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2004 Subaru Forester XT- Review

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I was once asked by a car manufacturer's public relations representative to describe my idea of the perfect car. I think he was expecting me so say ``the car you are introducing today'' - a popular mid-sized sedan. Instead, feeling playful, I said something like ``it'd have the acceleration, braking, and cornering abilities of a Formula One car, the cargo-carrying ability of a minivan, enough ground clearance to work on rutted dirt roads and clear the odd muffler on the highway, plus the comfort of a premium luxury sedan and get over 30 miles per gallon.''

OK. That was a wise-guy answer, and, if taken literally, violates a few laws of physics. But Subaru has come closest to answering it with the new 2004 Forester XT. That's ``T'' as in ``Turbo.'' And that's ``turbo'' as in a detuned version of the STi engine, with ``only'' 210 horsepower and 235 lb-ft of torque. True, it won't give an F1 car any competition, but it has enough WRX STi in its makeup for plenty of excitement and entertainment. If it's smaller than any minivan, it has more interior space than some popular, and larger, SUVs. With 7.5 inches of clearance and Subaru all-wheel-drive traction, it should have no problem with forest roads and moderate four-wheel drive trails, and has a better chance of clearing debris that suddenly appears on the highway than a regular car. Like other current Foresters, the XT, if not a true luxury car, has the appointment and comfort of a high-grade middle-class sedan, and fuel economy is reasonable at around 20 mpg.

I first had the opportunity to drive the Forester XT when it was introduced to the press last Spring in upstate New York. There, I drove an automatic-transmission version on the secondary roads and highways in the mountains near Lake Placid. I've spent the past week with a manual-transmission model at home. In either form, the XT builds on the Forester's comfort and versatility and adds a very noticeable 65 horsepower and 69 lb-ft of torque. It combines sport and utility like no other vehicle.

APPEARANCE: Besides the small ``XT'' badge on the tailgate, the only external difference between other Foresters and the XT is the hood. In the center of the XT's hood is a WRX-sized and very functional hood scoop to feed air to the intercooler. This is not all that obvious, giving the Forester XT something no WRX sedan has - a great stealth factor. Other than that, it might as well be any other current XS premium-level Forester, a stylish, highly-figured but innocuous-looking small crossover SUV. Body-colored side cladding, aluminum roof rails with body-color mounts, and special alloy wheels are features of the XT.

COMFORT: Like all other current-generation Foresters, the XT seems larger inside than out. The interior is contemporary in design, and very functional. Good use of colors and textures adds visual interest, and there are plenty of storage spaces, including a useful covered compartment in the top of the dash. The XT is fully- equipped, with automatic climate control, power accessories, heated and very comfortable manually-adjustable front bucket seats, a leather-wrapped tilt-adjustable steering wheel, AM/FM/weather band/6-CD changer audio system and more standard. The 60/40 split folding rear bench offers more head and leg room than many popular mid-sized sedans, and a real spare tire - not a space-saver - is found under the cargo area.

SAFETY: The Subaru Forester meets all Federal passenger car safety standards, and got the highest rating for a 40-mph frontal offset collision in IIHS tests. Its ``Ring-Shaped Reinforcement Frame'' unibody structure provides both rigidity for good handling and side protection and front and rear crumple zones for occupant safety. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard.

ROADABILITY: Good ground clearance and good handling are usually mutually exclusive. But Subaru has found a way to reconcile the two. Despite a useful 7.5 inches of clearance, the chassis design and the shape and position of the Forester's boxer engine help to keep the center of gravity low. The rigid chassis structure and supple, fully-independent rally-derived long-travel suspension ensure very good handling and ride comfort. The Forester exhibits less body roll in hard cornering than most SUVs, and the ride quality is still very good. If not for the standard tires, which are SUV, not sports, specification the Forester XT would be the equal of a WRX wagon on the road. But tires are easy to change....

PERFORMANCE: The Forester XT's engine is a derivative of that found in the rally-replica WRX STi. It uses the same aluminum alloy block as the STi, with a closed-deck design and reinforced crankshaft journals for strength under high levels of turbo boost. Like the STi, it is intercooled and uses variable valve timing for efficiency and a wider power band, but less boost and milder cams give it 210 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 235 lb-ft of torque at 3600 rpm, versus the STi's 300 hp and 300 lb-ft. But specs on paper aren't everything. In the real world, the regular WRX has a strong midrange, but is comparatively a touch weak from a standstill and the STi's extra power is all near the top of its rev range. The Forester XT's engine is very strong right off the line, with much more torque than other Subarus in the all-important 0 to 60 mph range. This makes it easy to drive in any everyday situation, and it works well with either the standard five-speed manual or the four- speed automatic transmissions. There is no turbo lag, just a smooth, healthy rush of power. Like other current Foresters, manual- transmission XTs have the useful ``Hill-Holder'' clutch for easier operation on hills.

CONCLUSIONS: Sport meets utility in the best way in the 2004 Subaru Forester XT.

SPECIFICATIONS 2004 Subaru Forester XT

Base Price $24,970
Price As Tested $ 25,520
Engine Type horizontally-opposed dual overhead cam 16-valve turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder
Engine Size 2.5 liters / 150 cu. in.
Horsepower 210 @ 5600 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 235 @ 3600 rpm Transmission 5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length 99.4 in. / 175.2 in.
Curb Weight 3210 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 15.3
Fuel Capacity 15.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium
Tires P215/60 HR16 Yokohama Geolander
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear independent strut / independent strut with trailing arms and parallel links
Ground clearance 7.5 inches
Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 23 / 20 0 to 60 mph est. 6.5 sec

Destination charge $ 550