SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide
Subaru has concentrated on all-wheel drive automobiles for the past few years. It has been very successful in this strategy, and currently sells only all-wheel drive cars. The company has had the niche practically to itself since the demise of the small all-wheel drive cars popular in the early 1980s. But, those small all-wheel drive cars and wagons have recently come back to life in micro-sport-utility guise.
Subaru has previously faced the competition from the micro SUVs with its very popular Legacy-based Outback and Impreza-based Outback Sport. These are compact and subcompact station wagons that receive chassis, suspension, and styling modifications that give them an aggressive sport-ute look and extra ground clearance. The Outbacks have been a tremendous success, and have spawned imitators. However, Subaru is not resting on its laurels. It has recently released its own micro sport-utility, the Forester.
Like other recent entries in the micro sport-ute class, the Forester is based on a car platform, in this case that of the Impreza. Subaru is not in the truck business, and does not consider the Forester to be a truck. To Subaru, the Forester is a new type of vehicle that straddles the truck/car boundary.
Subaru just may be right. Besides the usual week at home with a new, top-of-the-line '98 Forester S, I also had a chance to drive one at the national press introduction in Winthrop, Washington earlier in the year. The Forester felt right at home in both locations. In "S" form, it's a bit more expensive than any micro SUV so far, but it's also much more powerful and refined. It has the style, ground clearance, and utility of a sport utility, and the comfort and ease of handling of a car.
APPEARANCE: The new Subaru Forester looks more like a sport- utility than a car due to its boxy contours and height. The "S" model's massive chromed grille helps, too. It would look right at home on a pickup or big SUV. A roof rack, and Outback-style lower body cladding and bumpers, with inset, brush guard-covered foglamps complete the SUV look. Clever styling makes the Forester appear to be larger than it really is. This adds presence on the road, without the parking difficulties of a larger vehicle. During my week with one of the first Foresters in my hometown, it got plenty of attention from sport-utility owners and outdoors-type people.
COMFORT: The Forester is a practical, comfortable car with plenty of room inside for four adults. Its additional height pays off in headroom for all occupants. Access is easy. The hip-high seat cushion height means no step up or down when getting in or out. Just slide right in. Cloth and synthetic upholstery and interior trim of a contemporary Southwestern motif is functional and put together very well. The driver's seat is manually adjustable for tilt and lumbar support as well as the usual directions. Visibility is great. Instrument and control layout is generally very good. The optional electronic compass / altimeter / thermometer gauge pack mounted at the top center of the panel is the only slightly bizarre feature. (And it's at least entertaining.) The Forester's utility aspect is not forgotten. There are plenty of useful, variously-sized storage spaces around the inside. The rear seat folds with a 50/50 split. The rear liftgate is easy to use, provides shelter in bad weather, and has an inside grab handle to help close it easily.
SAFETY: Passenger car safety standards are more stringent than those for trucks. The Forester meets or exceeds all Federal passenger car safety and emissions standards.
ROADABILITY: The Forester is no truck on the road. It may have as much ground clearance as a sport-utility -- almost 7.5 inches -- but the seating position, height, and center of gravity are within normal "car" standards. The rock-solid, rally-proven Impreza platform and independent strut-type suspension combine ride comfort and good handling. The Forester is one of the most comfortable vehicles I've ever driven down a dirt road, and can also handle all sorts of pavement with ease. In common with other car-based micro SUVs, it has full- time all-wheel drive and no four-wheel drive low range. It's not meant for serious off-road use, but has no problem on rutted Forest Service dirt roads, or on potholed urban streets.
PERFORMANCE: The Forester's 2.5-liter horizontally-opposed 4- cylinder engine is the largest in the micro-SUV class. Some of the smaller sport-utilities are on the underpowered side in vicious traffic; not the Forester. It has the low-engine-speed grunt needed for city traffic, highway merging, or cruising down a dirt road. The 4-speed automatic transmission is well-suited to the engine's torque and shifts quickly and smoothly.
CONCLUSIONS: With the introduction of the Forester, Subaru has broken new ground. It looks like an SUV, and has the utility of one, but it drives like a car because it is one.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 22,995 Price As Tested $ 24,866 Engine Type horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder Engine Size 2.5 liters / 150 cu. in. Horsepower 165 @ 5600 Torque (lb-ft) 162 @ 4000 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 99.4 in. / 175.2 in. Curb Weight 3120 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 18.9 Fuel Capacity 15.9 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires P215/60 HR16 Yokohama Geolander Brakes, front/rear vented disc/disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut/ independent multilink strut Ground Clearance 7.48 in. Drivetrain Front engine, full-time all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed N/A / N/A / 22 avg. 0 to 60 mph 9.5 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 17.2 sec Towing Capacity 2000 lbs. Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.405 OPTIONS AND CHARGES 4-speed Automatic Transmission $ 800 Remote keyless entry $ 225 Security System $ 125 CD player $ 420 Console $ 89 Electronic Compass/Instrument package $ 395 Cargo Shade $ 122 Destination Charge $ 495