Back in the day, Subaru couldn’t afford to build a new vehicle to compete in the smoking hot SUV sector. So they took an Impreza, jacked it up a couple of inches, raised the roof and reskinned the body. The result was a hit, and helped define the modern small CUV. Ten years later, the Subaru Forester battles on, facing its third gen competitors (Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4) with nothing more than a few questionable sheet metal creases, a spiffed up interior, and the addition of the turbocharged XT model. The CUV pool’s getting more crowded by the day, and, compared to the Subie’s well-worn REI fleece, the competition looks like its wearing designer duds. We checked out an XT to answer a simple question: is it a classic or a relic?
The basic package hasn’t changed, nor should it. The Popemobile proportions (tall windshield and high roof) are a motorized mitzvah for tall drivers. While the result flies in the face of history– when Chrysler President K. T. Keller insisted that tall men should be able to wear fedoras in his cars, he almost killed the company—the resulting visibility is virtually unparalleled. Swoopy cars, low angle windshields and obese pillars be damned; Forester owners want to see w
ho they’re cutting off where they’re parking.
The Forester’s boxy exterior has suffered a reverse face lift (a face drop?): folds and lines have replaced youthful smoothness. Or is it just aging naturally? Something short, ugly and Russian comes to mind; either a Lada Niva or an old babushka. Who cares; the Forester was born ugly, but it remains true to its mother’s wise admonition: “It’s what’s inside that counts.”
And mother’s advice has been well heeded. Compared to lesser Foresters of yore, stepping into the ’07 XT is like visiting your favorite old diner after it’s been turned into the Trattoria de Toscano. Subaru’s replaced the old fabric booth with heated leather seats that wouldn’t be out of place in a German motor. The steering wheel is like putting on expensive leather gloves. The instruments are clean and classic; no trendy gimmicks. The aluminesque center panel is a la mode, but the controls are logical and obvious. Workmanship: a solid B+. A good thing too, because with that lovely big sky-light overhead, flaws have no place to hide.
Unfortunately, there’s one less-then-salubrious carryover: rear leg room. The Forester’s second row is as ergonomically challenged as the third row of a transplant CUV. My teenage son’s solution: stretch his feet out between the front seats. How safe (and smelly) is that?
The Forrester XT’s inner beauty really shines in the engine compartment. The 2.5 liter flat four cranks out 224 horsepower and 226 ft/lbs of torque, and with its inherent nigh-perfect balance, it always stays cool and smooth. It lets you know it’s there with that turbo-whistle, but it’s never objectionable, unless Lexus is your benchmark.
Like most turbos, it’s a little coy at low revs, but once past 3000rpm the sex bomb explodes all the way to its 6500rpm redline. With AWD keeping the XT’s footwear firmly in contact with the pavement, redlining first gear is like high school hot-rod antics for grown-ups: all the fun, but none of the attention-grabbing tell-tale of burning rubber. Second gear takes you to 60mph in just 5.3 seconds. Keep rowing and the quarter mile arrives in 13.8. There’s more bang on offer than you’ll find at a percussionist’s convention.
The XT’s traction, ride and handling are up to the accelerative challenge. The all-season 17” rubber sing their surrender to lateral g-forces too early, but that’s a fair trade-off for getting to the ski lodge. With its low center of gravity (a la boxer engine), SUV vertigo is noticeable by its absence. Whether throwing the machine sideways on blind-corner gravel logging roads, bumping down a rocky path to a hiking trail, making high speed runs on deserted desert roads or barreling through snow, ice, wind and rain; the XT is always supple, accomplished and confident.
When cruising the freeway, the XT’s low gearing is a lot less helpful. I kept reaching out to the shifter in hopes that it had miraculously grown a sixth gear. At 75mph or so, an extra cog would put the revs right at the intersection of turbo-plateau and turbo-boost, in that preferred state of restful alertness rather than futile restlessness. Sigh.
After the styling miscalculation with the B9 Tribeca, trepidation as to what Subaru will throw our way with the next gen Forester is warranted. They seem to be chasing an Audi/Volvoesque styling direction, with highly uneven results. The current Forester may well end up being the last in a long lineage of Subaru funky boxes. Buy or wait? My take: better the devil you know.