2021 Subaru Forester Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Jun 03, 2021

Introduction - Find the best Subaru deals!

Sometimes, sheer practicality sparks adoration. And so it is for Subaru’s best-selling vehicle, the 2021 Forester compact crossover SUV. At a glance, you might assume there is nothing special about the Forester. But when you live with one for a while, it becomes as comfortable, natural, and lovable a companion as your favorite furry friend.

Not much is new for the 2021 Subaru Forester. Standard equipment now includes a rear seatbelt reminder, automatic high-beam headlights, and steering responsive headlights. Soon, a more off-road-capable Forester Wilderness arrives for the 2022 model year. But since this is Subaru’s best-selling model, and we last tested a 2019 Forester for only a few hours in Asheville, North Carolina, a full week-long examination was in order.

Subaru sells the 2021 Forester in Base, Premium, Sport, Limited, and Touring trim levels. They all have the same 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission (CVT), and standard all-wheel-drive system. Therefore, aside from style, equipment, and other minor differences, they all drive the same way.

What Owners Say About the Subaru Forester - Find the best Subaru deals!

2021 Subaru Forester Limited Gray Front Quarter Right

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

According to data collected from verified owners for the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, 51% of Subaru Forester owners are female (vs. 49% for the segment), and the median age of a Forester owner is 62 years (vs. 59).

Owners say their favorite things about the Forester are (in descending order) the:

  • Feeling of safety
  • Driving feel
  • Exterior styling
  • Getting in and out
  • Setting up and starting

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Forester are (in descending order) the: 

  • Interior design
  • Driving comfort
  • Infotainment system
  • Fuel economy
  • Powertrain

In the J.D. Power 2020 APEAL Study, the Forester ranked number four out of 15 compact SUVs.

What Our Independent Expert Says About the Subaru Forester - Find the best Subaru deals!

In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides an analysis of a Forester Limited equipped with the following options:

  • Navigation
  • Harman Kardon premium audio system
  • Reverse automatic braking
  • Heated steering wheel 

The price of the test vehicle came to $34,140, including the $1,050 destination charge.

Getting In and Getting Comfortable

2021 Subaru Forester Limited Front Seats

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

First and foremost, the 2021 Subaru Forester is about utility and ease of use, and it begins serving that mission the moment you open the driver’s door. Thanks to the Forester’s tall ride height, it is effortlessly easy to get into and out of this vehicle. And active lifestyle types will love the PIN Code Access system, which allows them to leave the keyfob inside the Forester while they’ve temporarily swapped the Subaru for a bike, board, or boots.

Once you’re settled inside, function trumps form concerning the Forester’s interior. Constructed of durable materials that are easy to clean up after an adventure, the cabin offers numerous nooks and crannies in which you can stash stuff. None of them are large, though, especially the bin underneath the center armrest.

Outward visibility is nothing short of outstanding, and in every direction. Tall windows, thin roof pillars, and expansive glass area make sitting inside a Forester akin to being in a giant fishbowl.

The driver’s seat provides a commanding position and excellent thigh support, and there are soft surfaces on which to rest your arms and elbows. Comfort is ideal, the Limited trim’s leather looks good and feels durable, and the test vehicle had heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. The steering wheel is a joy to hold and contains well-organized controls for the stereo, driving assistance technology, and other functions.

Overall, the Forester’s control layout is old-school, but in a good way. Subaru locates primary controls where you expect to find them, with secondary controls placed in a somewhat haphazard manner on the dashboard and center console. This approach forces you to hunt for them on occasion. 

Three different displays convey information, and it can be confusing trying to recall which of them tells you what. However, once you get the Forester set up to your preferences, you can access the information you need in reasonably short order.

Though it competes in the compact SUV segment, the Forester’s back seat is remarkably roomy for adults. The test vehicle had air conditioning vents, power ports, smartphone storage pockets, and a center armrest with cupholders. 

All Foresters except for the base trim level include a panoramic glass sunroof. Because the glass isn’t deeply tinted (if at all), solar heating is a significant problem, so you must keep the shade closed. Subaru needs to solve this or make the sunroof an option.

2021 Subaru Forester Starlink Infotainment System Review

2021 Subaru Forester Limited Interior Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Subaru uses an older version of its Starlink infotainment system in the 2021 Forester, and that’s just fine by me. It has an 8-inch touchscreen, stereo knobs, physical menu shortcut buttons, and large function tiles on the display and keeps the climate controls separate from the infotainment functions. This approach is more user-friendly than the 11.6-inch Starlink system in most versions of the Subaru Legacy and Subaru Outback.

The test vehicle’s Starlink system had the following features:

  • 8-inch touchscreen display
  • Bluetooth calling and music streaming
  • Text-messaging support
  • Apple CarPlay
  • Android Auto
  • HD Radio
  • SiriusXM satellite radio
  • Starlink cloud-based applications
  • Starlink connected services
  • 4G LTE Wi-Fi access
  • Near field communications
  • And yes, a CD player

Generally speaking, this version of Starlink is easy to use. Pairing my iPhone with the system was easy, and running Apple CarPlay was not a problem. The Forester Limited’s lack of a wireless smartphone charger was surprising, though. 

I did find the navigation system’s voice recognition technology to be hit-and-miss in terms of performance. While you can use voice commands to change the radio station or adjust cabin temperature, it’s easier to simply use the tuning and temperature knobs on the dashboard. Canceling a programmed route was also harder than it needed to be.

Usually, I’m a fan of Harman Kardon audio components, but the 9-speaker setup in the Forester lacked the sound depth, resonance, and clarity I expected based on previous experience with the brand.

What It’s Like to Drive the 2021 Subaru Forester

2021 Subaru Forester Limited Gray Side View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Every 2021 Subaru Forester includes a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine with an automatic engine start/stop system that isn’t shy about making its presence heard and felt. The engine employs the classic Subaru layout with horizontally opposed pistons and cylinders in a flat-4, or boxer, design, and it emits the characteristic grumble that helps to endear a Subaru to its owner.

The boxer engine makes 182 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 176 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm, which doesn’t sound like much given a minimum curb weight of 3,483 pounds. However, Subaru calibrates its excellent CVT to make the best use of the power, and the test vehicle’s Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-Drive) offers both Sport and Intelligent driving modes.

During testing at or near sea level, the Forester felt lively enough, and at nearly all times, the CVT operated in a quiet, effective manner. At no time did the Forester seem underpowered, though turbocharging would certainly ensure performance at the higher elevations where many of this SUV’s owners live or play.

As is true of nearly all Subarus, all-wheel drive is standard instead of optional, and the Forester supplies a generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance without any special trim levels or option packages. Most come with hill descent control and the automaker’s X-Mode traction system with Normal and Snow/Dirt modes. Higher trims also add Deep Snow/Mud to the available settings.

Off-road, the Forester is confidence-inspiring. In part, this is due to its excellent outward visibility, but mainly it has to do with the ground clearance, comparatively generous approach and departure angles, and X-Mode. The standard all-season tires are somewhat limiting, but there are solutions for that. Furthermore, my experience driving Subarus in snowstorms suggests the latest Forester will be no less capable when traveling in severe weather, especially if you mount winter tires.

The 2021 Forester also shines brightly during the daily commute. This little SUV shrugs off speed bumps and speed humps, absorbing them without conveying impact harshness to the cabin. The same goes for the bumps, cracks, and holes that are common on American roads.

Suspension isolation is not the same as compliance, though, and the Forester provides a pleasantly firm and athletic ride and handling quality that Subaru has (unfortunately) scrubbed from the larger Outback model. In other words, it’s enjoyable to drive, providing a sense of the road without beating you up in any way.

Parking is a snap, and once again, the outward visibility comes into play. Around town, the brakes prove easy to modulate for smooth driving in traffic, but in the mountains, they heated up and shuddered just a bit. Fade was not a problem, though. The Forester is unexpectedly quiet on the highway in terms of wind and road noise, though this depends on the road surface texture.

Though a Forester is tall and offers wheels no larger than 18 inches in diameter, it can tackle corners and curves with more enthusiasm than you might expect. Brake-induced torque vectoring helps in this regard, along with the flat-4 engine’s design and resulting lower center of gravity.

Overall, I enjoy driving the Forester. It is a terrific, all-around kind of a crossover SUV, and I prefer it to the more expensive Subaru Outback.

2021 Subaru Forester EyeSight Review

2021 Subaru Forester EyeSight Driving Assistance Systems

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Subaru’s EyeSight suite of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) is among the better and more effective of such collections of technology, in part because it uses a stereo camera system to power many of its features and functions.

In the 2021 Forester, EyeSight is standard for all trim levels. It includes:

  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Forward-collision warning
  • Automatic emergency braking
  • Lane-departure warning
  • Lane-keeping assistance
  • Lane-centering assistance
  • Pre-collision throttle management (prevents you from accelerating into an obstacle)
  • Automatic high-beam headlight assistance

Separately, starting with Sport trim, Subaru offers blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic warning. A rear automatic braking system is available for the Forester Sport and standard with Limited and Touring trim. Only the Forester Touring has DriverFocus, a camera-based distracted driver monitoring technology.

During testing on freeways and coastal highways, EyeSight proved nearly flawless. The system beeps a lot, such as when the adaptive cruise control acquires or loses “sight” of a new vehicle ahead or when the lane departure warning system issues an alert. This gets old, and fast.

Also, in thickening afternoon traffic, distance management wasn’t as smooth as when the road ahead was clearer, the Forester sometimes braking more abruptly than a human driver would. Curves in the road occasionally produced more aggressive steering input than was desirable, too.

However, these are nit-picks in the grand scheme of things. Overall, EyeSight proved exceptionally effective in a variety of driving situations.

2021 Subaru Forester FAQ - Find the best Subaru deals!

2021 Subaru Forester Cargo Space

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

How much cargo space does the 2021 Subaru Forester have?

If you get a base Forester, the SUV provides an impressive 31.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seat and 74.3 cubes with the back seat folded down. All other trim levels have a standard panoramic glass sunroof that chews into the volume, resulting in figures of 28.9 cubic feet and 69.2 cubic feet, respectively.

Subaru provides small hooks, power ports, and under-floor storage, but the Forester lacks handy wells on either side of the load floor, which are often helpful for carrying jugs of milk or bottles of wine. The cargo space is usefully shaped, though, making it easy to pack.

Does the 2021 Subaru Forester get good gas mileage?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the 2021 Forester should return 29 mpg in combined driving. Our test vehicle supplied 26.5 mpg on the testing route, part of it driven in SI-Drive’s Sport mode.

Still, even at our lower-than-expected result, the Forester’s 16.6-gallon fuel tank should provide a maximum of 440 miles of range. This means you’ll stop at the gas station every 400 miles or so, less frequently than you might in many of the Forester’s competitors.

Is the 2021 Subaru Forester safe?

In a word, yes. In addition to EyeSight and Starlink connected services such as automatic collision notification and emergency calling, the 2021 Subaru Forester excels in crash-test evaluations.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives the Forester a 5-star overall rating and 5-star ratings in every individual test except for rollover resistance. Here, the SUV received a 4-star rating, which is typical of small crossover SUVs.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) calls the 2021 Forester a Top Safety Pick+, giving the SUV the highest possible ratings for every evaluation it conducts.

How much is the 2021 Subaru Forester?

The span between the least and most expensive versions of the 2021 Forester is about $10,000. Prices range from $24,795 to $34,895, plus a destination charge of $1,050 to ship the SUV to your dealership from Japan.

What are the 2021 Subaru Forester competitors?

In the J.D. Power 2020 Initial Quality Study (IQS), the Hyundai Tucson ranked highest in the compact SUV segment. The Kia Sportage and the Chevrolet Equinox were the next highest-ranked models. 

In the J.D. Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout Study (APEAL), the Ford Escape and Mazda CX-5 tied to rank highest in the compact SUV segment. The GMC Terrain was the next highest-ranked model.

Other competitors to the 2021 Forester include the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, and Toyota RAV4.

Independent Expert Opinion - Find the best Subaru deals!

2021 Subaru Forester Limited Gray Rear Quarter View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Life throws you enough curveballs, so owning a vehicle like the 2021 Subaru Forester can add an effortless, refreshing simplicity to the daily grind. Most of the time, no matter the task or the weather, the Forester capably serves its owner. 

However, the people who own Foresters also rank the powertrain as their least favorite thing about the SUV. Turbocharging would add power and torque for more lively acceleration and performance regardless of elevation (at the expense of fuel economy, of course). It could also bump the current 1,500-pound towing capacity higher.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to like a Subaru Forester and few reasons to criticize one. It might not be the most attractive, or the most thrilling, or the most upscale of compact crossovers, but it is relentlessly practical, incredibly roomy, and undeniably safe. And there is beauty in that.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience in test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2022 J.D. Power

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