Subaru's Forester is well into its second generation, but the styling and driving experience isn't far removed from the unflappable friendly wagon that bowed in 1998. Why mess with a good thing?
The Forester Sports 2.5X is a handsome set of duds that sets you apart from the CUV crowd, even if you don't get the turbo motor. The black mesh grille and more monochromatic color scheme dresses up even the lightly optioned Forester we recently drove for a week. Lightly optioned doesn't mean stripped, there's plenty of equipment here and you'd only want for more if you wanted higher monthly payments. Even a basic Forester is comprehensively equipped. We're happy to report that while Subaru is all grown up from the days of the GL, the spirit of those funky rattlers remains infused in the Forester.
All photos ©2007 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.
click on any image to enlarge
The Forester Sports is equipped with Subaru's vaunted all-wheel-drive system, and it's more apt to consider it a small utility wagon than call it a CUV. It drives like a car, which is one of the plusses of car-based unibody vehicles, while the ground clearance allows you to shrug off unimproved thoroughfares. Being Impreza-based, the footprint is reasonable, and maneuverability is good. The two-box profile and squarish shape allows you to load a lot more into the Forester than you'd initially think. A first-generation Forester sees regular abuse at my day job; we load it to the gills with video production gear. You appreciate the functional two-box profile while marveling at the pile of C-stands, lighting gear, and production detritus you can cram into the Subie. Even without folding the seats, the cargo area is generous for a vehicle with a footprint the size of the Forester. When there's a need for more, dropping the seatbacks double the 30.7 cubic feet to 68.6. A handy load organizer occupied the floor of our tester's cargo area. It was rugged enough to have items loaded on top of it when folded, and it was a snap to open up. It kept the various small bits of things we normally travel with from smashing around the cargo area.
For $21K, you forego leather seats and an automatic, but you do get climate control, a multi-CD stereo, cruise control, and power windows. What more could you want, really? If you don't want to change your own gears, there's a 4-speed automatic available for $800. There's also a lot of accessories available so you could tailor your little Subie exactly to your liking, should you have the money. There are no individual accessories that cost more than $500, though those prices don't include installation, you could have a lot of fun carefully outfitting your vehicle for just a few dollars more.
Swing one of the frameless-window doors open and the interior materials don't scream luxury, nor do they advertise cost cutting. Other makes manage to put nicer materials in their interiors, but the Forester's fitment isn't the bottom of the class, and Subaru interiors usually wear well. Ergonomically, the Forester's relative simplicity makes it an easy car to operate. In a time where novel control schemes are hatched somewhere in the bowels of Hell, the simple 3-knob HVAC controls were refreshing. Silver trim on the center stack looks better than faux wood or ho-hum black trim, but may pick up scuffs and scratches more easily.
There's still a shallow compartment atop the dash, just like the original Forester, which is good for holding all manner of junk. The instruments are housed under a small half-moon hood and capped by a ring of brightwork. The classic white on black color palette of the gauges is eminently readable, and none are blocked by the tilt wheel. There are plenty of blank plates to remind you of options you could have gotten, too. Fabric covers the seats, and the restrained pattern looks like it will wear well. The seats themselves are manually adjusted, and offer the normal complement of tweaks, along with lumbar. Again, it's no luxury car, but the seats were comfortable, if not squishy. The cabin of the Forester is very livable. Visibility out is great, there's accommodating cupholders all over the place for your bladder-filling pleasure, and there's enough nooks, crannies, and nice touches to help the Forester live up to its reputation as a nice little utility wagon.
Twist the key - no frou frou pushbutton silliness here - and that familiar Subaru chirrchirr whirs the 2.5-liter flat-four to life. The engine is quiet at idle, and well isolated. The horizontally opposed layout quells second-order vibrations, which reduces some of the normal 4-cylinder roughness. While it's no speedster, there's enough power here for most driving tasks. Short onramps can be a little hairy in heavy traffic, and more kick from the powerplant is usually a good thing, but the naturally aspirated powerplant shares a symbiotic relationship with its host; the engine doesn't overwhelm the car, and vice versa. Clutch takeup was quick and vague, however, making us look like amateurs sometimes. An errant all-weather floormat was also interfering with the clutch pedal. With the friction point so low, and the grabby floormat edge, we had a strange first day. Culprit located and repositioned, we still found the clutch action too quick off the floor, but the drivetrain is forgiving of all but the most ham-fisted drivers, so we learned quickly how to achieve smooth results on takeoff.
Driving the manual transmission Forester is not one of those automotive joys for which we're always wistfully pining. The shift linkage is vague and rubbery, we landed in 3rd often while on a quest for 5th. The main problem, though, is the engine acting like it's got a 60-pound flywheel. Revs hang between shifts, and sometimes increase when you depress the clutch pedal, which makes it a challenge to get smooth results out of the Forester. Slow, languid shifts are rewarded. Treat it like a non-synchronized crash box and wait until the revs start to fall before engaging the next gear, and you'll go smoothly on your way without lurching.
Corners don't make the Forester turn tail and run, though there is a bunch of body roll. Chassis moves are predictable, and recovering either end is a trifle. The Forester is forgiving to the point where we wonder if our gripes come down to the wheel/tire combo and perhaps the anti-rollbar thickness that the 2.5X finds itself equipped with versus the higher-zoot 2.5XT. The XT might be the ideal Forester, still hitting all those high points at which that this model excels, while delivering more performance and sportier moves. The price jump isn't drastic, and that athletic bent suits us better, but that doesn't reduce the excellence of the Forester Sports in the least.
The overall driving experience is what we've come to expect from Foresters. It's not reluctant to rock back on its heels and go. It's also not reluctant to heel over on its beam and scare the bejeezus out of your passengers if you try taking corners at speed. A WRX it is not, at least in 2.5X guise. It's no speed demon, but there's oomph aplenty for most, and the enthusiastic demeanor gives the Forester the personality of a Black Lab - always ready to go frolic in the mud. Subaru's Symmetrical All Wheel Drive system lends a sure-footedness to the chassis, as well. You never really sense it working, but you also never really sense a lack of traction, so something must be going on down there. Pointing the Forester this way and that is overboosted steering that doesn't offer too many hints about what's going on down at road level. The uncommunicative wheel rim and extra ride sqeeziness make the Forester less relaxed on the highway than, say, the Jeep Patriot.
The price of entry is reasonable, starting at $21,695 for the ultra-utilitarian yet nicely dressed Forester Sports, and it's a pleasant environment to pass time, especially when the weather turns sloppy. The Sports trim spiffs up the Forester without breaking the bank, and while it's not loaded to the gills, there's not much that normal folk would want for. With the influx of smallish SUVs and CUVs, competition has increased around the Forester, but it's still a solid value.
All photos ©2007 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.