First Drive: 2011 Subaru Forester
Since the new version launched in 2008, the Forester has been a tremendous sales success for Subaru, easily outselling its slightly awkward-looking predecessor. Aside from its more regular proportions -- the previous version had an over-tall greenhouse atop a wagon-like body -- the biggest change with the redesigned Forester was its significantly more spacious rear seat. Unlike older Foresters, the new version can easily accommodate full-size adults, front and rear.
Sensibly sized, and priced
The Forester packs a lot of utility into a reasonably sized footprint, which has enabled it to hold its own in the burgeoning small-crossover field. Not only is there very good space for four people (it's a little narrow for five), but the cargo area is large, practically shaped, and easy to load thanks to the low liftover height. Four-wheel drive is standard on the Forester (as it is on all Subarus), so there's no price-leader, front-wheel-drive version. Even so, prices are very competitive with the class, starting at just over $20,000 and topping out at $30,000.
The Forester's two engines are denoted by the model suffixes: 2.5X and 2.5XT. The former signifies the base engine, which is new for 2011. A DOHC 2.5-liter boxer four, it makes 170 hp. 2.5XT designates the turbocharged version (the functional hood scoop is the visual giveaway); it makes 224 hp from the same 2.5 liters.
Is the turbo the way to go?
The turbo provides peppy performance, but it might not be the way to go here. Yes, it makes a significant 44 hp more than the normally aspirated version of this engine, and acceleration, accompanied by the characteristic Subaru boxer-engine burble, is sprightly. But the extra power comes at a considerably cost in fuel economy. Where the standard engine manages 21/27 mpg ratings (with either an automatic or a manual transmission), the turbo is rated at 19/24 mpg, which is pretty grim for a small SUV, and it requires premium fuel to boot. The turbo's ratings are worse than the Toyota RAV4 V-6 and about on par with the six-cylinder Outback. It must be mentioned, however, that a more powerful optional engine is something that most small SUVs don't even offer.
Part of the Forester's issue with fuel economy is that -- with either engine -- Subaru's automatic transmission is only a four-speed, which drags down highway ratings in particular, and makes for abrupt-feeling downshifts, due to the wide spacing between gears. Other small SUVs have five-speeds or even six-speeds. Subaru offers a five-speed manual with the standard engine, but not with the turbo.
With either engine, there are various trim levels. I had the 2.5XT Touring, which is the new top-spec version of the turbocharged car, positioned above the Premium. Compared to the lesser turbo model, it adds HID headlamps, body-colored mirrors, windshield de-icer and heated side mirrors, heated front seats, push-button folding rear seats, leather upholstery and leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-zone automatic A/C, and a 7-speaker stereo.
An enormous glass sunroof (standard on all but the very base model) brightens up the interior considerably. The 2.5XT Touring interior is quite nice-looking, with its leather seats and brushed-metal-look accents on the dash, doors, and console, but there's lots of hard plastic here and the headliner and carpet are both really cheap. The controls are simplicity itself, except for the radio controls, which have been folded into the optional navigation system; Subaru's factory nav system is one of the worst -- skip it, and save $1600. The seats are fairly soft, and their lateral support melts away in corners, exaggerating the sensation of body roll. The split-folding rear seat has reclining seatbacks, a fold-down armrest, and a flip out section that houses two cupholders. The excellent driving position gets full marks, and is abetted by a prominent dead pedal, padded door armrests, and a great sightlines. A backup camera is standard on the 2.5XT Touring, but the Forester may be the only crossover on the market that really doesn't need one, because you can actually see out the back of it.
In this crowded field, the Forester faces a lot of competition -- including one rival within its own showroom. The Subaru Outback's redesign saw it morph from an all-wheel-drive station wagon into more of a crossover/SUV-type vehicle, like the Forester. Compared to the Forester, the Outback is larger outside, but doesn't have that much more space inside. Both have a very roomy back seat. Neither offers an optional third-row seat. Both have a generous cargo area; the Outback's is slightly bigger, but the Forester's is already near the top of its class.
Equipped with its standard four-cylinder, the larger Outback actually gets better gas mileage (22/29 mpg) than the Forester. With its optional six, the Outback's 18/25 mpg is about on a par with the Forester turbo. Both cars drive similarly, with decent (hydraulically assisted) power steering, and both ride well over bad pavement but could use firmer damping.
The Forester 2.5XT Touring is only about $1500 less than the top-of-the-line Outback, which has a six-cylinder engine and a five-speed automatic. The less-expensive Forester has the aforementioned monster sunroof, which is an extra-cost option for the Outback, so the price gap between the two is actually a bit wider.
Despite the in-house competition, the Forester remains a compelling choice among compact crossovers because it is sensibly sized, very roomy, easy to drive, and well priced. We only wish Subaru would give it a more efficient transmission to boost its fuel economy.
Base price (with destination): $30,715
Price as tested: $32,315
2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine
4-speed automatic transmission
Dual-zone automatic climate control
Vehicle dynamics control
Power glass sunroof
Power driver's seat/windows/locks/mirrors
Leather-wrapped steering wheel w/audio controls
Heated front seats
Reclining rear seats with one-touch 60/40 split folding seatbacks
Silver roof rails
17-inch alloy wheels
6-speaker audio system w/satellite radio
Options on this vehicle:
Key options not on vehicle:
19 / 21 / 24 mpg
2.5L H-4 turbo
Horsepower: 224 hp @ 5200 rpm
Torque: 226 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm
Curb weight: 3460 lb
17 x 7.0 in wheels
215/55R17 95H Yokohama Geolander tires