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Expert Reviews 1 of 12
By Kelsey Mays
March 12, 2008
In its first full redesign since the 2003 model year, the Subaru Forester has moved closer to the mainstream than some fans might have hoped it would. The old model's boxy charm has been toned down, and what's left is a compact SUV whose driving dynamics are on par with some of the nimbler players in this segment. A few Forester diehards may cry foul, but I suspect the changes will widen the car's appeal to the market in general. The SUV remains as practical as ever, but now boasts enough refinement to merit serious consideration from anyone shopping the latest Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4.
Trim levels include the 2.5X and 2.5X L.L.Bean, along with turbocharged 2.5XT and 2.5XT Limited versions; click here to see a side-by-side comparison with the 2008 model. Subaru's full-time all-wheel-drive system is standard. I drove a number of configurations both on- and off-road at a press event in Southern California. Going & Stopping Save a few tweaks to improve everyday drivability, the Forester's four-cylinder drivetrains carry over from last year. Here's how they compare:
Naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder
Turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder
2.5X, 2.5X L.L.Bean
2.5XT, 2.5XT Limited
Horsepower (@ rpm)
170 @ 6,000
224 @ 5,200
Torque (@ rpm)
170 @ 4,400
226 @ 2,800
5-sp. manual or 4-sp. auto
Source: Automaker data
Subaru expects the vast majority of buyers to pick the normally aspirated engine. It's a solid choice, mustering enough low-end torque to move the Forester smartly from a standstill. The five-speed manual is worth considering — it feels similar to the stick in the Impreza sedan, rowing with medium throws from one gear to the next. While it's a bit slushy in that sporty sedan, it feels reasonably precise in the Forester, given that it's an SUV. The clutch has a light touch and long take-up, and the engine revs freely when pressed for acceleration. Stay hard on the gas, and the drivetrain can get a bit loud, but it's never coarse or buzzy like some four-cylinders are. The stick shift includes an incline-assist feature to keep it from rolling backward when you release the brake on a hill.
A four-speed automatic is optional with the non-turbo four-cylinder. The turbo engine comes only with the automatic, and I spent several hours driving it on the interstate and some twisty mountain roads. The turbo spools up quickly and delivers commanding power, though there's still some noticeable lag under hard acceleration. The extra horsepower feels strongest in highway passing maneuvers, where the turbo colludes with the transmission to deliver excellent kickdown performance — when it finally happens. The problem is just how long that kickdown takes: The automatic's gears feel widely spaced, and it takes a determined prod on the gas pedal to induce a downshift from fourth gear. Short of that — and during most ordinary driving around town — the turbo doesn't feel decisively stronger than the regular engine, and it lacks the refined punch of a V-6 Toyota RAV4.
Though I spent the vast majority of my time driving the automatic in Normal mode, it's worth noting that it has a Sport mode with its own dedicated shifting program. Be sure to check that out before you discount the automatic as a whole. By holding gears into higher rpm, it should eliminate some of the downshifts entirely — though with a mileage penalty.
The turbo requires premium gas. Mileage with the regular and turbocharged engines rivals that of the four- and six-cylinder engines in various competitors, respectively. The premium-fuel requirement remains unusual for this segment, however.
AWD Gas Mileage Compared (city/highway, mpg)
Four-cylinder (rec. fuel)
V-6 or turbocharged engine (rec. fuel)
3.5L: 15/22; 3.6L: 16/22 (both regular)
*AWD Tucson four-cylinder comes only with manual transmission. **Saturn Vue four-cylinder available only with FWD. Source: EPA, automaker data for 2008 models (except Forester) with automatic transmissions.
Last year's Forester could be had with the turbo and a stick shift, which proved more fun to drive than any SUV deserves to be. Alas, due to poor sales, Subaru pulled the plug on that combo this year.
Antilock brakes come with discs at all corners, an improvement over the disc/drum combination in some trim levels last year. The pedal delivers linear response and firm stopping control, and I found brake fade minimal even at the bottom of a three-mile offroad descent. ABS shows its face only when skids become imminent — a welcome change from some of the more trigger-happy systems out there.
Towing capacity is 2,400 pounds with either engine. That beats most four-cylinder SUVs, though some of the Forester's V-6 competitors can tow 3,000 pounds or more. Ride & Handling The original Forester was one of the first SUVs to adopt a four-wheel-independent suspension, and this year's model has a new double-wishbone rear setup. Several journalists on the media drive complained of excessive body roll — possibly the result of no rear stabilizer bar, which was standard on the outgoing model — but I think most drivers will find that the Forester's handling ranks among the sportier SUVs in its class. The chassis remains poised over curvy roads, and Subaru's all-wheel-drive system delivers unflappable grip accelerating out of a turn.
The steering system offers a quicker turning ratio this year. It delivers lively response, with reasonably crisp turn-in and more feedback about changing road conditions than you get in some sedans, let alone SUVs. Some SUVs accomplish this sporty feel by dialing back the power-steering assist so much that the steering wheel becomes too stiff at low speeds — the Mazda CX-7 springs to mind — but the Forester's steering is well below this threshold, and its 34.4-foot turning circle beats eight of its major competitors, some by more than 5 feet. Outstanding.
Subaru says it took extensive steps to address road and wind noise this time around, and indeed, highway noise now seems about average for a small SUV. It's not as quiet as a Honda CR-V, but it's a distinct improvement over the previous Forester. Offroad Chops The offroad portion of Subaru's press drive consisted of a lengthy course on California's Catalina Island, and I had a chance to tackle some fairly demolished dirt roads. I imagine a tiny fraction of Forester owners will take their SUVs to these lengths, but it performed well nonetheless, clawing up steep slopes and rutted pathways with well-controlled body motions. The wheels stayed well-connected to the dirt, allowing the nose or tail to swing wide only under the most sudden turns. (All deliberate, of course.) SUV Styling Where previous generations looked more like tall wagons than SUVs, this redesign moves the Forester a lot closer to what it purports to be. There are still some windswept lines here and there, so it's not yet in the territory of more upright SUVs like the Saturn Vue or Ford Escape, but for better or worse it will now blend in with the herd much more easily. The creased headlights and stacked bumper looked a bit busy to me, but they're attractive enough. The tail closes things off with a tidy, clean design.
Standard dual exhaust pipes add a sporty touch, as do the 17-inch alloy wheels that come on all but the base trim level. The doors have window frames now, which gives them a much sturdier feel when slammed than last year's frameless doors had. The Inside The Forester's dash sits higher against the windshield than you'll find in many SUVs, which gives the cabin a more carlike feel and a lower perceived driving position. Thanks to the large side and rear windows, however, overall visibility remains excellent.
A height-adjustable driver's seat is standard, but the steering wheel in most models only tilts, and its adjustment range is limited. You have to upgrade to the turbocharged model to get a telescoping wheel, which allows drivers of varying sizes to position themselves a safe, comfortable distance from the steering wheel and its airbag. It's an unfortunate omission, seeing as both the CR-V and RAV4 have telescoping wheels across all trims.
Interior quality is good, if occasionally inconsistent. The materials vary: The upper dash panels have an upscale finish, but some of the plastics lining the glove compartment look grainy and cheap. If you like silver plastic, your day has come: The stuff has spread like foreclosures in Tampa. Here it adorns the center controls, dash, steering wheel, gearshift and doors. The steering wheel has a satisfying grip, but I found the blue-and-white gauges a bit tacky. Other controls, from the turn signals to the window switches, show sturdy construction, and overall fit and finish is respectable. Roominess & Cargo Front-seat legroom and headroom was fine for me (about 6 feet tall), even with the panoramic moonroof that comes on most trim levels. The seats have slight side bolsters that come in handy during spirited driving, and the seatbacks provided adequate back support during my several hours behind the wheel.
Thanks largely to a wheelbase that's 3.6 inches longer, backseat legroom has increased more than 4 inches over the previous Forester, and that's a lot when it comes to legroom. The doors open a few degrees wider, too, and I found the resulting backseat comfortably roomy. One caveat: A large floor hump crowds foot room. The CR-V and RAV4 have virtually flat floors.
A low lift-over height and wide opening make the cargo area's 33.5 cubic feet of volume easy to access. The 60/40-split rear seats fold flat in one simple step, extending volume to a maximum of 68.3 cubic feet. Those figures compare favorably with the segment, especially when you consider that each SUV that beats the Forester has a corresponding annoyance: The RAV4 has a cumbersome, sideways-opening rear door; the CR-V requires you to tumble the second-row seats forward and secure them in place; and the Outlander's tumbling seats are a pain in the neck to fold back into place. On the space-versus-impediments index, the Forester scores high.
Cargo Room Compared
Behind 2nd row (cu. ft.)
Behind 1st row (cu. ft.)
*RAV4 and Outlander without optional third rows. **30.8 cubic feet/63.0 cubic feet in moonroof-equipped models. Source: Automaker data for 2008 models (except Forester).
Safety & Reliability In crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Forester earned the top score, Good, in front and side impacts. The SUV was awarded an IIHS Top Safety Pick designation. Because it was redesigned this year, reliability scores for the Forester are unavailable. The previous-generation Forester got top marks in this area: Consumer Reports awarded it good or excellent reliability ratings for six years running. While history among brands and models is often informative, cautious buyers will wait for results. Every car is different.
Standard safety equipment includes six airbags, with side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. The curtain airbags have tip sensors to deploy during a rollover. Active head restraints, four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system are also standard. All five seats have adequately high head restraints. Parents with young children should check out the child-seat provisions in the photos above. Equipment & Pricing Given that all-wheel drive is standard, the Forester packs impressive value. Subaru shaved some $1,200 off the sticker price for 2009, so the 2.5X now starts at $19,995 without the destination charge, including a temperature/gas mileage display, A/C, cruise control, a CD player with an MP3 auxiliary jack, power accessories and remote keyless entry — albeit with Subaru's dated, flimsy keyfob.
An automatic transmission costs $1,200 — a bit much, considering the Escape's automatic costs $1,000 and the last Forester's automatic was $800. The Premium Package adds alloy wheels, a panoramic moonroof and more for $2,500. An automatic comes standard on the 2.5X L.L.Bean ($25,995), which includes heated leather seats, automatic climate control and a power driver's seat. Turbo models start at $26,195 and top out close to $30,000. A navigation system is optional with either drivetrain. Forester in the Market The previous Forester was a Cars.com Best Bet on the strength of its versatility, reliability and safety credentials, but I've always had to footnote my recommendation of it with a warning about its sparse interior and noisy cabin.
This time around, the Forester's refinement has turned into a relative asset. The cabin isn't as classy as those of some of the overachievers in this segment, but overall quality has improved to a point where excuses no longer need to be made. Its cargo-area execution and driving dynamics remain as good as ever, as do the Forester's go-anywhere capabilities.
Perhaps Subaru's last hurdle is the Forester's image as a quirky car for quirky people. The latest model does a lot to overcome this, and it's time mainstream shoppers gave it a look.