The Subaru Forester is a compact SUV that seats five, offers good cargo capacity, and excellent foul-weather capability with its outstanding all-wheel-drive system. Forester competes with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, but the Forester offers much better handling than those two, on dry pavement but especially on wet pavement, snow, ice or dirt.
The Forester features a fairly wide track and long wheelbase, double wishbone rear suspension, good ground clearance, a tight steering radius with quick steering, and rear doors that swing open nearly 75 degrees. Named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Forester achieved a five-star rating in all government crash tests, and a four-star rating for resistance to rolling over.
Introduced as an all-new model for 2009, this is the third generation of the Forester, the best-selling model in the Subaru line. Sales have been outstanding, with Subaru setting an all-time annual sales record in 2010 by a healthy margin, the Legacy Outback closely leading the Forester.
The 2011 Forester X comes standard with a new, chain-driven double overhead-cam engine, this after many years with its 2.5-liter belt-driven single-overhead-cam engine. It's the same 2.5 liters and 170 horsepower, but torque is raised 4 foot-pounds and dropped 300 rpm; and it gets one more mpg, to an EPA-estimated 21/27 mpg City/Highway. During a week of all-around driving in a Forester 2.5X, we averaged 20.7 mpg. For the PZEV models sold in 13 states, the government's Global Warming Score rises from 6 to 7, while the government's Smog Score remains the same at 9.
The Subaru XT models were already twin-cams, and they retain a 224-horsepower engine that runs on Premium fuel and rates 19/24 mpg.
The 2011 Forester Touring is now the flagship of the line. Forester Premium and Forester Limited models upgrade equipment such as sound systems and get all the right electronic stuff. Every model but the base 2.5X now comes with Bluetooth. An optional navigation system is a modest but effective TomTom (removable), which is much less than the option price of an integrated navigation system. On the other hand, you may be able to buy your own TomTom on the open market for less.
The rear seats are split 60/40 and easily fold flat to make a gigantic cargo area capable of carrying lots of gear. Rear seat legroom is excellent, at 38.0 inches. That alone is a big plus, and it's one of the reasons the Forester is such a good family vehicle. The front door is wide, and the rear doors swing open 75 degrees and feel light, making it easy to get in and out.
We drove a turbocharged Forester XT and a Forester Premium with the optional TomTom navigation system. We found the TomTom was just as effective for getting around as navigation systems whose option prices are twice as much, although the buttons, combined with the audio system buttons and screen, were tiny and few.
The Forester is supremely secure in its sure-footed handling. It will go around corners like few SUVs, with its all-wheel drive working to grip the road. Subaru excels at all-wheel drive. The Forester has a low center of gravity thanks to its horizontally opposed engine mounted low in the chassis. The suspension is solid but doesn't feel too firm, while its long travel offers a comfortable ride and better grip on rough roads. Rack-and-pinion steering helps give the Forester a tight steering radius, similar to the RAV4 and tighter than the CR-V, making parking and maneuvering easy. It all adds up to an enjoyable and capable vehicle to drive.
The Forester is not about looks. It's not bad looking, but it's a pragmatic vehicle, not meant to be a pretty one. There are no touches that you could call especially lovely, as there are none you could call unattractive. Its shape is sporty enough, but it doesn't shout sport. It's squarish, but not blocky. It's slightly longer than a Honda CR-V, slightly shorter than a Toyota RAV4, and an inch narrower than both; slightly taller than the CR-V but not as tall as the RAV4.
The Forester's wing-shaped headlamps might be the snazziest feature, somewhat Saab-like in their appearance. Nice amber turn signals in the headlamp corners blend into fenders that are nicely wrapped around the car. The hood has sculpted edges, so subtle they're not noticed, but like the headlamps/eyes, the hood is a reminder that looks are not abandoned.
The front and rear fascia and rocker panels surround the car, and they're not very pretty in flat black plastic. They too have a function, being more rugged than shiny paint on sheetmetal, although no one does metal fascia any more anyhow. And at least the flat black plastic doesn't continue around the wheelwells, like on some SUVs. Also, those wheelwells are not overflared to attract attention. That would be unlike Subaru.
Along the sides, above the flat black rocker panels, there's a straight styling groove where once there were ding strips.
The 10-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels that are standard equipment on the 2.5X Premium are nice. We also like the wheels on the Forester XT we drove.
The Forester XT is mostly distinguished by the scoop on the hood that takes in air for the turbocharger intercooler. From the rear, the XT has a twin chrome-tipped exhaust and a spoiler over the rear window that makes its statement.
The Forester cabin is comfortable and the seats are good. We like the leather better than the cloth. The cloth seats come in gray or black, are more conservative than sporty, and the material doesn't feel as rugged as the material that Mazda uses. The available perforated leather is a whole new ball game, eclipsing the mundane cloth. Forester XT gets sporty aluminum pedals.
Visibility is excellent through the windshield, with a modest hood, tight front fenders, and A-pillars designed to minimize blind spots. Visibility in the rearview mirror is not so good. The rear glass fills the mirror, but the rear seat headrests, middle seatbelt hanging from the ceiling, and rear center-mounted-stoplamp all intrude. Over your shoulder around the C-pillars, visibility is okay again, the blindspot a small one.
We drove the Forester in summer and winter, and found that the air conditioning cools fast, but the heater heats and defrosts less fast, not a feature when it's cold. The fan is louder than in other models, also.
The dash has a beautiful sweep like sculpture, from the center stack off to the passenger side, in dark titanium plastic that looks nice, with more of that trim on the centerstack, instrument panel, and doors. The glovebox is big. There's a thin digital display inserted at the top center of the dash for time, temperature, and fuel mileage.
The tachometer is on the left and larger speedo in the center, both with blue rims at the numbers. There's a smaller fuel gauge to the right, in a space where there could and should be an engine temperature gauges, but it's been erased by an idiot light, which we only knew because it comes on blue when the engine is cold.
Just forward of the shift lever is a big deep slot for storage, although you have to reach around the lever to use it. Climate and audio controls on the center stack are simple to operate, no touch screen that doesn't always respond or menus to figure out and navigate, just old-fashioned knobs to turn. We like this, because old-fashioned knobs always work, at a time when always working seems not to be in fashion. 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, on all models but the base 2.5X.
We drove a turbocharged XT as well as the 2011 Limited with the optional TomTom navigation system, part of a $1095 package that also included heated front seats (cloth), windshield wiper de-icer and heated side mirrors. We got to test the windshield de-icer one morning when there was a sheet of clear ice, and it worked fabulously; the ice slid off in big thin slices, within seconds. By comparison, the rear window defogger took a long time to melt the ice on the rear window. The switches for the heated seats are way back between the front seats where you can't see them, but it's no big deal, you just feel for them.
The TomTom was just as effective for getting around as navigation systems whose option prices are twice as much, although the buttons, combined with the audio system buttons and screen, were tiny and few. TomTom found an address for us using our voice command, and its own voice instructions were good. Although nav systems all seem to have quirky flaws; for example, the TomTom lady insisted on calling interstate route 405, “four-west-five.”
The rear seats are split 60/40 and easily 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 for a compact SUV, with 38.0 inches; that's a big plus, and it's one of the reasons the Forester is such a good family vehicle. The front door is wide, and the rear doors swing open 75 degrees and feel light, making it easy to get in and out.
There's also good front and rear headroom, even when you jack the height-adjustable driver's seat to the top. The panoramic moonroof, standard on our Limited but optional on the base X, cuts into headroom, but if you're not tall it feels like more because it's the sky that's over your head.
The Forester is supremely secure in its sure-footed handling. It will go around corners like few SUVs, with its experienced all-wheel drive working to grip the road. It has a low center of gravity thanks to its horizontally opposed engine, mounted even lower in the chassis than before. The suspension is solid but doesn't feel too firm, while its long travel offers a comfortable ride. Rack-and-pinion steering helps give the Forester a tight steering radius, similar to the RAV4 and tighter than the CR-V, making parking and maneuvering easy.
The Limited comes with good all-season tires on handsome 17-inch alloy wheels. Forester owners who drive in the snow country will want to spring for some winter tires. All-season tires won't get you everywhere in snow and ice. We had to drive up a short slope into a snow-covered yard, the rear wheels on slick asphalt and the fronts on soft earth under the wet snow, and it wouldn't do it, as fronts and rears both spun. Even with Subaru's legendary all-wheel drive, if you don't have snow tires for winter, don't expect miracles.
There's a huge 8.7 inches of ground clearance for obstacles that might be encountered, such as the slope up into our yard. The electronic stability control is programmed to allow the tires to spin under acceleration, as long as the car isn't sliding sideways, so the throttle won't cut out on dirt roads. During an off-road test of the Forester 2.5X, we tackled an awe-inspiring steep rutty hill that required full throttle to climb the final 100 yards. The Forester made it to the summit, while a Honda CR-V could not even come close.
The turbocharged engine in the Forester XT delivers a very healthy 226 pound-feet of torque at 2800 rpm and 224 horsepower. The new normally aspirated 170-hp engine makes a bit more usable torque than before, now 174 pound-feet at a slightly lower 4100 rpm. It still doesn't compare to the turbo, however, if acceleration performance is what matters to you. On the freeway or any open highway, a Forester 2.5X has to work to keep up with a Forester XT.
But that's not to say the 2.5X is inadequate. It provides all the acceleration most drivers need. The new engine is a competent 16-valve four-cylinder. Curiously, we found it a bit harsher than the four-cylinder in the Subaru Legacy, which uses the same engine as last year's Forester SOHC 2.5-liter, but it might not be fair to compare Forester to Legacy because their construction is so different. And our standards in harshness and NVH in cars with four-cylinder engines keep rising, because all engines are getting so much smoother and stronger.
Some of this is due to the horizontally opposed design of the engine, giving it that distinctive sound familiar in traditional, horizontally opposed Volkswagen and Porsche engines. Often, we can identify one of these flat fours without turning to see. On cold mornings, temperature in the low 30s, the Subaru 2.5-liter we tested made a rappeta-rappeta-rappeta noise upon startup that lasted for just two seconds. At 36 degrees it was still there but very faint, and at 40 degrees it went away.
We found the 4-speed automatic transmission and the 170-horsepower engine to be lacking, on hills at least. Running 70 mph on a slight upgrade on the freeway, it kicked down to third gear more often than we would have liked. It's got to be an improvement over the 2010 model when we commented on the same thing, because the new engine peaks at 174 pound-feet of torque at 4100 rpm while the previous engine made 170 at 4400, but still, a 5-speed automatic transmission seems called for to match the competition. The good news is that manual shifting is available, by pushing the lever forward and back, and it works smartly, giving the driver more control over the kickdowns.
The 5-speed manual transmission feels a bit soft, has a longish throw, and raises the NVH level in the cabin. But it might be considered as a choice with the 2.5X, partly because of Incline Start Assist. If the car is stopped on a hill, the brake stays applied for a moment after you take your foot off the brake pedal, allowing time to get your foot on the gas pedal and disengage the clutch smoothly. So we'd vote for the manual transmission with the 2.5-liter Forester X models.
The Subaru Forester has proven itself many times over, with its stable and secure handling, unsurpassed all-wheel-drive capabilities, and good price with good fuel mileage. There's excellent room and convenience inside, especially for a compact SUV, so passengers, families and cargo are all happy. XT models use a familiar turbocharged engine with potent power, while the X models use a new 2.5-liter DOHC engine that has yet to prove its reliability.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Washington's Columbia River Gorge.