Auto journalists are a fickle bunch, and I will be the first to confess that at times we’re sometimes at odds with auto manufacturers. Subaru is a prime example. Us journos loved oddball Subarus, and praised them for catering to a rugged, left of center crowd that was small, but fiercely loyal. But the truth is, this is the car business, and Subaru is in the business of selling cars-and they wanted to appeal to more than quirky people living in New England and the Pacific Northwest. So, Subaru went mainstream. But with its strong selling Forester, was Subaru able to make an appeal to a larger customer base while still maintaining the ingredients of what makes a Subaru, a Subie? Read on.
The Forester is a familiar and well-loved fixture in the Subaru family. Now in its third generation, Subaru made a dramatic move with the Forester, changing it from an eccentric, tall station wagon to that of a more conventional small SUV designed to go head to head with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. The Forester is an inoffensive design that assumes the silhouette of its competition. In other words, apart from the grill, it’s very hard to know you are looking at a Subaru. Our test car, finished in Sage Green Metallic seemed to make the Forester all the more transparent. That said, high-end touches such as chrome door handles and aluminum roof rails added a touch of class to its appearance. It would take a pretty astute Subie fan to note we were driving a turbocharged Forester, as a hood scoop and dual exhaust pipes are the only exterior hints of the extra power. From outside, the hood scoop isn’t really noticeable, but from the driver’s seat it is extremely pronounced, and does no favors in forward visibility.
Subaru’s are traditionally known for purposeful, but somewhat austere cabins, so it was a little odd to climb into a a plush, fully-featured Forester. The seats were comfortable, but offered no lateral support. Apart from aluminum pedals and an interesting weave on the floor mats,Ã‚Â there isn’t much to differentiate the Subaru from any other small SUV. The gauges were crystal clear, and most controls were intuitive to use. However, the audio and navigation interface seem behind that of the competition, and it puzzled me to no end that I could not figure out how to manually move from one satellite radio station to the next. It shouldn’t have to be that hard, guys. Stranger still were the cupholders in the center console-they were squares. With my wife’s iced coffee moving around I was terrified to approach corners with any level of enthusiasm for fear of the cup flying out of its square. Awful design. Fix it. In its favor, the Forester boasts a roomy cabin, a comfy rear seat with copious leg room, and an impressive amount of cargo space. I did wonder how our test car’s light-grey leather interior would stand up to the wear, tear and abuse a typical family would exact on this car.
Subaru recently overhauled its engines for the Forester. True to form, Subaru continues to offer a boxer four cylinder, this time a 2.5L rated at 170hp. This engine can be teamed to either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. Our test car was equipped with the turbocharged 2.5L, good for 224hp, but the only transmission available is the four-speed automatic. While the tranny has no glaring issues in performance or execution, Subaru is down one or two cogs its competition offers. In other words, this transmission is an antique, and should have been updated when the engines were. Naturally, all Foresters have all-wheel drive. Our turbocharged Subaru offered plenty of pep around town, and hit highway ramps with authority. I’d have preferred a firmed up suspension and more steering feel to go along with the quickness, but again, I know Subaru is going for a broader market, and the 2.5XT was never meant as an Impreza WRX SUV. That said, the ride quality is about where it should be for a family friendly small SUV.
A base Forester will run you $20,495USD, but our test car was the top-spec 2.5XT Touring model. Standard features included HID headlights, panoramic power moonroof (it’s huge), dual-zone auto climate control, Bluetooth, power driver’s seat, leather heated seats and a rear vision camera. The only factory option was GPS navigation, which brought our as-delivered price to $32,320. The price may sound high for a Forester, but it actually falls right between a top-spec Honda CR-V which has less power, and a V-6 powered Toyota RAAV4 which is more powerful, so taking that into account, our test car seems priced right for its power and features.
But the question remains-did Subaru sell itself out in its quest for greater marketshare? Did they abandon the loyal buyers who have supported them for decades? The simple answer is no, they have not. All Foresters continue to have all-wheel drive as standard equipment. A boxer, horizontally opposed four cylinder resides under the hood, and Subaru continues to support turbocharging as they have since the early 1980′s. These are the basic ingredients that make a Subaru a Subaru, and in spite of more conventional styling, Subaru has remained true to what has defined them as a car company.
In sum, the Forester can sit comfortably with the best in its class. With an improved audio/navigation interface, a six-speed automatic and some workable cupholders, Subaru has the potential to keep the sales momentum of the Forester going strong.