View into Succor Creek Canyon in Oregon (click image for gallery)
Sorry for the long delay, as this is the first update in a few months. A few people have already asked me if I had stopped blogging! Nope, I was just really busy at work and hadn't been doing all that much shooting. Mainly lens tests in fact, including the new Nikkor AF-S 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G and the Nikkor AF-S VR 70-200mm f/4G... both of which I bought actually. The brand new 18-35mm replaced my AF-S VR 16-35mm f/4G and the 70-200mm replaced the bigger and heavier f/2.8G VR II. I find both these lighter, less expensive lenses to generally perform as well (or even better) for my needs than their heavier and more expensive counterparts. For example, the 18-35mm is actually more flare resistant than the costlier 16-35mm! I also tested the new AF-S 80-400mm Nikkor zoom and although it is excellent, it has a zoom range that I don't often need, so I cannot justify its expense at this time.
Anyway, in mid-May I left on a solo road trip to the Southwestern US again, this time making my way through Yellowstone National Park and Dinosaur National Monument on the way down to Utah. I also visited Fantasy Canyon southeast of Vernal, Utah for the first time and it truly has some bizarrely eroded sandstone formations! Watch for more blog posts in the near future with some additional photos from the trip.
This "off-topic" blog posting is mainly all about my new vehicle, a brand new 2014 Subaru Forester 2.0XT, the Canadian "Touring Edition" model. It conveniently arrived (barely) in time for my trip and after being shod with some proper off-road rubber (four 18" Yokohama Geolandar A/T-S tires), and after a quick 900km break-in drive through the Fraser Canyon where it proved fully functional, I was off and heading south. An image gallery with twenty shots of the new Forester on my trip can be accessed by clicking on the above photo, which was taken on the way home through Oregon. Many of the photos were shots of various backcountry campsites where I stayed (not official campsites, just nice out-of-the-way spots on public BLM lands) and a few just show the Forester within the spectacular scenery I was driving through.
The reason I am writing a dedicated blog post about my new Forester is that during this trip, getting there was actually far more than half the fun for a change! This new Forester XT is easily the nicest vehicle I have ever driven, let alone owned, and it is an absolute total blast to drive. With an all new 2.0 litre direct-injected turbocharged engine making 250 hp, and an amazingly flat torque curve with 258 lb-ft available from 2000-4800rpm, this engine propels the fairly lightweight Forester with authority in all conditions. Even at high altitudes through mountain passes, where normally aspirated engines can lose a lot of power, the Forester XT hardly felt like it was breathing hard, thanks to the minimal turbo-lag from its Honeywell built twin-scroll intercooled turbo. According to Motor Trend Magazine's tests, the new XT will hit 60 mph in 6.2 seconds and run the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds at 96 mph. Pretty good performance for a small 2.0 litre engine in a decently sized AWD crossover that is still capable of good fuel economy! In addition, with its upgraded brakes, the new Forester XT will even out-brake a BRZ, Subaru's lightweight, RWD sports-car. Yep, the new XT is lots of fun to drive which, in turn, is not so good for fuel economy though...
The transmission is an all new "high torque" CVT, or continuously variable transmission, with steering wheel mounted paddle-shifters. Unlike other CVTs, the one in the new XT is very unobtrusive and the continuous surge of strong acceleration, with no pauses for shifting, is really quite addictive. When needed, you can access manual shift modes for downshifting when descending long hills, or just for predictably holding gear ratios when blasting through a twisty canyon road. Sport (S) mode offer 6 virtual gears and "Sport Sharp" (S#) mode offers 8 virtual gear ratios. In addition, the sport modes alter the engine's throttle response and the transmissions shift behaviour quite dramatically, so with three modes to choose from -the above two sport modes and an "Intelligent" (I) economy mode- there is lots to experiment and have fun with! The new CVT is a way nicer transmission than the old, conventional four-speed automatic in my previous Forester, and the combination of the responsive turbo motor and flexible new CVT is a joy to drive in almost any situation.
Handling is also amazingly taught for a tall crossover with lots of ground-clearance. In fact, it drives more like a sports-car with minimal body roll, fast, precise steering and a very firm suspension that seems unflappable even when presented with big pavement heaves while flying around fast corners. The large vented 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS also add to one's confidence when driving the XT and after a the first deer avoidance manoeuvre early in the trip, I appreciated the firm, positive feel of the brake pedal and strong fade-free stopping power. On the other hand, the iPad that was launched from the passenger seat several times during the trip probably wasn't so impressed with the brakes! Luckily, it survived unscathed. The firm suspension does have a downside though: sedate driving ride comfort is not quite what my previous 2012 Forester delivered and on severe washboard, I was wishing for the softer and more compliant suspension of the 2012.
So, the 2014 XT drives great on the road, no question. How is it off-road? Well the previous generation Forester was already quite capable, with 8.7" of ground clearance and decent approach, departure and breakover angles. Subaru's full-time all-wheel-drive system was also superb and offered tons of traction with sophisticated vehicle dynamics control (VDC) that would, for example, clamp down on a wheel with lost traction in order to transfer power to the wheels with grip. The new 2014 has those same specifications as well (although in my view, the approach angle is ever so slightly worse than the 2012 model) but now it also has an "X-Mode" for its VDC system, which can be activated at low speeds (below 20 km/h) with a button near the shift lever. It self-cancels when you accelerate to over 40 km/h.
When X-Mode is engaged, the VDC system's "lost-traction responsiveness" is stepped up dramatically. Not only is the front/rear power distribution locked more tightly to 50/50, but when the VDC system detects that a wheel has lost traction, it aggressively applies the brake to that wheel, locking it down and transferring power to the other wheels that do have traction. This happens far more quickly and decisively than on the older Forester, leading to much less wheel-spin in low traction situations such as soft dirt, mud, snow or when the road is severely uneven causing a wheel to lift into the air. While not quite as effective as true switchable locking differentials on a hardcore 4x4, it is certainly far better than even a normal 4x4 without lockers, or one with conventional limited-slip differentials. Subaru's system can pretty much apply 100% of the engine's power to only one wheel, if the three other wheels have lost traction! That vast majority of other AWD systems currently on the market are not capable of that, at least as far as I'm aware.
What X-Mode's excellent traction helps you do, is drive through rough terrain very slowly. The traction control with X-Mode is so good, that it never really feels as though you need to take a run at something, which I often felt I needed to do in my older 4x4 trucks or even in the previous Forester. This is very welcome, since the one thing the you cannot do is bash the underside of the Subaru on rocks! It is not protected by thick, steel skidplates underneath, so "slowly and gently" is definitely how one wants to proceed in difficult terrain.
Unlike my last Forester, there is actually a metal skidplate under the front of the XT, primarily protecting the turbocharger, and while it seems somewhat substantial and could probably stand a small amount of abuse, it certainly wouldn't hold up to a major rock impact. The stiffer suspension also comes into play here. When you come down off a big rock or ledge, the firm suspension does not bounce like the old Forester, so you are far less likely to whack the underside on something due to the suspension compressing. The firm springs and shocks on the 2014 XT really make for a far more controlled ride in low-speed, rough conditions when compared to the 2012 Forester.
Not only is X-Mode more aggressive in its traction control as detailed above, but it also alters the engine's throttle mapping (the first half stroke of the accelerator-pedal has gentler throttle response for smoother low-speed driving), it loosens up the CVT's torque-converter at slow speeds (increasing engine rpms to simulate a lower gear ratio for more torque when driving at low speeds) and also engages hill-descent control when driving down steep inclines. If you are going down a steep hill in X-Mode, you can basically use the throttle to speed up, the brakes to slow down, but if you take your foot off the pedals, it will maintain your set speed, automatically modulating the brakes for you. With hill-descent control and those massive disc brakes, it makes for far more confident steep descents than in the old Forester, where even with the transmission in 1st gear, were your foot to slip off the brake pedal while driving down a steep incline, you'd suddenly start rolling downhill dangerously fast!
By now, I guess you can tell that I really like my new Forester! It is great both on-road and off, but are there any downsides other than the few I mentioned above? Well, let me quickly list those that come to mind after a few weeks and 8,000 km or so...
- The cruise control is a bit schizophrenic. On mostly flat roads with gentle ascents and descents, it's fine. On undulating roads with quick steep uphill and downhill sections, it seems to wait too long to apply throttle on an upslope, then decides enough is enough and boots it! You get some serious throttle happening quite suddenly and your speed rockets up to to 20 km/h or more over your set speed before the system calms down and slowly returns you to your set velocity. In situations like that, to prevent the weird behaviour you have to help it along and apply a bit of throttle yourself at the start of the upslope... or just turn off the cruise control and drive manually of course.
- Reverse gear on the CVT is surprisingly tall. I was actually concerned that I might get stuck if needing to back up in certain challenging situations, but while it felt weak at times when reversing and sometimes required a lot of throttle, I was never able to actually get it intentionally "stuck" while backing up during my trip. However on my break-in drive up the Fraser Canyon, there was one backroad where I was trying to back the front wheels up onto a rock ledge I had driven off of, and with the front wheels butted up against the ledge, even flooring the car wouldn't allow it to climb back up. One needed to take a short rolling start at it. However during the trip, I was not able to duplicate this behaviour again.
- The rear cargo light is low down on the right side. Why?! On the old Forester, it was centred at the top, right over the cargo area and it worked great. Put a load of gear in the new one, and the useless little cargo light on the right side is totally obscured! I put the built-in lantern hook on the rear lift-gate to good use with a nice bright LED lantern I bought just for that purpose. That worked well at least.
- Unlike the 2012 model, it won't quite fit a full-size tire and wheel in the spare-tire compartment. I am in the process of figuring out how to shim up the rear floor deck by a 1/2 inch or so, in order to accommodate an 18" spare tire and wheel. Close, but no cigar...
- At any given rpm, it seems as though there is less engine-braking on the new Forester XT when compared to my old one. Down long hills, the rpms ran higher than I expected in order to hold my speed, although as mentioned, the brakes are really superb on the XT so I wasn't really worried. Just took a little getting used to. With 8 virtual gears to choose from in S#-mode, one has a lot of flexibility to find an optimum ratio for holding speed downhill too.
- When fully utilizing X-Mode on a really rough road, or going down a really steep hill with hill-descent control active, you will hear some fairly loud pulsing/thrumming noises coming from the ABS/Traction-Control system. This is not continuous, it just happens in spurts when the going gets really rough or steep and the system has to work hard. Not really too intrusive once you are used to it, but it can be a little surprising and concerning the first few times you hear it.
- Fuel economy was a bit worse than the old Forester on a similar trip. But... I think that I'm primarily to blame for that. In fact, with a gentle right foot, I am quite certain you could easily equal the average fuel economy of the older 170hp 2.5 litre engine that powers the 2012 model on a road-trip like this. However in the city when driving sedately in I-mode, thankfully the new one actually uses less fuel than my old one. However on this trip, I (ahem) "enjoyed" the powertrain and the handling far too much to worry about driving for economy. Plus, I was fighting a stiff headwind quite often and when you are driving into a 50 km/h headwind at 140 km/h on a highway with an 80 mph (130 km/h) speed limit, well that isn't exactly conducive to setting any fuel economy records. With the headwinds and all the aggressive driving both on pavement and on dirt, my trip average was only 9.8 L/100km. I got 8.8 L/100km on a similar trip last year in my 2012 Forester. For comparison, driving along a flat highway at 100 km/h and not fighting any winds, the trip computer shows roughly 7.2 L/100km. Keep your right foot out of the turbo, and it can return some fairly impressive fuel economy for a tall, full-time AWD crossover vehicle, one that has 250hp on tap when needed/wanted!
That's about it I think. No other obvious issues come to mind. All in all, a very nice vehicle and the option package for the Canadian Touring Edition was just about perfect in my view. I didn't want leather (much prefer cloth), I didn't want a built-in nav system (have my own really good Garmin with topo maps), didn't want a high-end sound system (not picky and happy with the standard one)... heck, listening to the sweet whistle of the turbocharger is music to my ears! All the important performance and convenience options are there in my view. There are many other small improvements compared to the old model too, like better sealing against dust ingress from the rear lift-gate and no dust blow-by on the cabin air-filter (at least so far), a cruise control that, despite its foibles, is excellent at controlling downhill speeds, a better centre console cup-holder with a removable divider and removable rubber mat to ease cleaning, larger door-mounted bottle holders, a much nicer interior overall, a vastly improved Bluetooth interface to my iPhone, and much more. Also, it is a safer vehicle than the old one in the event of an accident, something I hope I'll never have to test! In fact, the 2014 Forester aced every crash test that the IIHS threw at it, outperforming every other vehicle in its class for safety.
Overall, truly an awesome AWD crossover I'd say and with a purchase price that's only about $1,500 more than my last regular (non-turbo) Touring-Edition 2012 Forester (not an XT), it is quite a bargain too in my opinion. Anyway, that's enough of being sidetracked by the automotive theme... now back to photography. I am not planning on making a habit out of writing car reviews! I do hope some of you found this mildly interesting though. Watch for more image galleries from my trip in the coming weeks...