by: SUBARU NORTH AMERICA - The redesigned 2014 Subaru Forester is a better bargain than ever.The redesigned 2014 Subaru Forester won the Family Class category of Mudfest this year. The annual comparison of Outdoor Activity Vehicles was conducted by the Northwest Automotive Press Association.

The win was something of a surprise, since the Forester has long been considered a good bargain but not exactly a top class crossover. And the competition was stiff. it included four other redesigned crossovers — the Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, Mitsubishi Outlander and Nissan Pathfinder — along with the sophisticated Volkswagen Touareg TDI.

In my mind, there are two reasons the 2014 Forester bested them. First, it is vastly improved in all aspects over the previous generation, including styling, interior room, handling, economy and materials. And second, the version we tested was the optional turbocharged model, which had more power than any of the competitors. Automotive writers like fast cars, after all.

But after spending a week in a non-turbocharged 2014 Forester, I can say the improvements still make it competitive against all other family-oriented compact crossovers. The additional room is especially noticeable in the rear seats, which now have much more leg room and good head room.

But most impressive is the mileage increase. My test Forester recorded over 24 miles per gallon, a vast improvement over the 18 or so I've gotten in previous-generation versions. Even more impressive, it performed better than them, too — accelerating noticaebly faster and quieter than before.

That's especially impressive, since the normally-aspirated 2.5-liter "boxer" engine is only rated at 174 horsepower. The turbocharged 2.0-liter version produces 250 horsepower, and you'd expect the performance to be pretty good. But I had no complaints about the 2.5-liter engine, even when going up steep hills or passing big trucks on the freeway.

Much of the credit goes to the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which is a form of automatic transmissions without set speeds (three-speed, four-speed, etc.). Manufactures like CVTs because they can be tuned to maximize mileage. Automotive writers tend to dislike them because they are less responsive and noisier than traditional automatics. But Subaru got the CVT in the redesigned Forester right. Hopefully, they'll install it in all their other vehicles, too.

Subaru is the only company providing all-wheel-drive on all their models, meaning everything they make is essentially a crossover. Their vehicles have never been as refined as the direct competitors produce by most other manufacturers. Instead, Subaru has won a loyal following by being quirky and endearing.

The most surprising thing about the 2014 Forester is how mainstream it's become. Yes, it's still offered only with AWD. And yes, it still has a horizontally opposed engine, otherwise known as a "boxer." But the quality is now better than that in the Tribeca, Subaru's luxury crossover. At least, when ordered with practically all available options like our test Forester, which came with a leather leather interior, sunroof and upgraded stereo system.

The Forester has undergone numerous styling changes since it was first introduced in 1997. The earlier models were simple bordering on homely, as if Subaru couldn't decide whether it was supposed to be a station wagon or an SUV. The third generation introduced in 2008 was much larger and more stylish, with flowing lines offsetting its otherwise boxy design. The 2014 advance the look slightly, but also makes it more generic — much like what Toyota did with the new RAV4.

Overall though, just about the only places our Forester fell down was the digital display and backup camera screens, which were considerably smaller than those found in most competitors. They worked but required extra attention to monitor.

Those quibbles aside, the new Forester should please both traditional Subaru buyers and new converts alike. And with a base price of around $22,000 include AWD, it's still a good bargain. In fact, with all the improvements, it's a better buy than ever.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 Forester.

• Manufacturer: Subaru.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Styles: Five-door SUV.

• Engines: 2.5-liter "boxer" 4 (170 hp, 174 lbs-ft); turbocharged 2.0-liter "boxer" 4 (250 hp, 258 lbs-ft).

• Transmission: Six-speed manual; Continuously Variable Transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 22/29/24 (2.5/manual); 24/32/27 (2.5/CVT); 23/28/25 (2.0T/CVT)

• Price: Beginning at approximately $22,000 ($33,000 as tested).

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