Americans are in love with Subaru's cars as the Japanese automaker understands the U.S. car buyers' tastes uncannily well. No wonder Subaru has won the Motor Trend "SUV of the Year" award three times since 2009. This year, it went to the 2014 Forester.  

Subaru, the automotive division of Fuji Heavy Industries (OTC:FUJHY), posted 46.6% growth in Forester sales this year till June in the U.S. With the launch of 2015 Forester in May, let's see how this model is helping Subaru gain a firmer foothold in the U.S., and compete with the likes of Toyota (NYSE:TM) and Ford (NYSE:F).

The 2015 Subaru Forester, Source: Subaru

The backdrop
The Forester has been frequently called the best crossover SUV launched by Subaru in the U.S. This might have looked as an overstatement, but one look at the company's exports from Japan dispels all doubts. The figure leapt by 30.2% in 2013-2014 compared with the year-ago period, mostly on the back of strong Forester sales in the U.S. Through May in this year, export from Japan improved 18.3% against the same period past year, again for the same reason. In 2014, Forester has contributed to almost one-third of the Subaru brand's sales in the U.S. till June.

Also, 2015 Forester's ratings by Kelley Blue Book are not far off from its immediate contenders Ford's Escape and Toyota's RAV4. Surprisingly, it has already overtaken the 2014 Toyota RAV4 and is only slightly behind the 2014 Ford Escape. In terms of consumer ratings, the Forester is trailing only a bit behind the RAV4, but has surpassed Ford's Escape dramatically.

Source: Kelley Blue Book

The Forester sits in the last position among the 10 best-selling SUVs in the U.S. till June 2014 compiled by auto portal, which may not look that impressive, but the percentage change from the same period last year is what is notable. The Forester has grown at an astounding 46.6% and no other model's growth is even remotely close to it: the RAV4 is up 15.5% and the Escape down 2.4%. 

What is so special about this SUV compared to its competitors? And what's new in the latest model?

AWD -- the winning edge
Subaru markets Forester as the ultimate choice for the daring, sporting, and adventurous drivers. And at the center of this appeal is the Forester's all-wheel drive (AWD) that makes navigating tough roads or mountainous terrain smooth. This symmetrical AWD is a big scoring point over its immediate rivals -- Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape offer front-wheel drive as their standard feature. 

Kelley Blue Book puts it simply and clearly -- "Where the Subaru Forester continues to one up rivals such as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape in the competitive compact SUV segment is with its standard all-wheel drive, a trait that helps the Forester remain sure-footed no matter the terrain or weather."

The adventure bit does not take anything away from safety; rather, Subaru's really upped the standard in this regard -- 2015 Forester boasts of advanced safety features comparable to luxury cars and expects to get top safety ratings from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. The 2014 Forester had it too. 

Price and mileage
Forester's fuel efficiency is a major attraction as a crossover SUV. The 2015 version achieves 24/32 mpg city/highway with its basic powertrain, according to Kelley Blue Book. In comparison, the 2014 Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape with base engines offer mileage ranging 24/31 and 23/33 mpg city/highway, respectively. Also, 2015 Forester features the continuously variable transmission that improves the engine's overall efficiency, something not available in the other two and most other brands.

Forester's affordability has made it a hot favorite among Subaru fans. The basic AWD 2015 model sells for around $23,000, whereas the 2014 Toyota RAV4 and 2014 Ford Escape have starting prices of around $25,000 and $23,600, respectively. The economic sticker price with a turbocharged fuel-efficient powertrain and AWD explain Forester's popularity among American car buyers.

Constant innovation
Subaru is well aware of the innovative features Ford and Toyota have been providing in their remodeled versions. Ford Escape comes with "active park assist" and BLIS with traffic alert when the vehicle enters a blind spot zone. Toyota RAV4, too, has similar features with blind spot monitor and hi-tech driver assisting tools.

Not to be outdone, Subaru has introduced the Eyesight driver assistance system, which includes features like pre-collision braking system, lane sway and departure warning, in the 2015 Forester. In the premium edition of Forester, voice navigation features have been added. Plus, the new model is more spacious and better looking from the inside with greater style quotient than its predecessor.

Final word
The rising popularity of Forester is not a lucky coincidence. It has been the outcome of Subaru's well-framed strategy to accelerate the pitch of sales in the U.S. So far, Subaru's unrelenting focus on this niche is paying off really well.