Subaru has remained 'willfully odd' for eons. The Japanese brand's long-held construction tenets– horizontally-opposed powerplants, all-wheel-drive and eccentric styling– have only recently been embraced by the masses. Okay, so America's roads aren't exactly awash in boxer-engines, but controversial styling is certainly making a resurgence, and we all know how that AWD car/truck thing worked out. Most manufacturers now have at least one car-based 'cute ute' in their showrooms, from Honda's CR-V to the Saturn Vue and Hyundai's roly-poly new Tucson.
With the massive success of its Outback lineup, it comes as no surprise that Subaru decided to fit some lifts and extra-tall glazing on its Impreza platform in search of a few more sales. The resulting Forester is an enigmatic little toolbox with many charms, but an unclear role in the family constellation.
Our L.L. Bean-spec XS tester arrived in 'Woodland Green,' a verdant hue well-suited to the vehicle's boxy angularity and inner-hippy ethos. While the XS is hardly exciting enough to command an adolescent's wall space, it's the most convincing Forester iteration yet. This is particularly true up front, where furrowed-brow headlamps and large fog lamps forge a strong first impression. The aggressive visage compliments the usual off-the-rack SUV telltales: ribbed lower cladding, blistered fenders and a roof rack atop its Popemobile greenhouse.
Despite its butch posturing, the Forester struggles to shake off the dreaded 'station wagon' persona. The SUV boasts above-average ground clearance, yet remains visibly shorter than most everything else in its class (a result of its low beltline/high glass quotient). It's the Chrysler 300 School of Design overturned: big greenhouse, narrow band of sheet metal.
Inside, the Forester's 'granola-liberal' heritage makes nice with the upwardly-mobile L.L. Bean specification. In the main, this juxtaposition pleases (luxuriously practical wipe-clean heated leather seats above industrial-grade rubber mats), but occasionally chafes (the stereo musters better weather band reception than basic FM). The XS' panoramic sunroof is its best model-specific feature: a homecoming queen's dream. The Forester's rear seats are a bit tight for the long-stemmed, but the overall ergonomics are sound, the panel fitments spot-on and most materials seem ready to go the distance.
Unfortunately, the driver's helm must be ratcheted to its top station to obtain the full-on SUV driving position so prized by desperate housewives. The resulting perch makes for an awkward seating position and places the Forester's low beltline in the middle of the driver's comfort zone. The apparent lack of lateral protection creates a disconcerting sense of vulnerability that belies the Forester's NHTSA's five-star acclaim– a conundrum best mitigated by adopting a lower personal center of gravity.
If the Forester's height fails to pay psychological dividends, at least it keeps the vehicle's mass low in the chassis. The XS can make short work of everything from rugged trails to the morning commute to undulating twisties– without making its driver feel tipsy. A fully independent suspension, symmetrical all-wheel drive and rear limited-slip differential contribute to the vehicle's class-leading handling. The steering is a skosh light, but acceptably accurate given the rather compromised sixteen-inch Yokohama Geolandars that connect it to the road.
Sadly, goading our green Bean failed to reveal any potential for WRC-style hooliganism. The blame falls squarely upon the XS' drivetrain. Plugging a 165-horse 2.5-liter into an intrinsically pudgy SUV isn't exactly a recipe for rapidity– especially when power routs through a four-speed automatic. The setup can propel the Forester at a reasonable clip, but the drivetrain must work hard (and loud) to achieve anything approaching genuine velocity. This is particularly true on the climb, when laden with kin and kit. The Forester's flat-four has an interesting acoustic signature, but sporting drivers will still wish for a little less conversation and a little more action.
The Forester's most troublesome aspect is its lack of brake feel; the left pedal on this L.L. was as spongy as a certain square-trousered cartoon icon. Around town the situation is a sour footnote. In fast technical sequences, when proper modulation becomes a far more pressing issue, the Forester's brakes ultimately retard much of the goodwill its suspension engenders. In the SUV's defense, simulated straight-line panic stops remain short and true, courtesy standard anti-lock control and electronic brake force distribution.
Fortunately, the Forester XT solves most these gripes with its significantly more powerful turbocharged engine and [available] manual transmission. Pistonheads may also wish to note that Fuji Heavy's upsized-for-'05 Outback XT Wagon boasts even greater grunt and better handing both on AND off the bitumen. In fact, unless you're attracted to whatever driveway cachet the L.L. Bean badge affords, either alternative is a better choice. Maybe that's just Subaru being willfully odd again– perhaps they like being their own toughest competitor.