By on July 7, 2007

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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27 Comments on “Auto-Biography 24: Foresting In The Woods...”


  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    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.

    The marketing trick would be easy. Get at least a better than average traction control system, give it a great name, advertise new high mileage with traditional subaru handling and safety (yes, the old school subu fans will scream bloody murder but they won’t jump ship).

    Now they will be able to sell cars south of the snow belt!

  • avatar
    miked

    “This stokes the confidence level and contributes materially to smooth power-on drifts on gravel.”

    I’m guilty of that in my LGT. Also do the same in snow. Subies are such fun cars.

  • avatar
    miked

    “They have good quality, and should be able to compete with 2WD on their most popular models.”

    I don’t think their quality is that good. My LGT is just average quality. It hasn’t gone to the shop for anything expensive, but the interior rattles and squeaks and overall it’s just an average car. The only thing that really sets them apart is the awesome awd. And with the amount of Subarus I see sold in Colorado, they don’t need to branch out of the snow belt.

  • avatar
    miked

    Oh and one more thing….I don’t think the Subie’s bad gas mileage is due as much to the AWD as it is to the fun-to-drive factor. If I take it easy on the highway (sub 70MPH), I can see over 30 MPG. But when it’s time to have fun, I see just barely above 20 MPG.

    And in my 4runner, the difference in mileage with and without 4WD engaged is about 3 MPG.

  • avatar
    SpacemanSpiff

    Since we’re starting to multiply, when my wife’s diesel Golf was rear-ended & totaled, we took the opportunity to get something larger. I looked at both the Legacy Outback and the Forester. While I liked the Forester, there just wasn’t that much of a price difference between it and the Outback. They both share the same/similar drivetrain but the Legacy based Outback gains a little more room and feels more substantial to me.
    We ended up with the Outback 2.5i, so far we’re averaging 27 mpg (over 30 on highway trips) and couldn’t be happier.
    Although I passed on the Forester this time, when it’s time to replace my A4, I’ll be real tempted by a turbo Forester with manual…
    The Outback makes a better family car or long distance cruiser, but I think the Forester would be a more entertaining daily driver for me…

  • avatar
    wmba

    I have an almost 9 year old Impreza, and it’s been great as well, although 9 Atlantic Canada winters are making the old beast look less than new these days. At least it isn’t styled like a gormless startled frog a la newer Imprezas. It’s averaged the usual 24 mpg (US measure).

    I’d buy another, but refuse to pay the ridiculous prices Subaru Canada charge for the cars. Our dollar is now worth about 95 cents US. So why should a WRX go for $25.5K in the US and $36.5K in Canada? Plus, watching TV ads, they’re flogging off the 2007 Imprezas for $169 a month in Boston, and still Subie sales are down in the US, where I note that TTAC readers consider then overpriced! If you think they’re overpriced in your market, how do you think we feel paying 45% more? Reamed, that’s how.

    If Subaru wanted to sell off the old models that badly, they could send them up here and price them at 30 percent off the usual Canadian price and still make good money compared to US prices. Plus, they’d sell them all by the end of next week!

    Other car companies also whack it to us, but none as badly as Subaru. Can you imagine what the gross margin on a WRX is here compared to that in the US? Are there any collective brains left at Fuji Heavy Industries, or do they just feel fine robbing us?

    According to our national media, about 75,000 vehicles have been purchased in the US this last year by Canadians who can save $10K on a Chevy pickup, fer crissake. And now automakers are threatening US dealerships who cater to us that supply may dry up. It looks as though we are the only place left that supplies the big 3 with any profit at all.

    Hey, that’s it! Canada is keeping the US car industry alive! At least for another 36 hours as the big 3 squander the proceeds immediately.

    Subaru, get out the Sale Price Stickers and give us a deal up here in the Great White North! We deserve it after being ripped off for so long. Maybe the Fusion AWD isn’t such a bad deal after all. It’s only 25% overpriced.

    Grrrr….

    So,

  • avatar
    chanman

    Mind you, WMBA, it really depends where the car is being produced for the exchange rate to matter that much… if they bother accounting for it.

    If they did, the Camry would now be a lot cheaper, being from the states, but the Corollas would be largely unchanged, as most of the Canadian market ‘rollas come from Ontario.

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    Re Landcrusher:
    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.

    I don’t think that’ll happen. Subie’s strategy seems to be going upmarket. Sure, a FWD only (non-turbo) Impreza would be a nice addition to their line up.
    Would it hurt the brand?
    Would it sell at (I’m guessing) ~$16K?

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    I don’t know that 2WD would be any advantage for Subaru. SUV/crossover sales are due, in large part (I think) to AWD/4WD availability. We’re even seeing some standard cars with AWD – even Ford is catching on.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Paul, I’ve bought virtually every type of vehicle for consumers and my corporate clients. Out of all of those brands and manufacturers none has required less repair and maintenance work than the Subarus.

    So far I’ve bought three Foresters and four Legacys during the past six months. Only one of them required any maintenance work, and that one needed a wheel bearing, a small piece of exterior trim (that cost about $50) and an 02 sensor.

    So long as you keep them well maintained, you simply can’t kill them. A couple of years ago there was a survey out that showed the most reliable cars during the early 2000’s time period. Subaru was at the top of the list. Higher than Lexus, Toyota, Honda… all of them.

    I guess my best Subaru story is this…

    Back in 2002, I was working at an auto auction in North Goergia. We always did the in-op vehicles before the lane sale and, since I already did a lot of impound sales in the area (and knew those dealers), that responsibility fell to me.

    I had no problem selling inoperable late 80’s Chrysler minivans and Lebarons that almost were weekly regulars at the inop sale. But somehow… a 1993 Subaru Impreza found it’s way to the inop lane. It was completely stripped of paint and had about 171k miles on the odometer. But the paperwork on the glovebox was nearly a mile long. Whoever had owned it was a true dealer junky. When I offered it for $100… no one bid. Apparently not many folks had a need for a Subaru parts car. Even one with a good history. So after a brief conversation with the dealership that owned it, I bought it for $25.

    The sales tax was $1.25. After I bought a battery for it the next morning, it started right up with not even a whimper of engine noise. All the fluids were new… so new in fact, that they were sparkling in their clearness. However it was impossible to shift the dang thing out of park.

    A friend of mine came over and spent virtually the entire afternoon removing and reassembling the transmission pin that was apparently dislocated from the shifting mechanism. I paid him $80 and a minute later, I was down the road with a car that cost less than $160.

    I drove it for a few weeks, and it never missed a lick. It was boring as hell to drive… but the fuel economy was consistently in the mid-30’s. After the brief bonding experience I put it up on Ebay. 10 days later it sold for $1576 to a rally coordinator for Subaru.

    The fellow ended up flying all the way to Atlanta to pick up the Impreza and driving it all the way back to California. He informed me that the holes for installing the AWD kit were already on the frame and the entire cost of doing so was less than $2000.

    Oh well. I may not have ever enjoyed the visceral thrills of a WRX. But at least I earned a 1000+% return on my initial investment. After that time, I started buying cheap cars with solid ownership histories in earnest and the rest is history.

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    What is the breakdown of costs? Here’s my guess:

    Depreciation: $11,000
    California taxes at purchase: $1700
    Fuel: $7500
    Tax part of CA registration for 8 years: $2000
    Liability-only CA insurance for 8 years: $3000
    Non-tax part of CA registration for 8 years: $400
    Total: $25,600

  • avatar
    OhMyGoat

    Back in 1997, after owning a succession of Hondas (’78 Accord, ’86 Civic Si, ’93 Civic EX), I was excited to receive a mailer from Honda previewing the soon-to-arrive CR-V. There were few details, but I was convinced this would be my next vehicle. When the CR-V finally reached these shores, I was somewhat disappointed to find that the CR-V had no more power than my “old” Civic, had sort of a minivan-like driving position, oddly placed controls and the clincher – no manual gearbox available. I had always driven a stick and my (then) new car had to have one too. I still wanted a small ute-like vehicle, but the CR-V wasn’t going to be it. Didn’t even consider the RAV-4 – too small, too “cute”, minimal power.

    When the somewhat aesthetically-challenged Forester was introduced in ’98, I gave it a look, but not too seriously. Then the more I read, the more I became impressed. It also didn’t hurt that a friend and her parents had owned Subes and they ran forever. It had everything I wanted, decent power, manual tranny in a package that suited my needs.

    I ended up with an Forester L (in white – no green for me) with “extras” that I initially didn’t feel I needed – alloys, fake wood dash trim, power locks w/remote, etc. But it had a stick and I was happy and of course, I came to appreciate the “frills” (except for the fake wood). The OE radio/tape deck and especially the speakers were crap and were replaced immediately. After perusing the Subaru accessory catalog, I found a set of rubber fender moldings which do a nice job of fending off dings to the Forester’s bulgy fenders, and perhaps almost as importantly (IMO), help to balance out it’s slightly gawky proportions.

    Now 117K miles later, I’m still happily driving the Forester. Every now and then I’ll look at something new like the current Forester, but so far have ended up asking myself, why bother? At some point the old Forester will have to be put out to pasture, but in the mean time it continues to serve me well.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    SunnyvaleCA: Here’s the costs breakdown:

    No sales tax (Oregon)
    Depreciation: $10,500
    Financing: (home equity loan) $900
    Insurance: Liability only after five years $3000
    Registration: (Oregon) $189
    Maintenance: Oil, filters, wipers, tires,etc.: $964
    Repairs (rear wheel bearing) $190
    Fuel: $7859

    TOTAL: $23,603

  • avatar
    kazoomaloo

    I was a happy Subaru owner for about 8 months, got a 94 Impreza AWD when my dad bought a new car. 165,000 miles on it and she ran like a dream (a little rattle from the oil pan, but whatever). Then some drunk dude in a Cadillac caused a 4-car accident in Minneapolis – I was car #3. The old girl was totaled, but still I drove it home 90 miles with the headlight dangling out, lighting up the coutryside. Now, I wait anxiously for one of our cars to break down so I can go buy another one, maybe the Legacy GT or a Legacy Outback. I love Subaru with all my heart, reliable as anything and perfect for MN weather.

    Also, a FWD Subaru might sell, but it would be absolutely AWFUL for the brand, like when Jeep came out with the abominable Compass (retch). Subaru’s brand is built on AWD and all-weather capability, and green credentials are maintained by their Indiana manufacturing facility and partial zero-emissions vehicles. Please God, don’t let Subaru make the same mistake Jeep did in offering a FWD car, I think that did more damage to Jeep than people realize.

  • avatar
    whitenose

    FWIW, I don’t think the Legacy-based models (Legacy, Outback (Tribeca?)) are as well built as the Impreza-based models (Impreza, Outback Sport, Forester). I currently have a great 2001 Outback Sport wagon. I need a bigger car and test drove a new base Outback (Legacy) wagon a few days ago. It sucked. The steering feel wasn’t right and it was sluggish. (Forester drove fine, but looks too much like an SUV.)

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    When I was talking about quality, I meant reliability, point taken.

    3 MPG in that truck is HUGE increase. And you didn’t change anything else about the vehicle at all.

    I haven’t looked at the numbers, but picking up a bigger share of accord/camry money, or Corolla/Civic money is going to likely be a lot more than the TOTAL increase in awd sales across all manufacturers.

    It won’t hurt their brand so long as the keep the premium entries as AWD only.

  • avatar
    lewissalem

    I’m currently trying to convince my wife that this is the car for her. They’ve got an ’07 down on the lot, blue with a tan interior. I think it’s great, however, she wants to look at the CR-V. She is concerned about her “image”. I try to tell her that she won’t have to worry about her image being that of a fast driver, due to the CR-V’s 10 second 0-60 time.

    Does anybody else have any suggestions how I can talk my wonderful (but sadly, a badge snob) wife into the Forester?

    I was hoping that the CR-V’s rear impact ratings were as poor as the RAV4’s but to no avail. Now all I’ve got is that the CR-V is slow…

  • avatar
    Gottleib

    lewissalem….from my experience you need to get the CR-V, unless you want to move into the spare bedroom. I share your pain, I lost this argument too many times and had to go for the more stylish choice more times than I want to recall, but I have been married for 34 years and have had my car of choice for my personal use during that time.

  • avatar
    bw

    Paul,

    Hate to nitpick, but I think you got aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons mixed up. I would hope that your car has never had aromatic hydrocarbons in it. A quick google search should explain why.

    Other than that, another good article.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    bw: You’re right, I just remembered the difference. But they’re all smelly.

  • avatar
    Cavendel

    lewissalem: Kind of funny isn’t it? I would consider the Forester to be a bit more upmarket than the CR-V. Tough to change the mind of a wife though.

    My wife is making me get rid of my old Forester for a slightly younger Volvo. I was hoping to eke out some more gas mileage, but I think the V70 is just as bad. Forester has much nicer steering feel and the four wheel drive is nice for pulling the boat out of the water. Neither has a really cool image. I’ll stick to my Acura, which is older than either of the other two.

  • avatar
    lewissalem

    Gottleib,

    Thanks for the tip. All she has to do is say “look in the garage” (I bought a nice new car last year) and the argument is over. But I wont get into semantics. Sadly, it will be me who’s driving in the NC mountains with the measly 166 HP. But your right though. I know.

  • avatar

    The Forester is the plaid flannel shirt of the world of cars. Very functional, and ugly. I love the big windows and the clear view in all directions. Driving Foresters does not float my boat (I’ve driven several different models). I suspect a lot of people wouild shop it against the Element. The Element is no uglier than the Forester (although ugly in a different way) and I think it’s much more fun to drive. But that’s subjective.

    Anyway, another great story. Thanks!

  • avatar

    My girlfriend got rid of her ’97 Impreza several months ago, with 265k on the odo. It had been very reliable until very recently, and then about 4 different things went wrong. To be sure, most of her driving had been very easy on the car–probably 75-80% rural roads, 35-50mph.

    She got an ’04 Forester.

  • avatar

    My wife’s car is a Impreza with 203,000 miles on it. All Subys are essentially the same car under the sheet metal. This little car has been exemplary, proving unstoppable in all weather conditions and raises a middle finger towards repair shops. I just replaced the a/c compressor on it not because the unit went bad, but because the clutch got noisy and a junkyard compressor was so cheap it was nearly free (apparently, there is no demand for them).

    As the paint on the rarely-waxed roof begins to fail, I suppose I shall need to replace it soon. It is nearly impossible to consider any other brand after such a good experience. It does what we need it to do, though I may opt for the Legacy this time around as a little more room would be nice. And as my company Ranger pickup is about ready for that lease auction run to it’s next life, the lease company informs me that the new replacement 4×4 I am able to get is a Forester. I could not be happier at the prospect.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    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.

  • avatar
    Wheatridger

    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.

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