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2010 Subaru Forester XT Limited Review

2010 Subaru Forester (select to view enlarged photo)
2010 Subaru Forester

2010 Subaru Forester XT Limited Review

Have you ever had the experience of meeting someone you hadn't seen in many years, and didn't quite recognize because he or she had grown more than a little? I've just had that feeling with the 2010 Subaru Forester.

When it debuted in model year 1998, the Forester was billed as Subaru's first SUV. "SUV" was a good word in those days, and Subaru, arguably the inventor of the not-a-truck crossover with its Outback a few years earlier, wanted something that at least looked more like an SUV than did the Outbacks.

While its boxy styling said "micro-SUV", the `98 Forester had no truck in its ancestry, being based on the Subaru Impreza. It was as much a crossover as any Outback, but it sold quite well based on its more "truck-like" looks. And good space utilization, and better fuel efficiency than a body-on-frame truck. And off-road/poor-road/bad-weather abilities - good ground clearance and Subaru's top-notch all-wheel drive system saw to that.

By the early 2000s, the compact crossover niche began to get more crowded. And, in response, the second-generation Forester appeared for 2003. The same compact size as Gen 1, it was a bit sleeker in style and more refined. A year later came the XT version, "T" as in "turbo", and turbo as in detuned WRX STi engine with 210 horsepower, for some real sport with that utility.

Fast-forward to today. Crossovers have replaced SUVs, and mid-sized is more popular than compact. Subaru has the Tribeca, but it's larger and more expensive than the target. So the third-generation Forester, introduced for model year 2009, grows - by 3.6 inches in wheelbase and four in length, with similar increases in width and height. It's still smaller than the Tribeca, but not by much.

Such a size increase can mean the automotive equivalent of middle-age spread. Good news - no bloat here. Yes, Forester, Generation III is larger and more SUV-like in appearance (contrary to many a newer crossover) and even boasts more ground clearance, now up to 8.9 inches. But it still has the same cheeky character and is as convenient, functional, and comfortable as ever. It's just bigger, but not too big. This has obviously not been a problem for Subaru customers - it's the best-selling Forester ever, and the best-selling Subaru.

As with the second generation, the newest Forester is divided into naturally-aspirated "X" models, powered by a single overhead cam, 170-horsepower engine, and "XT" turbo models, with a twincam, intercooled 224-hp powerplant. In both cases, the basics are 2.5 liters displacement in a "boxer" horizontally-opposed four-cylinder configuration, with five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. Real, full-time, all-wheel drive is standard for all, and the new underpinnings, from the newest Impreza, mean enhanced safety as well as improved handling characteristics and ride comfort.

After its 2009 debut, the gen-3 Forester gets a revised trim level lineup and minor interior revisions. I've just finished a week with top-of-the-line XT Limited. No complaints, at all. The Forester has character and (especially in XT trim) performance lacking in many a small crossover -- something about a certain wild cousin in the family -- and is as at least as utilitarian as anything in the class. It's handsome in an honest way, roomier than ever, and with extra clearance and Subaru AWD, it's capable in and on pretty much any weather conditions and excuse for a road that you'd care to deal with in a family car.

It's just like the old one, except better.

APPEARANCE: There are plenty of crossovers that play down the SUV part of the genre in their styling. The Forester is not one of those. With the size increase, it looks more SUV-like than ever. Like a kid who has grown up, the proportions are different, but it's unmistakably a Subaru Forester. Its chrome-barred grille, sculpted hood (with functional air scoop for turbo models), and exaggerated wheel arches give an SUVish look, but it's more tongue-in-cheek than in-your-face.

COMFORT: "Cozy" no longer applies, not a bad thing at all. And while the Forester has the high eyepoint that made SUVs popular, and ground clearance that can deal with forest ruts or urban potholes, the realistic seat cushion and floor height makes for easy access for all but very short people. The panoramic moonroof, standard for the XT Limited, adds brightness and a great view of the sky or overhead scenery for all passengers. Interior styling bows to current crossover trends, with a dark-over-light color scheme and "aluminum" trim. The main instruments are easily visible, with no glare. The center stack protrudes for easier access, with a useful time/temperature/mileage display on top and the standard AM/FM/satellite radio (either flavor available)/ 6CD audio system head (with auxiliary jack in the center console) or optional navigation system and simple-to-use (and quick to work) climate control system controls beneath. As ever, useful storage spaces are found throughout the cabin. Headroom was never an issue in a Forester, and now leg-, hip-, and shoulder space are much improved. At XT Limited level perforated leather is the seat covering, and the front seats are comfortable and supportive, with the driver's power-adjustable. The rear seat has much-improved legroom and width, although the center tunnel does make it best for two, not three. A center armrest with cupholders, and a bit of adjustability for each side of the 60/40 seatback add comfort and convenience. There's no shortage of cargo space, with a bit of room under the main load floor a pleasant hidden bonus. A power point in the cargo is a nice touch, particularly for inflating rafts and such.

SAFETY: The 2010 Forester's "DC cubed" unibody structure is stronger and more rigid than the previous structure, with improved passenger protection. It has received the highest ratings for crash performance from both NHTSA and the IIHS. Multiple-force front, front-seat side and full-length side curtain airbags are standard, with rollover sensors. Antilock disc brakes, the VDC stability control system, and Brake Assist are all standard.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Extra rigidity and a longer wheelbase mean a smoother ride over the road. Further improvement comes from the new double-wishbone rear suspension, with struts still used at the front. Springs and shocks are well-matched, and tuned moderately, for comfort. But thanks to the low center of gravity from the Forester's chassis design and low boxer engine, body roll is minimal and road manners are very good. Full-time all-wheel drive ensures that the engine's power gets to the wheels that can best use it in all conditions, from a hot, dry day in Arizona to a Minnesota snowstorm.

PERFORMANCE: Subaru has plenty of experience with turbocharging, and it shows. Forced induction means more torque, and the Forester XT's engine has plenty of that from right off idle for immediate acceleration when needed. Like all Subaru engines, it's horizontally-opposed, for a low center of gravity and compact packaging. Subaru's Active Valve Control System works with the dual overhead camshafts to both broaden the torque curve and lower emissions. If the horsepower output -- 224 hp @ 5200 rpm from 2.5 liters -- is impressive, the torque is even more so, with 226 lb-ft at 2800 rpm. Which means that although the automatic transmission that is the only choice for the XT has only four speeds, that's no big deal. This is "shifting optional" torque. Although the engine will happily rev to redline like it was in a WRX, there is no real need to do so, and manual shifting is likewise mostly redundant. Since most of the time the engine is not worked very hard, fuel economy is good. EPA estimates of 17 city, 24 highway seemed accurate, with 22 overall for the week. Credit the Forester's relatively light, sub 3500-pound, weight for some of that.

CONCLUSIONS: The Subaru Forester may have grown up, but there's still plenty of sport and even more utility.

SPECIFICATIONS 2010 Subaru Forester XT Limited

Base Price			$ 28,495
Price As Tested			$ 29,694
Engine Type			turbocharged and intercooled DOHC
				 aluminum alloy horizontally-opposed
				 4-cylinder with variable valve timing
Engine Size			2.5 liters / 150 cu. in.
Horsepower			224 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			226 @ 2800 rpm
Transmission			4-speed automatic with manual mode
Wheelbase / Length		103.0 in. / 179.5 in.
Curb Weight			3460 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		15.4
Fuel Capacity			16.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				P225/55 R19 95H Yokohama Geolander
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc, dual-piston calipers / 
				  solid disc, single-piston calipers
				  ABS and EBD standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent double wishbone
Ground Clearance		8.9 inches
Drivetrain			inline front engine,
				 full-time all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		19 / 24 / 22
0 to 60 mph				6.7  sec
Towing capacity				2400 lbs.

Sirius Satellite Radio			$ 429
Cargo Tray				$  75
Destination and Delivery		$ 695