Auto-Biography 24: Foresting In The Woods

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
auto biography 24 foresting in the woods

Instead of holding down a “real” job and paying other professionals to maintain my lifestyle, I stay at home and do it all myself: rebuild old houses, deliver the children, grow our organic berries and fix the cars. One day, back in ’99, this shade-tree mechanic finally grew tired of wrestling with the Gordian knot of hoses and wires nestling underneath our fifteen-year-old Cherokee. When the Jeep’s headliner let go and draped me in rancid mouse fur, I’d had enough.

That Saturday, I opened the paper and saw an ad for a new Subaru Forester– “one at this price”– for $17,999. An hour later I was driving it back home.

I only wish the “advertised special” hadn’t been forest green; turns out Oregonians have designated Subaru Foresters of this hue the state’s official car. Not long after purchase, I found myself parking between two other identical machines. The three of them spooning looked positively incestuous. It took considerable resolve not to drive it straight to Earl Scheib to have it painted bright yellow.

Otherwise, the Subie’s been a highly satisfying all-weather, all-purpose friend. How many cars at this price can deliver genuine driving pleasure in so many different circumstances? Snow, dirt trails, high speed blasts, winding forest roads– its willingness to take on anything, anywhere, like an eager-to-please puppy, is downright heartening.

And just like hyper-active puppies, Subies have hearty appetites (24 mpg average). Unless you’re trading down from a Navigator, Subaru’s carefully-cultured “green credentials” are empty posturing. Maybe that’s why Subaru sales are off this year, and Prius’ are way up.

But other than its regular swill of aromatic hydrocarbons, our Forester is as undemanding as a hermit walled up in a Himalayan cave. Our Amana refrigerator has needed more parts.

When our faithful beast of burden hit 100k miles after seven years, it was time to tally up just exactly how much (little) it’s cost us so far: $23,603, or 23.6 cents per mile. I DO like driving for less than half price (Edmunds projects 50 cents per mile).

The only times the Forester saw the dealer was for a warranty-covered rear wheel bearing and an oxygen sensor recall. Except for another wheel bearing ($190 at a shop), my ministrations were strictly limited to routine driveway maintenance.

My deep DIY streak has drafted the Forester into duties not typical for its cute-ute genre. When my ’66 Ford pickup conked out at the dump, did I call a tow truck? Not. The Forester towed me home with the tow rope I always keep stowed in the truck. The AAA has never seen a cent from me.

And until I fixed the truck (a broken cam gear), the Forester became my ersatz pickup, hooked up to the six-by-ten-foot utility trailer.

The Forester has been a reliable hit for Subaru as well as the Niedermeyers. When it was introduced in 1997, its dynamic qualities really stood out against the weak-chested first generation RAV4 (120hp) and CR-V (126hp). With 165hp from its lusty boxer four, a well sorted rally-proven chassis, and Subaru’s faultless AWD system, it literally ran rings around its competitors. The Turbo models that came later are genuine Q-ships that hold their own against much pricier competition (I’m looking at you Turbo Cayenne).

In California, my automotive “fix” was pushing the sonic barrier on remoter sections of freeways or high-desert roads with the 300E. In Oregon, my fix is WRX-style (sideways) gravel road thrills. The hills and mountains here are riddled with thousands of miles of US Forest Service roads (your tax dollars at work). It’s not a sport for the faint-hearted; if you leave the road (unintended), it might be months before someone finds your remains moldering at the bottom of a ravine.

Subaru’s AWD system is perfectly transparent and effective, without any of that annoying electronic traction control “stuttering”. This stokes the confidence level and contributes materially to smooth power-on drifts on gravel.

A typical Sunday outing involves a stretch of winding highway along a whitewater river, and then steep and/or tightly winding gravel roads to a favorite hiking spot. A ten-mile hike through some (hopefully) remaining old-growth trees results in endless vistas from a craggy peak, as well as a substantially slower drive home.

The Forester is equally happy doing the I-5 shuttle to California. My quickest round trip? I left Eugene at 6am to pick up my son in Sacramento (exactly 1000 miles roundtrip) and was back in time for a 7pm minor-league baseball game.

Not aggressively sporty, but perpetually competent and composed, the Forester always keeps its cool no matter what the driver (or road surface) throws at it. Looking after the Subaru has done wonders for my own composure. Swear words emanating from the garage are down by some ninety percent.

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  • Martin Albright Martin Albright on Jul 11, 2007
    With modern traction control and fuel prices, Subaru would be smart to rethink the all AWD strategy. They have good quality, and should be able to compete with 2WD on their most popular models. I think they could sell a lot of them. Subaru has only been AWD - only in the US for 10 years (1997.) However, around here (CO) FWD cars newer than about 1994 are rare. Subaru tried to compete with Toyondissan back in the 80's and early 90's and it just didn't work. They have painstakingly built up their reputation as the "poor man's Volvo" or the "thinking man's Toyota" for too long to throw it away now. Go to any college campus in any snowy part of the country and you'll see what I mean: The faculty parking lots that used to be filled with Volvo 240s and Saab 900s are now filled with Outbacks and Foresters.
  • Wheatridger Wheatridger on Jul 12, 2007

    For almost as long as I've been driving, I've looekd for the Swiss Army Car-- a handy, versatile driving tool that does many diverse jobs well. First, that was the VW GTI; then the SAAB 9000. Both those cars were fast enough for fun, big enough to be useful, and rugged enough to take down a forest road (in the careless age before you felt you needed an SUV to leave the pavement). Today, that search leads me to the Forester. It's done every job I've asked of it, even towing a one-ton travel trailer over Rocky Mountain passes. On a 1-10 scale, the Forester scores solid sevens and eights in every category you might name. If only it had the tactile refinement of my VW TDI. And the fuel economy... while VW prepares its small SUV for the US market, Subaru's testing a turbodiesel powerplant. All I'm sure of is that my next car purchase will be one or the other.

  • Bullnuke It may be awhile before these show up on US shores. The MV Fremantle Highway has just started demo/reconstruction in Rotterdam after the large fire when transporting its last shipment of electric Porsche products.
  • Fie on Fiasler Big, fast and thirsty does not equal good. True luxury is not cobbled together by the UAW.
  • Inside Looking Out I see it as gladiator races - only one survives in virtual world.
  • Crown They need to put the EcoDiesel back in the Grand Cherokee. I have a 2018 and it has been the most reliable vehicle I ever owned. 69,000 miles and only needed tires, and regular oil and fuel filter changes.
  • El scotto Y'all are overthinking this. Find some young hard-charging DA seeking the TV limelight to lock this kid up. Heck, have John Boehner come up from Cincy to help the young DA get his political career going. Better yet, have the young DA spin this as hard as he or she can; I'm the candidate for Law and Order, I defied our go-easy office and leadership to get this identified criminal locked up. Oh this could be spun more than a hyper active kid's top.Now I'd do some consulting work for Little Kings Original Cream Ale and Skyline Chili.