While most automakers strive for crossover SUVs that exude either off-road adventure or sleek luxury, Subaru has maintained the simple image of its compact Forester: A proper little wagon enhanced with all-wheel drive.

Forester was arguably the first crossover, creating a niche that has blossomed into a major segment. It rides lower than most crossovers, driving and handling more like a well-balanced car than any kind of truck. What it lacks is the higher seating position that many SUV drivers crave.

Actually, it may be a stretch to consider Forester a crossover SUV rather than a station wagon or four-door hatchback.

Forester carries on for 2007 with few changes from its 2003 makeover, other than a handful of additions and refinements.

Based on Subaru's compact car, Impreza, Forester has a boxy shape that adds interior space and a marginally more rugged appearance than the rest of the Japanese automaker's lineup of all-wheel-drive automobiles.

Since I last drove a Forester in 2003, the ride seems much improved, with less bounce and stumbling over rough highway surfaces. The earlier version was plagued by noisy rattles, which, thankfully, were absent in the latest model.

The handling response also seems improved, although the steering was numb and too light to the touch.

Forester has earned a reputation as a practical, reliable and versatile vehicle, with a cadre of loyal fans.

PERFORMANCE: Forester is motivated by Subaru's signature horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, a so-called 'boxer' design because the back-and-forth piston movements resemble a pair of boxers duking it out. The 2.5-liter engine generates 173 horsepower, which is plenty of pull for this small craft. A 225-horse turbocharged version also is available. The engine sounds raucous under acceleration but turns notably smooth and quiet on the highway. The four-speed automatic was a problem, at least in the test car. It seemed generally confused, holding gears too long before upshifting and downshifting unpredictably. Shifts up or down were harsh.

DRIVABILITY: Like all Subarus, Forester comes only with all-wheel drive. The Forester I drove, a base model with automatic transmission, has a sophisticated electronic system to manage power to front and rear axles. Forester won't be mistaken for a tough off-roader, with its drive system designed for wet, snowy or graded-dirt roads. AWD also enhances dry-pavement tractability. Ride and handling are above average, although the too-light steering feels disconnected. Standard safety features include antilock brakes with electronic force distribution, side air bags for head and chest, and front seatbelts with pre-tensioners and force limiters.

STYLING: Forester looks like a cheery little wagon with modest styling, though with some muscular bulges that hint at its harsh-road capabilities.

INTERIOR: The cabin is simple and unpretentious. For its price, the optioned base model came with a high level of power and convenience features. The front seats are roomy but the rear seats are tight. There's loads of stowage space in back.

BOTTOM LINE: Forester may not impress the neighbors, unless they appreciate the Subie's quality and practicality, but it will get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Subaru Forester 2.5 X

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-wheel crossover SUV, all-wheel drive. Engine: 2.5-liter H-4, 173 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 166 pound-feet torque at 4,400 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Wheelbase: 99.4 inches. Overall length: 176.6 inches. Curb weight: 3,195 pounds. EPA rating: 23 city, 28 highway.

HIGHS: Practicality, ride comfort, reputation for reliability. LOWS: Numb steering, modest styling, transmission woes.

Pricing

Base price: $21,195. Price as tested: $25,552.

OPTIONS - Premium package, with moonroof, alloy wheels, upgraded audio with satellite radio, power driver seat, limited-slip rear differential, climate control, $2,500. - Automatic trans-mission, $800. - Subwoofer with amplifier, $262. - Cargo bin and all-weather floor mats, $170.