An Owner's Evaluation of the 2019 Subaru Forester

Some good, some not ready for prime time

August, 2019

In late 2018 I had an accident which totalled our 2015 Subaru Outback. We looked for replacement vehicles and narrowed things down to the 2019 Toyota Rav 4 and the 2019 Subaru Forester. We ended up buying the 2019 Subaru Forester, primarily because the Rav 4 in the model we wanted, the hybrid, wasn't going to be available until the second quarter of 2019. We test drove a 2018 Rav 4 and really liked it, but it had a number of problems supposedly fixed in the 2019 model. In particular, in the 2018 models the battery pack is mounted in a manner such that when the back seat behind the driver is folded down to make more cargo / sleeping space, it is not at all flat.

We purchased the top end Forester model, the Touring. I am 70 and concerned about maintaining proper attention and alertness when driving; it is not uncommon for me to pull over and take a quick nap. We purchased that solely because of a single feature — the driver monitoring feature, now apparently renamed "Driver Focus Distraction Mitigation System". It was only available on the Touring model. In hindsight, we should have saved $6,000 and bought the Sport model instead. The Touring model had other "fancy" features which were of little appeal to us, such as a high-end entertainment system, more adjustments for the passenger seat, and a heated steering wheel.

The 2019 Subarus have a number of electronic monitoring enhancements. Some function ok; others less than ok.

The driver monitoring system mentioned above is useless, at least in my case. It attempts to determine when the driver is not paying attention, such as looking at a cell phone or out the window. In my case, it almost always can't properly figure out that I am a human and gives up monitoring all together. This happens probably 80% of the time. When it does monitor me, it continually beeps and pops up messages saying I need to keep my eyes on the road when in fact that is exactly what I have been doing. If I try to deliberately set it off by turning my head sideways and looking out a window, it doesn't go off, even when I maintain that posture for over five seconds, an incredibly long time to be distracted. In short, the system is useless, and Subaru would be wise to have one of their engineers come ride with me for a while. The last time I drove the car it warned me eight times in about two minutes and I finally had to de-activate the system.

A more useful safety feature is the Eye Sight system, which attempts to keep track of the lanes on the road and notify you when you are unintentionally drifting out of your lane, either to the left or the right. This system generally works if you are on good roads with well-defined line markings. Unfortunately, it is not tuneable, and you pretty much have to actually cross the line before it goes off. It would be much better if the driver could adjust it to give an earlier warning. Lest someone get lulled into a false sense of security thinking this will keep them safe, note that it works only on the car you are driving, and will do nothing if a driver coming towards you drifts into your lane! Duh. But I think it's worth mentioning. Also note that this feature is more valuable in warm climates. We live in rural Montana, and our roads are at least partially covered with snow and ice for six months of the year. The system obviously can't identify road markings when they are covered with snow or ice, or when they aren't there at all such as on gravel roads.

One of the reasons we bought this car is because we thought it has a better rearwards and sidewards field of view than many. My accident, and a number of previous possible mishaps, was at least partially caused by the blind spot resulting from the support post situated between the front passenger and the rear passenger. We thought the Forester had better viewing of oncoming traffic in this regard, although I am no longer convinced this is true. It is certainly not as good as the over-the-right-shoulder view in our 2005 VW Jetta sedan.

Of the 2019 Forester models, the only two which made sense for us were the Touring and the Sport. This was because we want the ability to choose a particular gear for driving in mud and snow, driving in rough terrain, and going steep downhill. In the Touring and Sport models, moving the shift stick sideways towards the driver switches from normal drive mode to a mode where paddle shifters on the steering column can select the gear. This works extremely well. In addition, there are separate all-wheel-drive options (other than the "regular" one) one can choose when driving in mud and snow.

The 2019 Subarus have a handy environmental feature which turns the car off when you are stopped. This is great, except once again, it doesn't work very well. First, it doesn't turn off unless you do a somewhat harsh stop; if you drive like I do and make smooth, gentle stops, it frequently doesn't detect that you are stopped. When it does turn off, any slight easing of your foot on the brake pedal will cause the engine to start again, even if you are still braking and the car is still stopped. Once you do that, it won't turn off again until you have actually driven forward. This is extremely frustrating. The system needs a button you can push to inform it "I am stopped, dammit!"

For the first ten thousand miles or so we only got about 29 mpg; disappointing. Our driving is almost all highway miles, as it's 65 miles to the nearest city where we shop. The last thousand we are getting about 33 mpg; I'm a pretty easy-on-the-gas-pedal driver, and usually get one or two mpg more than most. 33 compared to 29 is a pretty large difference, and I'm not sure what the cause is.

The GPS system is less than stellar, and the user interface leaves much to be desired. On a recent trip it could not even locate a long-established state park by name. One would think official national and state parks would be a no-brainer for a navigation system. One would think it would be obvious how to tell it to stop navigating, but it isn't. The map doesn't even show some roads on the state highway map, not exactly the most detailed map in the world. Finally, the color scheme for roads not involved in the current route, or secondary roads in general when no route is selected, are either not displayed or displayed in colors which are nearly indistinguishable from the background, making general orientation and route planning difficult at best.

We recently returned from a ~2000 mile trip in which we attempted to use the GPS system a bit more. It could not locate our home when the address was directly typed in; instead, it wanted to select the nearest neighbor's house. It could not locate the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside of Baker City, OR. It could not locate Zigzag, OR. The map did not display prominent rivers and lakes unless zoomed in very tightly. It showed no campgrounds in vast national forest / BLM lands. It showed no prominent mountains, including Mt. Hood, the highest mountain in Oregon and a prominent landmark. In short, the GPS system seems to be targeted to city driving, not driving in general.

The mechanical controls (buttons, knobs, etc.) on the car are generally excellent. However, keeping track of them all is a real memory test. The ones to the lower left of the driver are pretty much impossible to see when one is driving.

The rear window defroster is underwhelming — it can't keep rear window clear in 10°F weather. Snow piles up at the end of wiper half-circle and doesn't shed. The wiper blades are supposed to be heated, but you would never know it.

All models of the 2019 Forester come with a moon roof except the base model. This is clearly some crazy marketing scheme, as everyone I know who has had a moon roof keeps them closed all the time. But people who have never had one apparently think they would be great. They are noisy when open, and the tracks get full of pine needles, leaves and dirt. If you use a roof rack for anything, which includes most people I know who have a car of this type, whatever is on the roof rack makes the moon roof idea moot. Finally, making the moon roof openable takes away almost two inches of cargo space in the rear of the vehicle. If you're going to have a moon roof, make it non-openable. If you're going to offer a moon roof, especially one that takes away from usable cargo space, it should be an option that you can omit to get the cargo space back. As it stands, the base model has more cargo space than all the other models.

All of the 2019 Subaru models are better than previous years' in their placement of the screen for the electronic controls. The screens are higher and access is better so you keep your eyes on the road more. This was a huge complaint I had about our 2015 Outback.

The 2019 Forester has a disappointing towing capacity of 1500 lbs, and they officially don't even make a 2" receiver for it. This seems to ignore the fact that people may already have things like bicycle racks that have a 2" stinger on them, and stingers with 2" balls on them for small boat trailers which are well within the official weight range. I purchased and installed a hitch from Torklift Central which we have been very happy with.

And now for a complaint I have with virtually every Owner's Manual I have had: while the owner's manual has an index, it is virtually useless. Please, Subaru and every other car manufacturer, please hire me or someone else to build your Owner's Manual index. I have had to add numerous entries to ours; it takes at least ten minutes to find anything, if there is any kind of index entry at all. I usually have to resort to thumbing through the manual, one of the most frustrating things I can imagine.

Based on our previous experience with our 2015 Outback and our current 2019 Forester, Subaru's service — especially their national customer service — has been over the top.

Would I buy this car again? I don't know. Would I buy this model again? Definitely not; I would buy the Sport model instead, since the one reason we purchased the Touring model was the Driver Monitoring System, which doesn't work well enough to be of practical use. However, before buying a Subaru Forester I would take a very good look at the 2019 Toyota Rav 4 Hybrid. Am I generally happy with the car? Despite all of the above shortcomings, the answer is yes. It is comfortable to drive, and is one of the safest cars on the road. Our 2015 Outback did a superb job of keeping me unharmed when I was hit by a truck doing 69 mph. Subaru is justifiably proud of their safety record and their service is outstanding. I wish it got better gas mileage, and I wish it didn't have a moon roof and I could have the additional storage space. I just wish we hadn't wasted $6,000 on a feature that doesn't work.