By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist Photo courtesy of CARICOS
You can learn some important stuff about cars by taking note of who buys what — and how the cars are used.
And whether they stand up to the uses to which they’re put.
Texans, for instance, know trucks. Forget the TV commercials and advertising flapdoodle. Check out which makes/models of pick-up are popular in Texas — especially rural Texas — and you’ll have a good idea about which truck you ought to buy.
Shifting gears a little — you may have taken note of the fact that there are lots of Subarus (all kinds, including ancient Brats) running around places where it snows a lot and gets really cold a lot.
This is what they call in law enforcement a clue.
Subarus are not popular because they’re sexy — not superficially sexy, anyhow. They are popular because they’re almost as unstoppable as a King Tiger tank in the Ardennes in the winter of ’44.
And it’s not just because they’re all-wheel-drive.
Lots of new cars have all-wheel-drive. But Subarus come standard with it. Most others don’t. Also, Subaru has been selling AWD longer than pretty much everyone. And when you combine standard AWD with a low-slung flat four (as opposed to the common inline — and upright — four) which does for the car’s center of gravity (and so, its traction and its balance) what steroids did for Mike Piazza — it’s not hard to grok why these otherwise less-than-lookers nonetheless get taken home by lots of people.
WHAT IT IS
The Forester is Subaru’s entrant in the compact crossover segment. It’s a two-row, medium-small five-door hatchback in the same general class as the Ford Escape (base price $23,450), Mazda CX5 (base price $21,795), Honda CR-V (base price $23,445) and Jeep Cherokee (base price $23,095), among others.
While it’s similar in general shape/layout to those rivals, the Forester’s the only one of the bunch that comes standard with all-wheel-drive and a horizontally opposed engine (cylinders laid flat, in pairs, “boxing” each other across a common crankshaft). This layout has a number of objective advantages over traditional (upright) engines — and Subaru’s street cred as being one of the first major automakers to mass-market all-wheel-drive is another point of difference between the Forester and its competition.
Oh, and there’s a third thing.
The Forester is one of an increasingly dwindling number of small crossover SUVs that’s available with a manual transmission (the Mazda’s one of the very few others that also still does).
MSRP is $22,195 for the base trim with the six-speed stickshift, 2.5 liter boxer engine and AWD. Opting for the same basic package with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic kicks the sticker price up to $25,095.
You can also replace the economy-minded 2.5 liter engine with an optionally available turbocharged 2.0 liter boxer engine. This more powerful mill is paired only with the CVT automatic and is available only with the higher-end Premium ($28,495) and top-of-the-line Touring ($33,095) trims.
A rearview back-up camera is now standard equipment and 2.5i Touring trims get larger 18 inch wheels.
Standard AWD (it’s optional in competitors).
Lower starting price than FWD competitors.
Boxer engines — two of them, your choice (turbo’d or not). Several competitors offer just one engine (and none of them are boxer engines).
Available manual transmission (becoming extremely hard to find in this class of vehicle).
A veritable sled dog when it snows.
Class-leading cargo capacity.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Not much of a looker.
Some of the “safety” features are preemptively nannyish and their flashing dashboard lights and insistent chimes are annoying and distracting.
Luckily, these features are still optional.
Can’t pull much (max trailer rating is just 1,500 lbs.)
UNDER THE HOOD
Subarus are the only vehicles — other than Porsches — that feature boxer, or horizontally opposed (or “flat”) engines. They are lighter, typically, than upright engines — because they don’t need heavy balancers and they give the cars they’re installed in a lower center of gravity, which helps with traction and handling.
In the Forester, you’ve got two to choose from.
Standard equipment is a 2.5 liter four (not turbocharged) that produces 170 hp. This is competitive with the Ford Escape’s standard and also 2.5 liter (but upright and in-line) four-cylinder engine (168 hp) and the Honda CR-V’s standard (and only) 2.4 liter (also upright) four (185 hp).
The Jeep Cherokee comes standard with a similar (184 hp) 2.4 liter four (again, upright).
However, none of the above — none of the others — offer a manual transmission to go with it. The Forester does — and it’s standard.
Or, go with the optional continuously variable (CVT) automatic.
Either way, the Soobie comes standard with something else — all-wheel-drive. Not only is AWD optional in rival vehicles like the Escape, Cherokee and CR-V, you’ll pay more for the FWD-equipped versions of those vehicles than you would for the AWD-equipped Forester.
Also worthy of mention — in the Subaru’s favor — is the fact that the AWD-equipped Forester accelerates to 60 in roughly the same timeframe (8.8-8.9 seconds) as the FWD/base-engined versions of its rivals.
Fuel economy is pretty good, too: 24 city, 32 highway with the CVT (which is more efficient than the six-speed manual; mileage in that case droops a bit to 22 city, 29 highway). The Honda CR-V does slightly better — 27 city, 34 highway — but the Fun Factor is decidedly lower. And the FWD/base-engined Ford Escape does slightly worse: 22 city, 31 highway (same numbers for the base-engined/FWD Cherokee).
The Forester ‘s optional engine is a 2.0 liter turbo four carrying a 250 hp rating. Consider it a WRX on the down low.
Which it is.
So ordered, the 0-60 time declines to just over six seconds flat — almost three seconds quicker than the base/2.5 liter-equipped Forester and all of its optional-engined rivals. This includes the V6-equipped Cherokee, incidentally — which has a higher hp rating (271) but carries more curb weight: 4,016 lbs. vs. 3,624 lbs. for the turbo’d Soobie.
Gas mileage remains high, too: 23 city, 28 highway — slightly better than the AWD/V6-equipped Cherokee (21 city, 28 highway).
There’s one hair in the soup, though.
The Forester’s not much of a puller. Max tow rating — with either engine — is just 1,500 pounds. The Cherokee with the V6 can pull 3,500 pounds. The Escape with its optional turbo four can pull the same.
ON THE ROAD
If you go with the 2.5 liter engine (and either transmission) the Forester is a superlative A to B appliance. It is not quick — but neither is it slow. Like any new vehicle — trade secret being revealed here — there’s more power/performance than you can legally use anywhere in the United States.
Meaning, you can rock it up to 80, 90 MPH and still have plenty more to go.
How often do you drive faster than 80? How about 90?
And with the gearing advantages (steep overdrive gearing, to be precise) any new vehicle can comfortably hold 70-75 all day long. Meaning, without the engine buzzing like a run-amok chainsaw and sounding like it’s going to spit parts all over the road at any moment.
What sets the Soobie apart is not speed but grip. Remember — standard AWD. Optional in the competition. And even when they’ve got it, they still don’t have the traction advantages of that laying-flat engine, its weight split evenly down the car’s longitudinal centerline.
The six-speed manual version is definitely the fun choice. Plus, you’ve got more control. In deep snow, for example, you can gear down to leverage (and modulate) the boxer engine’s output through the AWD.
Unfortunately, Subaru is not willing to sell the six-speed with the optional WRX-on-the-down-low 2.0 turbo engine. Maybe because that would cannibalize WRX sales as people who want a hot rod but need a more practical hot rod turned the Forester’s way. Still, CVT or not (and the 2.0-equipped Forester gets a more aggressive version of the CVT with eight “stepped” and driver controllable not-really-gears but kind of feels like you’ve got ’em) the turbo’d Forester is one hell of a sleeper. I’d almost (almost!) rather have it than the be-winged and air-scooped WRX, which is just a bit to obvious for serious wet work.
The ride (quiet/well-damped) is emphasized over rally car (WRX-esque) handling. But — again — the fulsome scurvy truth is that almost any modern car’s threshold of traction — the point at which you begin to feel as though the car’s getting close to the edge of adhesion, tires beginning to squeal, lunches on the verge of being lost — is now far higher than the average person will ever experience or even approach experiencing. We car journalist test driver types natter amongst ourselves about such things but only because we operate at felonious speeds, counting on luck and media credentials to get us out of trouble. Note that most road tests are done on test tracks. It’s a party, but not reflective of street driving at all.
Here’s something that is — close-quarters maneuvering.
The Forester excels at this real-world task because it has a much tighter turning circle than its rivals: 34.8 inches vs (wait for it) 38.8 for the Ford Escape, 37.6 for the Jeep Cherokee and 36.9 for the Honda CR-V.
The Subaru’s ability to ford through deep snow, meanwhile, is much-assisted by its 8.7 inches of ground clearance — the same as the “rugged” Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and more than the base Cherokee and both the Honda CR-V (6.8 inches) and the Ford Escape (7.9 inches).
And, don’t forget: all-wheel-drive is extra-cost in all of those models.
AT THE CURB
Normally, I use a truck to pick up and haul drywall. But circumstances left me truck-less during the week I had the Forester and I needed a sheet of it.
Subaru to the rescue!
Now, it did not fit all the way in there — a fourth or so was hanging out of the open tailgate. And it did not lay flat (I had to angle it in). But the take home point is I was able to take home a full-sized sheet of drywall in the Forester. And probably could not have done so in most of the Forester’s competition.
Because the Forester has more room to work with than they do: 74.7 cubic feet with the second row down vs. a diminutive 54.9 for the Cherokee and 68.1 for the Escape (which is close in terms of volume but less usable because of the sexier-looking Ford’s lower roof and thus, vertical space). The Soobie even has more cargo room than the vaunted Honda CR-V, which tops out at 70.9 cubic feet (and which does not offer either a manual transmission or a WRX-on-the-down-low turbo’d engine). The Forester’s rear doors also open to 90 degrees, maximizing access and easing entry/exit.
One caveat: If you choose the available panorama sunroof, total capacity drops to 68.5 cubic feet and you’ll lose some of that vertical space.
Touring models feature one-touch folding rear seats — and theater-style seating is standard on all trims. The Forester has very good — though not class-best — second row legroom: 38 inches vs. the Cherokee’s exceptional 40.3 (and the Ford Escape’s less-than-exceptional 36.8 inches).
The dash layout is simple and functional — big speedo and tach, a few secondary LCD readouts. Oversize rotary knobs for the AC, fan and outlet settings. Unless you choose the optional touchscreen, which complicates things.
A nice little bonus is that manual-equipped Foresters come standard with an All Weather Package that includes heated front seats, windshield washer de-icer and heated outside mirrors; otherwise, these are extra cost (on the lower trims). Models with the turbo engine, meanwhile, get a performance exhaust upgrade, metal-trimmed pedals, sport instrument cluster, an 18-inch wheel/tire package and leather trim.
My only beef is with the (thankfully, optional) Driver Assist Technology Package, which bundles Land Departure Warning and Collision Mitigation. The former issues an annoying beep (and flashing yellow light) whenever the Forester crosses a painted line. In theory, it’s supposed to help the driver avoid wandering into the opposing lane of traffic (or off the shoulder). In practice, it does that… and also beeps and blinks when you make a routine lane change, or other maneuver that involves treading over a painted line.
The latter — Collison Mitigation — issues an annoying beep and a flashing red light when it detects an object in the Forester’s path. Problem is, it also detects berms and trees by the side of the road — and will squawk and flash frantic warnings during normal/reasonable thread-the-needle passing (as in heavy traffic) if you get within a car length of another car… which is very distracting and thus, arguably, at cross purposes with the stated intent of this technology.
Luckily, they can both be skipped — and turned off. Though not easily. The “off” buttons must be depressed and held for several seconds before the computer — grudgingly, it feels like — turns the gizmos off. But they come right back on again the next time you start the car — and must be turned off manually again, each time you want to avoid being harassed by the chimes and lights.
Pop the hood and you’ll find the oil filter’s right there, on top of the engine. Completely accessible. It can be replaced by hand, with no tools necessary. Subaru deserves credit for making a real effort to ease the DIY-serviceability of its cars.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Forester has beauty that is more than skin deep. It may not be a looker, like the Escape and Cherokee.
But it’s the keeper — as opposed to a one-night-stand.