okay, back to the Forester!

Remember I said it had lots of buttons and controls? Check out the steering wheel:

2018 subaru forester steering wheel

Definitely took me a while to figure it all out, and I’m still not entirely sure what the S#/I and S/I buttons do on the lower right. Checking the manual finally cracks the code: I is Intelligent, S is Sports and S# is Sports Sharp, all different driving modes. My guess is that many drivers will never figure those out and use them. Kind of like the paddle shifters that the car’s equipped with too; does anyone actually use them?

Still, you can also see that it has intelligent cruise control, what Subaru calls EyeSight. That worked great and I really think every single car on the road should have this sort of intelligent cruise control system where it slows down to pace the vehicle in front of you. Makes driving in traffic easier, less stressful and definitely safer. In fact, the Forester has lots of good safety systems that help the company hold on to its great safety record and reputation.

The Forester also has “X Mode” which makes it safer for you to drive in snow, ice or other inclement conditions. If you want to off road in your shiny new car, you can also enable hill mode for particularly rough terrain. I’ve used it in other Subaru vehicles and while it takes a bit of trust to take your foot off the brake on a steep downhill, it works really well and can compensate for slippage and other dangers.

The SUV is also equipped with a variety of features to make the high beams smarter, including anticipating and pointing into your turns and sensing when someone is driving towards you at night to temporarily disable the brights. In practice, however, it was random and annoying, flipping off after being confused by reflections on road signs, staying on when someone was driving towards us on a slight curve, and acting rather inexplicably at moments. My sense was that this feature wasn’t quite ready for poorly lit rural roads in my area, but it was certainly odd and frustrating.

main gauges, 2018 subaru forester

The main dashboard gauges are quite standard, as you can see above. Notice, however, the confusing array of lights associated with the driver’s door not being closed. There’s an indicator on the lower section that suggests both driver and passenger doors are open, another indicator in red showing just the driver’s door near the top, and adjacent to it a confusingly generic message “Door Liftgate/Trunk Open”. What the heck? And why can’t the message be something like “Driver’s Door Open” to be specific?

One more thing to highlight; the Forester has a really fantastic, huge sunroof:

2018 subaru forester sunroof - author dave taylor

Hard not to love that offering a feeling akin to a convertible SUV. Think about that, a convertible SUV. That’d be cool!

Lots to love about the Subaru, no question, but there were some quirks that I found very odd. The first that was startling was that if you’re using the navigation system to direct you to a destination you must keep the screen in map mode. There’s no other indication of turning directions or route data on the dashboard, no mode on the top display to get additional information and not even a tiny overlay window in entertainment mode to warn of upcoming turns or other directional data. An oversight?

The other annoyance I had with the Forester was also tied to the navigational system: Using the voice input system was just about impossible if the car was in motion. I tried having the AC off, driving slowly, speaking slowly and carefully and every single time the car’s interpretation of an address I spoke was genuinely awful. At one point I clearly stated an address a few miles from my home and the car only got a city name from what I spoke. A city in Idaho, not Colorado. I pulled over, turned off the radio and heater and found that it did reasonably well interpreting my spoken address, but the fact that it requires that defeats the entire purpose of a voice-based navigation system. A bug in my particular vehicle or a poorly installed microphone? Or a defect in the car design and voice processing system? Either way, I would have just given up and resigned myself to never using the voice system again after a week. Not what you expect from an expensive SUV.

Still, there is a lot to like in the 2018 Subaru Forester, and certainly Subaru fans will find it a nice incremental update to the SUV. Unquestionably, both with fuel efficiency and your overall reaction to the vehicle, your mileage will vary.

AS DRIVEN: 2018 Subaru Forester 2.0XT Touring in Dark Gray Metallic. 2.0L DOHC intercooled turbocharged engine with Lineartronic CVT featuring SI-Drive and X-Mode. Option package 32. MSRP: $37,005.00.

Disclaimer: Subaru loaned me the Forester for a week for the purposes of this evaluation and review. My opinions are quite clearly my own.

2 comments on “A Mediocre Experience Driving the 2018 Subaru Forester

  1. Hope you see this! Do you remember how driving the Subaru Forester felt? I am firm believer in Toyota due to their reliability and ergonomic features, yet my increase in off-the-beaten-path camping has generated a need for a car that’s a bit higher up. I’m currently renting a 2018 Toyota Yaris iA that I absolutely love and am leaning toward (if not for it being low to the ground!). It has a 380 mile tank, so far I’ve gotten 40 mpg average mixed highway and city driving. I know if I go for any SUV I’ll unfortunately lose the fuel efficient. However, driving the Yaris iA is an excellent experience–smooth, and sharp. Did the Subaru feel smooth and speedy?

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