I like quirky. I’ll take quirky over popular. Give me They Might Be Giants; keep Train. Give me P.J. Harvey; keep Jennifer Lopez. Give me Xavier Cugat; keep Les Brown. You get the picture. When it comes to SUVs, I find myself with similar predilections. Which brings us to the 2011 Subaru Forester 2.5XT Touring. With a base price of $29,995 ($32,368 as tested), the 2011 Subaru Forester comes with a 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty, a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty and EPA estimated fuel economy ratings of 19 mpg city/24 mpg highway. Let’s drive.
The 2011 Forester is a mid-cycle vehicle. The current (third) generation of Forester came out in 2008, following the second generation (2003 – 2008) and first generation (1997 – 2002). Car companies typically mess with their vehicles in mid-cycle, changing simple cosmetics and accessories to keep the lineup fresh, and to keep consumers coming in to the showroom. After all, if the 2011 Forester was exactly like the 2008, there would be little reason to buy a new one, right?
Subaru’s tweaks to Forester have been few. From the exterior, the 2011 looks just like the 2010, which looked just like the 2009, which looked just like the 2008. Forester is a compact crossover vehicle. In another age, it might have been called a tall station wagon. Starting at the front, there’s a prominent Subaru logo, the blue oval with a representation of the Pleiades cluster of stars, hovering over a strong horizontal grille. The whole front of the vehicle fascia is linear and horizontal, a contrast to the organic lines of most other Subaru vehicles. Forester’s body can be described as a two-box design, with the front box containing the engine bay and the bigger back box containing the passenger and cargo compartment. Proportionally, the big box is quite tall in relation to the little box, an slight tapers at the windshield and upper rear liftgate add to the impression of height. In reality, Forester is about 66.9” tall, within an inch of competitors Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. It’s just that Forester looks a little quirky. Like most car designs that veer from the norm, Forester is less distinctive now than it was in 2008; in fact, the strong straight lines are starting to look a little dated. Hopefully, somebody at Subaru is sketching the next generation Forester right now. In the meantime, the current Forester does functional more than pretty, and that’s okay with me.
In the Driver’s Seat
Forester’s cabin gives a great impression of space right off the bat. The cabin feels like it is open to the outdoors. The Panoramic Moonroof (standard on Premium and Touring models) gives life to genuine airiness, and Forester’s dash is pushed away from the driver and front seat passenger in order to enhance that impression, and Thankfully, the dash is far from quirky. Instead, it is straightforward, cleanly arrayed and easy to operate. My test vehicle was equipped with the optional ($1,600) GPS Touch-Screen Navigation System, which is smartly mounted in the top position in the center stack. Subaru offers a cool optional TomTom nav system, which features a removable device with a 4.3” display. I expect more and more manufacturers to begin to integrate removable devices into their vehicles in the future – it just makes good sense.
Forester’s front seats are firm but comfortable, and the driving position is closer to the classic SUV “command” position than to the low-slung sedan slouch. It’s difficult for a compact crossover to give genuine “command” seating, but Forester does its best. The second row is adequate for average sized adults, but a bit cramped for the long-legged. The tall luggage compartment can handle 30.5 cubic feet; flop the second row flat, and Forester will swallow 63 cubes. My tall Standard Poodle appreciated the extra headroom in back – it didn’t muss his ‘do. The low liftover height was also welcome – that poodle will not jump into an SUV, no matter how I try to coax him. He’s happy to jump onto the sofa for a nap, but I have to pick up his 65 lb carcass to get him into a vehicle. And Standard Poodles are supposed to be smart. Relative to what, I have to ask.
On the Road
Every Subaru comes with Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, and Forester is no exception. If you live in an area where ice and snow, mud and rain affect your drive, all-wheel drive should be on your features checklist for a new vehicle. Forester adds in generous 8.7 – 8.9” minimum ground clearance, which rivals many full-size SUVs. I’ve driven other Foresters on dirt roads and even off-road, and I’ve always been quite impressed with the vehicle’s abilities. I didn’t get to take my 2011 test vehicle off-road, but I have no doubt that it would perform.
Forester is available with two engines: a normally-aspirated 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder Boxer engine (170 hp/174 lb-ft of torque) in the 2.5X models or a turbocharged 2.5-liter (224 hp/226 lb-ft of torque) in the XT. My test vehicle got the turbo, which is a really fabulous application. The Boxer engine is horizontally-opposed, as Subaru engines have always been. Cylinder alignment is one of the major factors that give an engine its character. Big American muscle cars had that loping V8, with cylinders arranged at an angle to each other, and firing in specific sequences. A Honda CR-V uses an inline 4-cylinder engine, which has the cadence of a sewing machine. The horizontally-opposed engine uses its own counter forces to create balance, firing from side to side and taking advantage of Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Anyway, Volkswagen Beetles used to use an air-cooled horizontally-opposed engine; many BMW motorcycles still do. Subaru has spent years refining and turbocharging the Boxer, and it now delivers a very linear rush of power on demand. The downside to all of this power is that the turbo runs better when you use Premium (91 Octane) gas, which is more expensive; while the non-turbo runs fine on Regular (87 Octane). No one rides for free.
There's so much that I love about the 2011 Subaru Forester, and still so much that I'm not pleased to report. I love Forester's engine and drivetrain. I love Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, and I love the Forester's interior fit and finish. I'm not pleased with Forester's price -- to get the Forester that I'd want, a 2.5XT Touring, I'd have to lay out over $30,000. That's a lot of cash for a compact crossover. I'm not pleased with Forester's fuel economy numbers -- I wish it did better, so that I could justify the money and the premium fuel for the enjoyment that I'd get out of the engine and drivetrain.
Forester's got some serious competition in the compact crossover market right now, and it's just getting more serious all the time. Honda's CR-V is very good, and a new CR-V arrives for 2012. Toyota's RAV4 is also very good. The Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage are formidable, and the Sportage is offered with a turbocharged engine. Ford's Escape, Chevrolet's Equinox, GMC's Terrain and Jeep's Liberty are also worth looking at, but I don't like them as much as the others.
Subaru has a very loyal following, and for good reason. They build very good cars with unique character and standard all-wheel drive. Forester is at the heart of the lineup, with some big fans. I would never tell those people that they're wrong about their Foresters, but I might hint that they could spend their money less emotionally. They won't listen -- they'll still buy Foresters. But clear-eyed, unemotional buyers may decide to buy different crossovers -- until Subaru gives Forester another working over.