Subaru’s Forester has always been an appropriately restrained example of a compact SUV. It’s a little unorthodox compared to the competition – the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V ride higher and are more truck-like – but its quirkiness pays big dividends in practical areas.
First off, the Forester is based on Subaru’s Impreza, a superlatively sporty sedan/wagon that has competed with great success in the World Rally Championship, one of the most grueling race series on the planet. This DNA endows the Forester with exceptional handling and sure-footedness, as well as outstanding traction when equipped with all-wheel-drive.
Although we tested the Forester in warm weather, we feel confident that it would prove to be outstanding in inclement weather. Why? Because it’s a Subaru, that’s why. Subaru has been building hardy, all-wheel-drive wagons for decades now, long before such things came into vogue. And like Audi with their Quattro system, Subaru have built their reputation on the strength of their Symmetrical all-wheel-drive.
There is a trade-off, of course, and that is ground clearance. The Forester is not a serious off-roader in the vein of a Jeep Liberty or Wrangler, but Subaru has gambled that most buyers don’t place a high enough priority on that to warrant a heavier-duty vehicle. And they’ve been right – the Forester has been wildly successful ever since it was introduced. The automotive press has lavished it with praise; the Forester was Car and Driver’s best small SUV in 2004, 2005, and 2006.
For 2007, the US model lineup was expanded to include our L.L. Bean edition, a variation on the base 2.5X model. Somewhat like the Eddie Bauer Explorer or Orvis Grand Cherokee, the L.L. Bean Edition offers a popular mix of options, an outdoorsy aesthetic, and a competitive price tag well south of the model’s highest trim level.
True to that standard, our Forester came with a lot of stuff we were glad to have, and we didn’t feel any particular void when it came to features and options. The interior was well designed for a car that’s not exactly new when it comes down to brass tacks, and the materials (woven headliner, alcantara inserts on the leather seats) were top-notch. Little touches, like a sporty genuine MOMO steering wheel, added a little spice.
One bauble we couldn’t have lived without was our tester’s giant sunroof. It was double the size of a normal roof, and adds a ton of light to what is already a substantial greenhouse. The Forester’s tall, boxy shape (in addition to endowing it with lots of cargo hauling capabilities) makes for a light and airy cabin due to its huge windows. The addition of the sunroof makes it feel almost like a targa-top sports car.
Another neat option was the cargo area organizer-thing, which makes for easy hauling of smaller items like groceries or gifts. It’s a giant plastic contraption, and has two flaps that open up to become the walls. There are little cargo-net partitions, perfectly sized for smaller items you might pick up as you trundle through a shopping mall. It’s also light as a feather, and has a heavy-duty elastic band on the backside, presumably for hanging in a garage.
The Forester is full of little nooks and crannies that you can stuff your stuff into. The dash has a pop-up panel that would hold this correspondent’s wallet, keys, and cell phone with room to spare for a candy bar or EZ-Pass.
We would have preferred the Forester XT, with its 230-hp turbocharged engine and six-speed manual. The L.L. Bean brought its trusty 173-hp motor, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.
The Forester, like most other Subarus, utilizes a 2.5L ‘boxer’ engine, which arranges its cylinders in a horizontally opposed configuration rather than a traditional line or V-shape like most manufacturers use. This gives the entire Forester range a lower center of gravity and a smooth swell of torque at low rpm, as boxer motors are naturally much smoother and less prone to vibration than other engine configurations.
Our one issue with the car was the transmission. We would have preferred a manual in order to take advantage of the engine’s unique characteristics, and the four-speed automatic in our tester didn’t help, as there was no manual shift mode. That was really our only complaint with what is otherwise a very practical – yet never dull – compact SUV. And we’ll readily concede that the majority of SUV buyers don’t share our hot-rod sensibilities.
Another area in which the Forester bests its taller, heavier competitors is in fuel economy. Our tester wore an EPA rating of 23 city mpg/28 highway mpg. That’s more in line with its Impreza cousin, not its V6-powered competitors.
The Forester isn’t glamorous, and it isn’t big and brawny. It’s a real meat-and-potatoes utility vehicle that truly focuses on practical matters: hauling, handling, stability, visibility, and predictability. In these areas, it excels. Check your ego at the door, and stop fooling yourself into thinking that you might go off-road one day, or that you need to sit as high as a tractor-trailer to see properly. The Subaru Forester is the kind of capable, yet eminently responsible SUV that everyone should be driving. And with a base price of $26,695 ($29,633 as-tested, including destination charges) you can truly say you’ve made the sensible choice.