The Subaru Forester is a compact SUV that seats five, offers good cargo capability and excellent foul weather capability. The Forester competes with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, though the Forester offers better handling than those two, on dry pavement but especially on wet pavement, snow, ice or dirt.
Subaru's all-wheel-drive system, which comes standard, gives the Forester outstanding traction and capability in foul weather and it's fully equipped with safety features. Forester achieved the best-possible five-star rating in all government crash tests, and a four-star rating for resistance to rolling over. Forester has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Forester comes with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with single overhead cam rated at 170 horsepower. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 20/26 mpg City/Highway with automatic transmission.
The turbocharged Forester XT has twin cams and boasts 224 horsepower. The XT is more desirable because of its superior power, though it calls for Premium fuel and rates 19/24 mpg. Forester's 16.9-gallon fuel tank can last about 400 miles on the highway.
Introduced as an all-new model for 2009, this is the third generation of the Forester, and it's the best-selling Forester ever and the best-selling model in the Subaru line. Redesigned for the 2009 model year, the Forester features a wider track and longer wheelbase than before, a double wishbone rear suspension, more cargo space, more rear-seat legroom. There's more ground clearance, a super tight steering radius with quicker steering, rear doors that swing open nearly 75 degrees, and more power for the base 2.5-liter engine.
For 2010, Forester benefits from a revised instrument cluster with easier-to-see colors, and you can choose which interior lamps light when you open a door. The 2010 Forester 2.5X Premium comes with a 10-way power driver's seat, and the optional navigation system now includes Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity.
The Subaru Forester is a compact SUV similar in size to the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Forester and RAV4 look similar when parked side by side. All of these are considered crossover vehicles with car-based chassis designed to offer good driving characteristics and good fuel economy.
The Forester is slightly longer than the CR-V, slightly shorter than the RAV4. Forester is an inch narrower than the other two. It's slightly taller than the CR-V, the RAV4 is the tallest.
Forester XT is distinguished by a functional hood scoop. We like the five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels. From the rear, the XT has a twin chrome-tipped exhaust and a spoiler over the rear window.
Inside is a comfortable cabin with comfortable seats. The cloth seats come in gray or black, and are on the conservative rather than sporty side. The available perforated leather is a whole new ball game, erasing the almost-frumpy feeling sent by the cloth.
Driver visibility is excellent in all directions. The A-pillars were designed to minimize blind spots. The Forester XT gets sporty aluminum pedals, which we liked. We found the air conditioning cools well, fast and quiet.
Instrument colors have been revised for 2010, for easier readability. There's a digital display over the center stack for time and temperature. The dash has a nice gullwing sweep from the center stack off to the passenger side, in brushed-aluminum-looking plastic material, interrupted only by a single climate vent. Underneath is a big glovebox.
The center stack has aluminum-look trim. Just forward of the shift lever is a good-sized cubby. Climate and audio controls on the center stack are simple to operate. The front doors have a nice elbow rest and large pockets each with a recess for 24-ounce bottles. The center console is deep, and slides forward four inches to make an armrest.
The rear seats are split 60/40 and fold flat to make a gigantic cargo area capable of carrying lots of gear. Cargo space measures 33.5 cubic feet with the rear seat up, 68.3 with the seats flat.
The rear seat reclines and includes a retractable center tray with fixed drink holders. Legroom is excellent. The front door is wide, and the rear doors swing open 75 degrees, making it easy to get in and out.
There's a lot of headroom. There's headroom even when you jack the height-adjustable driver's seat to the top. The optional panoramic moonroof cuts into headroom, but it feels like more because it's the sky that's over your head.
The navigation system is not the best available. In the daytime it's hard to read with sunglasses, because there's a lack of contrast.
We found the Forester dazzling in its sure-footedness and comfortable ride, never once whimpering in the face of abuse. The suspension isn't firm but offers relatively long travel. There's 8.7 inches of ground clearance and good Yokohama Geolander tires with the 17-inch wheels.
The electronic stability control is programmed to allow the tires to spin a bit, under acceleration, so the throttle won't cut out on dirt roads. We tackled an awe-inspiring steep rutty hill, foot to the floor to climb the final 100 yards, and the Forester made it. A Honda CR-V couldn't come close on the same run.
The two engines differ dramatically in torque. Torque is that force you feel when you accelerate up a hill and more is better. The normally aspirated single overhead-cam engine delivers 170 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. The turbo delivers 226 pound-feet at 2800 rpm and 224 horsepower.
On the freeway, a Forester 2.5X has to work to keep up with a Forester XT. We found the four-speed automatic transmission and the 170-horsepower engine a weak combination. Running with the flow of traffic into LA on an extremely slight upgrade, ours needed to frequently kick down. It kicked down a lot in other places, too, including off-road. A five-speed automatic transmission seems called for. Or a five-speed manual.
The five-speed manual shifter feels soft, has a longish throw, and raises the NVH level in the cabin, but we'd still choose it over the automatic with the non-turbocharged engine. A nice touch on models with the standard five-speed manual transmission is Incline Start Assist. If the car is stopped on a hill, the brake stays applied for one second after you take your foot off the pedal, allowing time to accelerate smoothly.
The rack-and-pinion steering gives the XT a tight steering radius, similar to that of the RAV4, tighter than that of the CR-V, allowing it to turn around in less space, important for parking and maneuvering. When cornering on smooth roads, the suspension feels relatively soft, though on dirt roads or rough pavement it feels perfect. The suspension does a good job. The highway ride is comfortable, with no harsh spots.
The Subaru Forester offers foul weather capability with its all-wheel-drive system and it excels on unpaved roads and in other less-than-perfect driving conditions. Forester is stable and rugged off road, while there are no harsh spots to the highway ride. Overall, the Forester compares favorably to the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and other compact SUVs.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Los Angeles; with NCTD staff reports.