I finally did it: I'm a dad. The funny thing is, I've always owned dad cars, even before I needed to. Owning anything with less than four doors never made much sense, which is how I ended up with a stable of souped-up grandpa cars from the Sixties and Seventies. Now that I'm a father, the '74 Oldsmobile sedan I brought my wife and son home from the hospital in seems a bit dated. And that, my friends, is how I found myself on this quest to find the perfect new dad car. The latest installment: the new 2019 Subaru Forester.
The 2019 Subaru Forester, By the Numbers
- Base Price (Price as Tested): $24,295 ($35,363)
- Powertrain: 2.5-liter flat-four, 182 horsepower, 176 pound-feet of torque, continuously variable automatic transmission; all-wheel-drive
- EPA Fuel Economy: 26 mpg city, 33 mpg highway
- Towing Capacity: 1,500 pounds
- Random dad fact: Before Subaru introduced its four wheel-drive Leone wagon in 1972, four-wheel traction was largely limited to trucks. With the debut of the Forester in 1997, Subaru further built upon its unique formula, fusing SUV height and capability with small car practicality.
At some point in my late 20s—when I got my first journalism job and recognized a need to scale back expenses—I looked around for the ideal does-it-all-for-not-much-money car. It didn't take a ton of research to realize what I needed: an old Subaru wagon. So I bought a beat-up front wheel-drive version off of Craigslist for $400 and drove it all over creation for nearly a decade. When I sold the car, it was only to buy the same model with nicer paint and four-wheel-drive. I'm still driving that one today.
That's because, despite lackluster performance and paper-thin sheetmetal, these old Subarus make themselves indispensable through their combination of durability, versatility, and outstanding performance on loose surfaces like snow, sand, and dirt. Even the old front-wheel-drive Subaru could handle jouncing along rocky Forest Service roads in California and bombing down the Garden State Parkway in a foot of snow at 60 mph; the four-wheel-drive model did all that even better, adding beach-driving capability into the mix while still being able to carry a couch on its roof and half an apartment's worth of stuff inside.
But my mid-20s are far behind me, and I have a bambino to cart around, so it's time to move on. So I wondered how modern-day Subarus would fit in to this vastly different (and more expensive) lifestyle. I was dismayed when I first drove the latest incarnation of the Outback (too big) and the newest Crosstrek (too small). But slotted into the middle of Subaru's lineup, the Forester—long a favorite among people in states with mountainous terrain and/or a lot of snow, like New England and the Pacific Northwest—presents itself as more in line with the jack-of-all trades wagons of Subarus past. After all, with parts for 30-year-old Japanese commuter cars becoming harder to procure—to say nothing of the dearth of modern safety features—new models have finally begun to hold more appeal to me.
I've always considered the Forester a dowdy-looking car, but the all-new 2019 model, which was introduced at the New York Auto Show last year, looks pretty grown up. It's still tall, but the disproportionate greenhouse look that described the Forester aesthetic for so many years is gone. In its place is a more refined body that fits in better with traditional SUV styling tropes than the cartoonish mini-ute of past years.
Like most Subarus, the Forester has bulked up over the years—but that's okay, because the 2019 model still feels maneuverable. Aside from giving the driver a commanding view of the road, the Forester's tall stature gives the back seat plenty of room in outboard positions. Car seats fit just fine, and the LATCH anchors are easy to use. Lower-end models that don't have the sunroof benefit from more interior and cargo volume. The top-of-the-line Touring trim I tested had 33 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat (it's 35.4 cubic feet in the base model) and 71 cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat (the base trim gets 76 cubic feet).
Getting to all that space can be tricky, however. The electronic cargo hatch needs a list of demands met before it will open: The vehicle has to be stopped; the CVT transmission has to be in park; the doors have to be unlocked ahead of time. If you forget to unlock the doors after you've stopped, you may find yourself—as I did—swearing at the thing as you jab your finger angrily into the soft rubber button. Witnessing that can't be good for a child's development.
Spring for Subaru's thick rubber floor mats and seat back protectors, and you have an interior that looks a bit like a much more practical version of a pickup truck with a bed liner. With the back seats up, I was able to fit a medium-sized stroller, a folding crib, a large roller suitcase, and several smaller bags, and I still had room left over. This sort of setup is key for parents who have been able to commit to one of those designer-ascetic lifestyles where you abstain from the things that make caring for the child easier in the immediate sense. That's where I'm at—and although having fewer things would probably liberate my family, we can only take baby steps. Sometimes, you just feel like you need to bring a lot of crap...especially when you have a baby in tow.
I'm always harping about fuel economy and how spending money on fuel just to haul around a thousand extra pounds of largely unused vehicle is unfair to your progeny. That's because using less fuel means you'll have more money at your disposal to pay for all the little things we've convinced ourselves children must have to live successful adult lives someday: sports equipment, musical instruments, Tae Kwon Do lessons, space camp, etc. The Forester is one of those rare middle class-oriented vehicles that allows you to have your cake (the ability to enjoy light off-roading) and eat it, too. I'm happy to report that the Forester proved a relatively thrifty consumer of fossil fuel; in mixed city and highway driving, my test vehicle's fuel economy sat at a consistent 30 mpg.
I wish I could say I took the Forester to Moab and threw it into all sorts of challenging red rock fender scrapers. But alas, all I did was drive it on the beach, where it handled remarkably well despite having full air pressure in its tires. The Forester's light weight, 8.7 inches of ground clearance, and limited-slip center differential made for outstanding traction and capability in deep sand.
As with the Subarus of old, the Forester's naturally aspirated flat-four is nothing if not persistent. It's not powerful, but in mellow everyday driving scenarios, the little 2.5 has plenty of torque to propel the car through boring traffic. When the chips are down and the sand, snow, and mud thicken, the little mill is more than adequate. The one place it shows weakness is on the highway, where high speed passing maneuvers are best executed with a degree of patience. Handling is acceptable, for this type of car, and the ride is smooth—always a plus when you have a sleeping child in the back seat who you'd rather not have wake up and realize he's in a car seat.
The 2019 Forester is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick. That's a distinction that will sit right with any parent, and the only reason IIHS didn't award its highest rating (Top Safety Pick+) is because the organization found fault with the effectiveness of the Forester's headlights. I found them to be just fine, and was buoyed no doubt by the knowledge that this car, like most Subarus, comes with a host of standard active safety features, including adaptive cruise control and a brake override system that increases braking power if the brake pedal and accelerator are accidentally depressed at the same time. (Also if they're intentionally pressed at the same time, so, sorry, power-braking aficionados).
The Touring model I tested came fully kitted out with the latest safety bells and whistles, including blind spot monitoring, reverse automatic braking, and a driver focus monitoring system that beeps at you when you remove your eyes from the road. It works well—too well, even, as it chirped at me even when I was looking sideways for parking. As a matter of fact, there were also a couple glaring instances when the Forester's automatic braking system did its job with too much gusto. Both of those times were in dense New York City traffic—the kind where you're crawling along trying to fend off pushy interlopers from horning in on your valuable lane space. Nobody likes being jolted, and the car decided it knew better than me a couple of times and slammed on the brakes in the middle of traffic. Once it awoke the sleeping baby. Not great, Bob.
Am I convinced that the new Forester is a suitable replacement for my beloved 30-year-old whip? The jury's still out. To me, this sort of hyperactive safety technology feels more dangerous (or at least, more annoying) than zero active safety tech, even if it is actually safer. The high-tech features of the new Forester, which was so simple years ago, made me long for the days when you could flip a switch or pull a handle and the desired mechanical effect would immediately follow. Those days are gone—but so are the days of tin-can Japanese cars getting flattened in crashes with American leviathans, or rusting to little piles of flakes. Regardless of its drawbacks, this right-sized Subie still does what Subarus have been doing for decades now: pretty much anything you want it to, other than go fast.