The NMA Foundation presents Eric Peter’s Car Review, a weekly Saturday feature on the NMA blog.
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You may have noticed that there are lots of Subarus (all kinds, including ancient Brats from the ’80s) running around places where it snows a lot.
This is what they call in law enforcement a clue.
Subarus are not popular because they’re sexy. They are popular because they’re almost as unstoppable as a Russian T-34 tank during the battle of Kursk.
And it’s not just because they’re all-wheel-drive.
Lots of new cars have all-wheel-drive.
Well, they are available with all-wheel-drive. It just costs extra.
Subarus also have clearance — 8.7 inches — and both it and AWD are standard equipment.
That is hard to find.
Check that, it is impossible to find it. Certainly not for $22,595 — the base price of the Subaru Forester that’s the subject of this week’s rant.
WHAT IT IS
The Forester is a five-door compact crossover SUV in the same general class as the Ford Escape (base price $23,570 with FWD; with AWD, $27,000) Mazda CX-5 (base price $21,795 with FWD; $24,895 with AWD), Honda CR-V (base price $24,045; with AWD $25,345) and Jeep Cherokee (base price $23,595 to start with FWD; $25,595 with AWD) 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.
Subaru’s street cred as one of the first major automakers (the other being Audi) to mass-market all-wheel-drive is another point of difference between the Forester and its competition — who are all relative late-comers to this game.
Oh, and there’s another thing.
The Forester is one of an increasingly dwindling number of crossover SUVs that’s still available with a manual transmission. Almost all the others are automatic-only.
Oh, and one more thing. Subaru also offers the Forester in performance sleeper trim. You can order it with a 2.0 liter turbo/intercooled four that’s very similar to what you’d find under the hood of the hood-scooped WRX sedan — allegedly downrated (slightly) to 250 hp vs. 268 in the WRX.
It’s a similar experience — in a much more discreet package.
Base price for this version of the Forester — which also comes standard with AWD — is $29,295 — topping out at $34,295 for a Touring trim.
All Foresters get a facelift (and tail-lift) that includes new design LED surround headlights and revised tail lights. The available EyeSight safety suit (more below) now includes lane departure intervention and rear cross-traffic alert.
Subaru says the ’17 should be quieter inside, too — because more insulation has been packed into the various nooks and crannies.
Standard AWD (it’s optional in all the others) and for less to start than rivals ask for their FWD models.
More standard ground clearance than almost all the others (the Jeep Grand Cherokee matches the Forester exactly).
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.
Class-leading cargo capacity.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Models with the standard 2.5 liter engine are on the slow-pokey side.
Models with the 2.0 engine are on the thirsty side.
Some of the EyeSight “safety” features are preemptively nannyish, including “brake intervention” that sometimes intervenes when it’s not necessary.
Can’t pull much (max trailer rating is 1,500 lbs.)
UNDER THE HOOD
Subarus are the only new vehicles — other than Porsches — that feature boxer, or horizontally opposed engines.
What’s the advantage?
They are lighter, typically, than upright engines — in part because they are naturally balanced. The pistons lay flat, each one facing its opposite across the crankshaft — rather than all of them standing upright in a line. As one pistons travels down during the power stroke, its opposite number is moving in the other direction at the same time. This balances the engine — eliminating the need for a heavy external balancer, as most in-line engines have to have.
And a flat engine sits lower in the car, which lowers the center of gravity; in addition the weight of the engine is split evenly down the centerline of the car (half the engine is on one side, the other half is on the other side. This is a good thing for handling balance.
It’s also, incidentally, why Subaru refers to its system as symmetric.
In the Forester, you’ve got two boxer engines 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 — comes standard with AWD. They all begin as FWD models that make you pay more to get AWD.
You can also get a manual transmission — a feature only one of the others (Mazda CX-5) still offers.
Or, go with the continuously variable (CVT) automatic.
The 2.5-equipped Forester isn’t super quick but its 8.8 or so second to 60 time is very par for the course. And that’s with AWD. The others are not appreciably quicker — despite being FWD.
Mileage is 26 city, 32 highway with the CVT — which is more efficient than the six-speed manual; mileage in that case drops a bit to 22 city, 28 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 is about 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 is less — as you’d expect: 23 city, 27 highway — but this is about the same as delivered by 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 there’s more power/performance than you can legally use anywhere in the United States. Meaning, you can rock it up to 120 MPH (trust me) and still have more to go.
How often do you drive faster than 80?.
And with the gearing advantages (overdrive gearing, to be precise) any new vehicle can comfortably hold 70-75 all day long without the engine revving like a NASCAR stocker and drinking gas like one, too.
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 flat-laying engine, its weight split evenly down the car’s longitudinal centerline.
The six-speed manual version is definitely the fun choice, even if you do lose a few MPGs. Besides, you will have 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 (and discreet) 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 top drawer sleeper. I’d almost rather have it than the air-scooped WRX, which is too obvious for serious wet work.
The 2.0- XT Forester’s 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 the car begins to lose adhesion — is now far higher than the average person will ever experience unless they drive as you would on a race track. And had the skill and the guts to push the car to its limits. Few street drivers have either, let alone both.
Here’s something that matters as far as street driving: 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. 38.8 for the Ford Escape, 37.7 for the Jeep Cherokee and 36.9 for the Honda CR-V. Test drive these back to back against the Forester in a busy parking lot and you will appreciate the distinction.
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 Jeep Cherokee — but more than either the Honda CR-V (just 6.8 inches) or the Ford Escape (7.8 inches).
The Mazda CX-5 comes close (8.5 inches) but remember — like the others, AWD costs extra.
I’ve driven them all — in snow, serious snow — and nothing touches the Subaru. This includes even 4WD trucks. With the right tires — Blizzaks, for instance — an AWD Subaru will get through anything short of a snow tsunami — and even then, you’ll have a shot.
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.
I used the Subaru.
That 4×8 sheet 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. just 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 very space-efficient 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, a subtle but critical thing; this maximizes access to the insides.
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 direct and to the point: Big speedo and tach, a few secondary LCD readouts. Oversize rotary knobs for the AC, fan and outlet settings, which you can adjust while wearing gloves. Unless you choose the optional touchscreen, which complicates things.
It cannot be used while wearing gloves — and even when not wearing them, it’s easy to accidentally touch something else — and get something you didn’t want (like the wrong radio station).
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) EyeSight safety stuff — which is happily optional.
Probably every other review you’ve read by the clapping seal press lauds Subaru’s now over-the-top obsession with idiot-proofing its cars.
You won’t read that here.
If you aren’t an idiot — you won’t need this proofing. Which is also overly pre-emptive. Fail to brake when the system thinks you should — even when you know it’s not necessary — and the system will brake, jerking you forward in your seat. It 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… and then slam on the brakes. Which makes threading your way through Cloverfied traffic a herky-jerky experience.
Luckily, all of this can both be skipped — or turned off.
Another minor nit: The two USB ports are located inside the center console in a really hard to reach place. These should be moved somewhere visible — and accessible.
I like that the Forester comes with a real-deal emergency brake, a lever that you pull up using your hand. As distinct from a parking brake you engage using your foot (or — worse — electronically, via a button). You can modulate the braking force applied by a pull-up lever. That’s hard to do with a push-it foot brake and impossible to do with an electrically-engaged brake.
Also: 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 praise for making an effort to make basic DIY service such as changing the oil easy.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Given how many others have tried to copy Subaru, it’s surprising that none of them have yet copied the winning formula of standard AWD and ground clearance you don’t have to pay extra to get.
The WRX-in-drag Forester XT is pretty cool, too.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos