Looks Aren't Everything
2004 Subaru Forester 2.5 XT

Many of us were happy in 1997 when Subaru of America introduced its Forester wagon. It seemed the perfect antidote to lust for large sport-utility vehicles -- an agreeably modest offering in the midst of motorized bacchanalia.

The Forester represented good wheels. It was large enough to carry a family of five but small enough to escape the stigma of being an SUV.

It came with standard all-wheel drive, a more benign and arguably more useful form of four-wheel drive for urban and suburban motorists.

All-wheel drive automatically transfers power from slipping to gripping wheels. It is engineered to keep you on-road in rain and snow. Traditional four-wheel drive uses locking differentials to simultaneously send drive power to all four wheels. It's designed to take you over rocks and through streams and bush -- and keep you on the go.

Forester owners are mostly urban and suburban. Over the past six years, they've had few complaints about the Forester's reliability or overall quality. But many have demanded more horsepower.

Thus, we have this week's test vehicle, the 2004 Forester 2.5 XT. It is ugly, as is the case with most Subarus. But it performs beautifully. It will knock your socks off -- and strip you of everything else you're wearing, too!

Subaru has installed a turbocharged, 2.5-liter, 210-horsepower engine in the Forester 2.5 XT. That's up from 165 horsepower in the normally aspirated four-cylinder model -- "normally aspirated" meaning an engine that uses no extra device, such as a turbocharger or supercharger, to take air into its combustion chambers.

You can feel the difference.

There is a certain whoosh to the 2.5 XT. Initially it is both surprising and disconcerting, especially if you've become accustomed to the gentle acceleration of the regular Forester. Drop the 2.5 XT's standard four-speed automatic transmission into "drive." Hit the accelerator and, whoosh, you're off to Zoomsville. That's rather odd, considering the Forester's basic, homely personality.

Despite its extra power and improved handling, the 2.5 XT pretty much remains the Forester it has been all along. It is filled with the requisite storage bins and cup holders. There is something inherently parental in its personality. The body remains an ode to all things square and rectangular, with the exception of the redesigned rear hatch, which embraces trapezoidal and triangular geometric themes.

The one indication that the 2.5 XT is different from its other Forester siblings sits atop the hood. It is a functional air scoop, put there to further assist the engine's breathing. It seems totally out of place on and out of character for the Forester -- like something a teenager would stick on his first car with little regard for taste or what looks good.

There isn't much in the 2 .5 XT's interior to counter that ugliness, not even in the tested version with the "Premium Package," which includes leather seats. Subaru has yet to divorce itself from its utilitarian passion for interiors beige, black and gray. It needs to discover color and take some chances using it.

Here's hoping that Subaru's executives might one day give to their designers and stylists the same freedom they've now given to their engineers, who are turning out hot-to-trot models such as the Forester 2.5 XT wagon and the very successful Impreza WRX.

After all, most of us don't live for power and speed alone. We sometimes stop to admire the roses, the colors of the rainbow and the deep amber glory of the setting sun.

Nuts & Bolts

Complaints: A general lack of imaginative styling that continues to affect Subarus, even as they become impressively potent performers on the road.

Praise: You've got to drive the Forester 2.5 XT to believe it But I'll wager that once you've driven it, you'll become a true believer. This little wagon can move.

Head-turning quotient: Ugly. Scrap the hood scoop and find another way to help deliver more air to the engine. Nobody stopped to look at this one.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The Forester 2.5 XT is one of the best road performers in the small-wagon class. It gets top marks in all three categories. (I no longer will use the term "crossover vehicle" in describing models such as the 2.5 XT. The term is a marketing ruse, an attempt to peddle what essentially are station wagons as something else.)

Body style/layout: The Forester 2.5 XT is a front-engine, all-wheel-drive, compact, four-door wagon with a rear hatch.

Capacities: It sits five people. Luggage capacity with rear seats up is 32 cubic feet. Cargo capacity doubles that with rear seats down. Fuel capacity is 15.9 gallons. Premium unleaded gasoline is recommended for best performance, but regular unleaded also works fine.

Engine transmission: The Forester 2.5 XT's horizontally opposed (boxer) 2.5-liter, 16-valve, double-overhead cam, four-cylinder engine develops 210 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 235 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm. It is linked to a standard four-speed automatic transmission. A five-speed manual is available.

Mileage: I averaged 26 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving.

Technical highlight: The 2004 Forester comes with a safety brake pedal, designed to bend forward in a severe collision. Subaru engineers say that the feature reduces the risk of injuries to feet and other lower extremities in crashes.

Price: Base price for the tested Premium Forester 2.5 XT is $27,520. Dealer's invoice price, including the $550 destination charge, is $25,612. Your total price, including the $500 transportation fee, is $28,070.

Purse-strings note: Ugly or not, it's a buy. Compare with Audi A4, Volkswagen Jetta wagon, VW Passat wagon, Ford Escape/Mazda tribute, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.