The market research firm Polk has concluded that Forester inspires higher owner loyalty than just about any vehicle in production. That's easy to understand. Forester delivers the SUV features its buyers want, including a high seating position, good cargo space and a choice of superb all-wheel-drive systems. Yet Forester also offers fuel mileage and ride comfort that's more like a car, in a compact, maneuverable package. On the road it delivers good handling and braking performance. It's more practical than the typical SUV for prowling the urban jungle and better for handling treacherous weather on the highway. And the turbocharged 2.5 XT Limited is one of the more exhilarating vehicles of its type to drive.
For 2006, Forester benefited from a mid-cycle refresh, meaning extensive changes but short of a total redesign. New styling created a slightly more serious, less cutesy look. Inside, subtle changes added comfort and convenience, particularly in the back seat. The suspension was revised for both improved ride comfort and more ground clearance for off-road forays.
For 2007, Subaru has added the Forester Sports 2.5 XT, which delivers the same performance as the flagship 2.5 XT Limited at a lower price point. When ordered with automatic transmission, Sports 2.5 XT comes with Variable Torque Distribution, a new and more performance-oriented all-wheel-drive system with a slight rear-wheel-drive bias; plus Vehicle Dynamic Control and four-wheel traction control. Automatic climate control and unique trim inside and out are shared with the equally new but non-turbocharged Forester Sports 2.5 X.
There's more standard equipment in other models as well. Foresters now come standard with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD). Tires and wheels on XT Limiteds grow from 16 to 17 inches. And all but the base model now come with MP3/WMA and Sirius Satellite Radio capability.
Additionally, all non-turbo Foresters sold in California, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, and Vermont are now Partial Zero Emission Vehicles (PZEV); yet they surrender no horsepower or torque to the 45-state version.
All-wheel drive is standard on all models, and Forester offers manual or automatic transmission. While no rock crawler, Forester is perfect for unpaved roads or logging trails, the conditions most encounter when venturing off the pavement. Forester is rated to tow up to 2400 pounds, enough for personal watercraft or a snowmobile but not enough for a car trailer or weightier boat.
Forester has earned a good record for reliability. It has performed well in laboratory crash tests. (Forester earned a good rating, which is the highest the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives out, in both front-offset and side-impact crashes.) And it comes with a high level of standard safety equipment. In short, the Forester still offers a combination of SUV capability, fuel-efficiency, on-road performance and versatility that's tough to beat.
Subaru Forester 2.5 X ($21,195); Sports 2.5 X ($21,695); 2.5 X Premium ($23,645); Sports 2.5 XT ($25,995): L.L. Bean Edition ($26,695); 2.5 XT Limited ($27,895)
New for 2007, the Sports models feature sporty black mesh grilles and uniquely contoured front bumpers.
Compared to the typical mid-size SUV, Forester is a small vehicle, but it makes efficient use of interior space. It is, by intent, a fairly boxy machine, and its beauty lies more in its functional design. Despite its upright shape, the Forester is impressively aerodynamic, with a sedan-grade 0.36 coefficient of drag. Other things being equal, the more aerodynamic a vehicle is, the less wind noise inside and the better its fuel economy.
The driver's seat is simple to adjust, but it can be tailored for a wide variety of tastes and sizes, and it has good bolstering. The adjustable steering wheel has good range.
Rear-seat riders get good leg and head room, even with the optional moonroof. The rear seats were improved for 2006 with more thigh support. A fold-down armrest provides access to storage in the seatback.
New for 2007: Interior trim has been revised with new bottle holders added to the front doors. And the ashtray has been banished, replaced by storage bin on base models and an auxiliary audio input jack on all others.
Materials inside the Forester have been steadily upgraded over the years, to the point where all are decent quality. The instrument panel and controls are efficiently designed. Three big HVAC knobs make it easy to adjust temperature and airflow.
The upgrade stereo in our 2.5 XT Limited produced good quality sound. The gauge cluster is highly legible. We like the fluorescent-look backlighting on the turbo models best.
The optional leather interior looks and feels stylish. The L.L. Bean model features a Momo wood and leather-wrapped steering wheel and matching shifter handle. The water-resistant surface on its cargo floor and rear seatback extends up the cargo area sidewalls.
The Forester has great cargo capacity for its size. Lowering the 60/40 split rear seat increases that capacity from 31 cubic feet to 69 cubic feet. That's comparable to some compact SUVs (Ford Escape, for example, with 29 and 66 cubic feet, respectively, with and without the back seat in place); less than others (like the Honda CRV, with 36 and 73 cubic feet). Those who put a premium on cargo space should note that the lower headliner on Foresters equipped with the moonroof robs 2 to 4 cubic feet of cargo volume.
The standard retractable cargo cover sits high enough to accommodate taller objects, like a big cooler. Plenty of hooks and tie-downs add versatility. A side storage pocket contains a 12-volt power outlet, and there's another 12-volt outlet in the front center console.
Despite its compact dimensions, Forester accommodates the needs and physique of a wide range of people. It also protects them well in an accident. Passive safety features are among the best in small SUVs, and Forester has earned the highest possible ratings for crashworthiness in frontal-offset and side impact crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Consider this: Forester is much better than nearly any SUV that comes to mind for driving the way most people drive most of the time, that is, on paved roads, back and forth to work, to dinner and a movie, or collecting the kids at school. It rides better. It's more nimble and it gets better mileage. The Forester is also more pleasant, even more fun to drive, than just about any SUV. It will run circles around most of them. It handles more like a car and can be driven like a car. On an icy mountain road snaking along a bottomless precipice in a driving storm, we'd prefer to be in a Forester than in a truck-based SUV. The reason is that it stops and turns better.
The Forester 2.5 XT Limited we tested goes past fun and approaches exciting. The XT's turbocharged, intercooled 2.5-liter, dual-overhead cam, four-cylinder engine makes 226 pound-feet of torque, or about 36 percent more than the base Forester engine. Yet the XT engine isn't the least bit peaky or finicky. Thanks to Subaru's experience with turbocharged engines from years racing in the World Rally Championship, there are no turbo lags or bugs, period.
Variable valve timing (VVT) helps, by eliminating the inherent compromises of a fixed-timing engine and delivering an amazing balance of lower-rpm torque and free-breathing horsepower. Horsepower peaks low enough to be effective in most driving situations, while off-the-line torque comes on strong as low as 2500 rpm. Simply put, the Forester XT's are very fast, and the power is so steady and even that there's almost no clue that you're wrangling a turbocharged engine. It's so much fun that you'll want to floor the gas pedal at every opportunity, just to feel the exhilarating rush of acceleration.
There's a drawback, to be sure. The XT's require more expensive premium fuel for maximum performance. Other Foresters do not, nor do many SUVs. There's also a mileage penalty. Our XT automatic rates 21 mpg city, 26 highway, according to the EPA. That's less than normally aspirated Foresters (23/28 automatic, 22/29 manual), but still a lot more than most SUVs.
The standard Forester engine delivers decent acceleration, to be sure. It can't match the exhilaration underfoot with the turbo, but plenty for merging onto a crowded freeway. Subaru's horizontally opposed engines share their design concept with Porsche's highly regarded boxer engines. The advantage is good power in a compact package, and a low block height that helps lower the center of mass in the car. Subaru has perfected this design. Subaru's four-cylinder engine isn't as smooth as some, but company engineers have done a good job insulating the Forester's interior from the vibration.
The five-speed manual transmission works well. The gear ratios deliver a good mix of acceleration and quiet cruising, even if the throws between gears are long. The Forester's shifter will neither delight the senses nor irritate to the point that it overwhelms what's good in the car. Subaru's Hill Holder clutch is a useful feature, particularly in San Francisco, Seattle and other hilly towns. It prevents the car from rolling backwards as the clutch pedal is released on a hill.
The automatic transmission gets the same middling rating as the manual. It's not the quickest to downshift, and in some circumstances it seems to get confused as to wha
Even as crossover SUVs proliferate, few can match the versatility built into the Subaru Forester. Forester brings it all, or almost all: great all-weather, all-road capability, solid dynamic performance on pavement, passenger/cargo flexibility, lots of useful features, fuel economy, lots of safety equipment and good crash-test scores at a reasonable price. It can even be fun to drive. And now, thanks to the new Sports 2.5 XT, you can have the visceral rush of the turbocharged Limited for almost $2,000 less.
J.P. Vettraino filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Detroit.