One of the pictures on the wall of my Cherry Hill, New Jersey, hotel room where I stayed the night before joining the 1,000-mile trek known as the 48HRS of Tristate was of a tree-lined road. Branches overarched the pavement, and the road curved into the horizon. How prophetic! It made me smile.
We've written annually about 48HRS for a number of years, even making one of the journeys a cover story. In its 13th year, the group raises money for charity, usually to fight cancer. As of the start of the weekend at Subaru of America, Inc. on Friday, January 17, the group had collected more than $30,000 in donations for Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation.
Ride of the Year
When I walked into registration, a number of people asked, "What are you driving this year?" Except for the two times when I drove the Drive Performance WRX, I've had a different vehicle every year, including my own 2008 Impreza 2.5i, a Legacy GT, and an XV Crosstrek. This year's steed was a 2014 Forester XT Touring. Vinyl on the sides and hood left no doubt about it having won Motor Trend's 2014 Sport/Utility of the Year® award.
Prior to driving the 1,000 miles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to join 48HRS, I had spent only a few minutes in the Forester -- enough to know there was a lot of technology to learn and/or relearn. X-MODE™, SI-DRIVE, and EyeSight® Driver-Assist System were among the high points, along with the application of a sport Lineartronic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) in the Forester.
Loading Up, Sitting Down
I'm used to a smaller vehicle, having spent the last 12 months shuffling between a 2008 Impreza and a 2013 XV Crosstrek. Electronically lifting the power rear gate exposes more than enough room for the boxes, camera equipment, briefcase, and luggage typically needed for a one-week journey. Instead of having room for one-and-a-half rows of cargo, this Forester had room for two rows.
The power rear gate alleviated considerable messiness when it was covered with mud and snow. You don't have to touch the gate to raise or lower it.
Loading myself in the driver seat was easier, too, than for previous experiences with crossovers. The doors are cut across the bottom in such as way that you don't have much of a sill. Instead of lifting my legs and feet over a sill, they can reach the ground at a straighter angle -- without getting my pant legs dirty across the back. Hard to explain; easy to do.
The seat itself had me concerned. I felt like I was sitting on a sofa with little lateral support for my back. THEN I discovered the button (the one on the right) for the power adjustable lumbar support. Someone who drove this Forester before me had filled the chamber. After letting out a significant amount of air, the seat lived up to my expectations by helping to hold me in place as well as giving me excellent support for the 3,000 miles I was driving (1,000 miles to Cherry Hill; 1,000 miles during 48HRS; 1,000 miles to Milwaukee). My body doesn't get stiff or sore when driving a Subaru.
There's no doubt in my mind that this vehicle belongs in the 21st century. I imagined what it would be like to show up with the Forester at my high school a number of decades ago, and it would have been something out of Flash Gordon, Star Trek, or Star Wars to us then.
You don't have to go any further than the steering wheel, which is a link to most of the "exotic" Forester features. During the course of the drive, I was able to use every one of those features -- some quite a bit -- and the buttons and switches on the steering wheel served as their gateways. You control sound, audio origins, phone answering, voice commands, adaptive cruise control, and engine response. That doesn't come close to telling the whole story. On the console, there's X-MODE and, of course, the transmission gear selector.
You might think, "Blah, blah -- so there's a lot of stuff." But this stuff has everything to do with making this vehicle yours! Driving a Forester XT is more like wearing a vehicle, much like Iron Man wears his suit full of technology. This vehicle has technology, and you're part of it. You use it. Plus, you can change the Forester's personality to match your mood and the type of driving you're doing.
Take the effects of changing performance characteristics via Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-DRIVE). It alters engine, transmission, and throttle control. So, when driving across the open spaces, I set SI-DRIVE to Intelligent mode. That gave me good mileage (surpassing 30 mpg for one or two tanks full) and throttle response that wouldn't get me into trouble. The Forester acted like a normal vehicle (except I had that turbo sitting under the hood, and it was always ready, it proved).
Then once I reached a heavy-traffic area, I punched the Sport button. It was perfect for getting where I wanted to go from lane to lane, on and off the ramps, and to position myself where I needed to be -- all without having to wait. Hitting the metro Philadelphia area near the end of a leg of the trip, I turned on the Sport setting, and its spirited response revived me.
When on the turning, twisting motorcycle roads on the 48HRS drive, Sport Sharp let me play with the WRX STI drivers ... except on roads covered with ice and snow.
That's when I got to play with X-MODE a little.
Ice and Snow
"Covered with ice and snow" doesn't give you much of a taste of our reality on the trip. Some of the Pennsylvania roads that we traveled were ones I've been on before going to spectator areas for the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally. We were on some of the rally stage roads, too. We could readily see how the area around Wellsboro has come to be known as the "Grand Canyon of the East."
The roads were narrow (one to one-and-a-half lanes), steep (had to be more than 10 or 12 percent grades for a lot of them), and full of turns (quite a few hairpins, some of which put me in mind of the Corkscrew at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca). The roads were covered with new-fallen snow, which we swept for several miles -- just what we were looking for, except for the thick layer of glare ice underneath. On some of the roads, errant vehicles had been driven on the ice as it was forming, leaving ruts that were now hidden by the snow.
Imagine driving in a line of vehicles going down a 12-percent grade on snow-covered ice. Then the driver ahead misjudges his power exiting a hairpin and slides sideways to a stop, blocking the road. That happened a few times. The participating drivers were alert, though, and thoughtful enough to leave plenty of space between vehicles.
That's the kind of drive it was. At least it let me sample X-MODE, which tightened up the drivetrain and added to control -- as much as you can have on ice.
On the open (and dry) roads, particularly on the Interstate system, I was able to use the EyeSight driver assist system. It would be a marvel if it only affected cruise control, but it does so much more.
When setting cruise control, you also set the distance you'd like to travel behind the vehicle in front of you. Set your speed, and the system maintains that distance, as long as your cruise control is set for a faster speed than the vehicle in front of you is going. That definitely helps to advance the driving experience. You can watch traffic flow instead of being concerned about running up on the vehicle ahead of you too quickly. With cruise control engaged, the Forester slowed when needed, then automatically sped up.
I experienced some of EyeSight's other features as well. The lane departure warning was dead on, confused only by a road full of snow -- no lines. The pre-collision warning signal sounded a couple of times; it was a caution I needed once. Stopped in time, though! The system even told me when the vehicle in front of me had started up for a green light. Apparently, I had waited too long to move! In some ways, it was like having my wife along with me on the trip.
In Praise of 1,000-Mile Drives
The 48HRS of Tristate event covered dramatic roads and road conditions -- the most memorable of the six events I've attended. In the end, I emerged more relaxed than I had from any of them. That's high praise for the Forester XT, considering the weather and some of the roads that we drove.
I was inspired by the award-winning crossover's technology -- which allowed me to suit the level of performance to what I wanted or needed -- and by the assistance provided by EyeSight functions that helped keep a reasonable distance from the vehicle ahead, had my back when it came to wandering from my lane (without signaling!), and even told me the car ahead was stopping faster than I was. (Read more about EyeSight here and at subaru.com. Like the Forester turbo, this technology thrusts you forward -- far into the 21st century.)
Thanks to Subaru for a Forester with a ride that's firm, but not too harsh, and for a suspension that helps keep this SUV's attitude upright rather than "tippy" in turns. Recognition should go to the powertrain engineers, too, for a fast but controllable vehicle, and for a turbo engine with power that's almost instantaneous -- hard to believe it's a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine!
We're always ready for the next drive, and we'd be more than happy to make it in the 2014 Forester XT! Watch for reports in this journal.
-- Ric Hawthorne