I just spent the last week driving a 2019 Subaru Forester Sport. It was fine. Safe, comfortable, fine. Mechanically, though, the Sport is identical to the Premium and Limited models that bracket it in the Forester lineup. In a way, I felt deceived. Subaru has offered a mild performance variant of the Forester here in the U.S. for years now — and all of a sudden, the "sporty" version of the new 2019 model consists of … orange stickers and black paint.
Conditions are right. It’s time for Subaru to build a Forester STI.
As I bemoan above, the new Forester lacks a performance-oriented variant. The 2019 model offers one engine: a ho-hum 182 horsepower, 176 lb-ft, naturally-aspirated 4-cylinder mated to an even more ho-hum continuously variable transmission (CVT). It’s reasonable to expect Subaru to add an additional powertrain to the lineup down the line, as it has done in the past. Making an upcoming performance variant into a proper STI model has the potential to print money for the brand.
Performance-oriented SUVs only make more and more sense as the model years tick by. BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz offer performance variants of their SUVs, and the trend seems to just now be catching on in the mainstream market as well. Jeep offers an SRT version of the Grand Cherokee. Ford recently introduced a performance variant of the Edge, turning the Edge Sport into a full-blown ST variant as part of the vehicle’s 2019 mid-cycle update — and Ford will do it again when the all new Explorer ST goes on sale in the coming year.
A Forester STI wouldn’t be unprecedented, either. Subaru offered an STI version of the second-generation Forester in Japan in the mid-2000s. It used the same engine and a similar suspension as the Impreza STI, but lacked the Impreza’s adjustable center differential — a fair trade-off and a good blueprint for a new U.S.-market Forester STI, the value proposition of which would be slightly decreased performance in exchange for added practicality when compared to Subaru’s halo car, the WRX STI.
Helping with feasibility is the fact that the 2019 Forester is built on the new Subaru Global Platform, which underpins the new Impreza and will likely also underpin the next-generation WRX and WRX STI. Theoretically, this would make it relatively simple to fit the new STI engine into the new Forester. One potential holdup, though, is the availability of an appropriate automatic transmission, as the new Forester comes only with a CVT. A manual transmission is a non-starter in a performance SUV, given its lack of widespread appeal, and developing a new geared automatic transmission for what would ultimately be a low-volume vehicle would likely be cost-prohibitive.
Now for a look at pricing. The Forester Touring — the nicest Forester you can currently buy — sells for $35,270 once you factor in destination. This leaves plenty of room for a top-of-the line, high-performance STI model. The base WRX STI carries a sticker price of $37,480, while the Limited model tops out at $41,395. With a new WRX STI likely on the way in the next few years, it’s fair to expect the new model to come with an increased price tag. This leaves room in the lineup for a similarly priced Forester STI. I’d say $42,000, with a few thousand dollars of built-in profit margin, sounds about right.
Combine current market conditions with Subaru’s decision to offer special-edition WRX STIs like the Type RA and S209 to Americans over the past couple of years, and things are looking up. With the current lack of a performance option in the Forester lineup, and buyers’ willingness to pay a premium for go-fast SUVs, maybe the idea of a Forester STI isn’t so crazy.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping the Germans to design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.