Subarus are supposed to be the Birkenstock sandal of the automotive world; simple, robust cars with a certain sense of style that doesn't care about current fads. Alternatively, you could say a Subie used to be what a VW used to be (before Ferdinand Piech started messing with the brand) plus a boxer engine (once a key VW characteristic) and standard all-wheel-drive. In recent years, Subaru's image has become less and less clear. The automaker's desire to escape the granola ghetto first gave us the Tribeca, and then the new Impreza. And now we have a new Forester; an answer the question that in the past didn't have to be asked: what is a Subaru?
Subaru has made some major styling missteps in recent years. Thankfully, the new Forester doesn't continue that misguided trajectory. There's no funky grille, no bulbous malformations; just a pleasant. nicely-proportioned wagonish shape… that could have come from Hyundai or Mitsubishi or Toyota. Does the new Forester look just like the Hyundai Santa Fe or the Mitsubishi Outlander? Yes it does.
Just so it's clear that the Forester isn't a wagon… some Baja 1000 racers get by with less clearance between the tires and the wheel openings. Modders can fit double-dubs, a lowered suspension or both– and still have room inside the arches for a plasma TV screen.
Subaru's interior is equipped with a lethal combo of upmarket aspirations and cheap materials. There's lots of hard silver plastic– most notably a wide band that forms a wave across the instrument panel. [Note to carmakers: no one wants to grab cheap-feeling plastic every time they shut the door.] Sadly, the soft-touch dimpled polymer that impressed back in 2003 didn't survive the redesign. The old Forester's interior wasn't as suavely styled, but it looked more genuine and felt more solid.
Subarus have traditionally been more dimensionally challenged than the competition, especially in the back seat. For the first time ever, you'll find plenty of legroom inside a Subaru. What's more, the rear seat reclines. More importantly, the Forester offers useful storage cubbies, bins and indents everywhere you look, and many places you don't. Another positive change: you get a decent sliding center armrest as standard equipment, rather than as a dealer-installed accessory. Way hey!
Some of the Forester's key characteristics haven't changed: the Forester still has a boxer four and all-wheel-drive. But the fancy new wrapper makes promises the naturally aspirated powerplant just can't deliver sans turbo. (There is a turbo on offer, just not in the L.L. Bean variant tested.)
The Forester's Curb weight is up about a hundred pounds (to 3400lbs), the engine's output is down by a few horses (three bhp), and Subaru apparently feels that a fifth gear is still too special for its junior models. Bottom line: no matter how much you rev this engine, there are no thrills to be had. The Forester's engine sounds sounds so gruff you won't want to rev it. But you'll have to rev it, just to get the Forester up to speed. Good thing there's a manual shift gate; the automatic prefers to lug the boxer when left to its own devices.
Not that you want to be making many knots when you turn the wheel. Aside from the over-light steering, the Forester's chassis feels perfectly composed in relaxed motoring. But hit a turn with any semblance of speed and massive understeer meets insufficient grip on the wrong side of the yellow line. No doubt the Yokohama Geolanders (yep, them again) are good at something. But that something isn't hanging on to dry pavement. Stability control is standard for those who think understeer is an invitation to push harder.
On the flip side, the ride is smoother and quieter than in the old Forester. Think Toyota.
Problem is, even with Subaru and Number One now joined at the hip, does the world really need another Toyota? Subaru used to be about getting a Japanese car that was unlike other Japanese cars. In every way that really matters, the new Forester is just another compact crossover. The body is nice to look at. But so are those of the Santa Fe and Outlander it so closely resembles.
Subaru's predictable response: Hyundai and Mitsubishi don't have the automaker's patented symmetrical all-wheel-drive. Granted: Subaru's trademark drivetrain system is desirable- when combined with a lusty turbocharged engine, taut suspension and sticky rubber. In the 170-horse Geolandered Forester it makes not the slightest difference.
The previous Forester was unlike anything else in the segment. The new one is just like everything else in the segment, for both good and bad. This is good for Forester buyers, and bad for Subaru. Go figure.