Forester is like a post and beam barn -- there's nothing beautiful about it until you start to use it. I think that may be part of the key to Forester's popularity in New England. Not only does its full-time all-wheel drive system help conquer the seasons, but its practical design appeals to the Yankee mentality. It's not too big for the job, not too small for the family. Your Golden Retriever can stand up comfortably in the cargo hold, and your cross-country skis will strap to the roof rack. With 7.9 inches of ground clearance, Forester will travel from bog to bog across Nantucket while carrying up to 45 bushels (that's 56 cubic feet) of cranberries.
In the Driver's Seat
Forester's dash keeps the practical theme intact. Big rotary dials select climate controls, and big analog gauges cluster above the steering wheel. There's a nice mix of materials on the dash -- a metal-look plastic serves as an accent, and a grippy rubberized stripe mimics the look of the perforated leather steering wheel cover. Useful cubbies abound in the Forester -- there's always someplace within reach to store your stuff. I'm not nuts about the covered storage at the center of the dash, but it does make good use of space that would otherwise be wasted. Forester's seating surfaces wear a good, thick leather coat that feels like it will break in and soften with age. The cargo compartment is very flexible, with a 60/40 split folding rear seat and useful space under the rear deck for hidden storage. My test vehicle came with an optional ($75) cargo tray that sectioned off the storage space for even more utility.
On the Road
That 2.5 liter turbo four-cylinder engine adds to the fun, with 230 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque on tap. Subaru has tamed turbo lag, that annoying tendency that turbocharged engines can display where power delivery is delayed by a beat or two as the turbo spools up to speed.
My test vehicle was equipped with the optional ($800) four speed automatic transmission, which worked well to deliver power smoothly and predictably. Subaru's manual transmissions are great -- if you really want to get the most out of your turbo Forester, forsake the automatic, save eight hundred bucks and have even more fun. Tell people that you're driving a manual in the interest of efficiency -- though the manual is rated at 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway, slightly lower than the automatic. Save the $800 for speeding tickets and increased insurance premiums.
If you're considering a Forester for its all-weather competence and utility, there are several other vehicles you ought to check out. Toyota's RAV4 is worth a look, as is Honda's CR-V. Mitsubishi's Outlander, Toyota's Highlander and Ford's Escape/Mercury's Mariner/Mazda's Tribute all manage the utility equation in interesting fashion, though none offer the pure driving fun that you'll get behind the wheel of a Forester.
I think the more valid comparison for Forester is within the Subaru lineup. If you want more luxury and a more conventional design, go for the Legacy GT Wagon. If you want a little more space, go for the Outback. If you are a nut, choose the Baja -- I don't get it. If you live to drive, choose the WRX STi. Subarus are niche vehicles in the best sense of the term. Only you can decide if a Forester fits in your niche.