Ready for snow, dirt roads, and pavement.

by Mitch McCullough, Editor-in-chief

Base Price (MSRP) $20,295
As Tested (MSRP) $25,445

Subaru's Forester is not a sport-utility vehicle in the traditional sense, though it provides cargo utility and off-highway capability. It drives more like a car than a truck. That means it offers superior handling to trucks in all but the roughest terrain. There's nothing to fear from snow, mud, dirt, gravel or wet pavement with Subaru's well-designed suspension and excellent all-wheel-drive system. Yet crisp throttle response and competent handling make the Forester fun to drive on dry pavement.

Model Lineup

There are two all-wheel-drive models, the Forester L and sporty Forester S. Both use the efficient 2.5-liter sohc 4-cylinder boxer engine producing a healthy 165 horsepower, and come with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

Forester L ($20,295) comes with a high level of standard equipment, including ABS, air conditioning, power windows, power locks, cruise control, digital temp gauge, multi-reflector halogen headlights, fog lights, roof rack, rear window defogger, trailer harness connector, reclining front bucket seats with adjustable lumbar support, tilt steering, tinted glass, AM/FM/cassette stereo with its antenna laminated in the left-rear quarter window, and last but not least, 24-hour roadside assistance. Three-point seatbelts are provided for all five seating positions, including force limiters in front and height-adjustable shoulder belt anchors for front and rear outboard positions, plus rear seat headrests for all three seating positions.

Forester S ($22,895) adds a viscous limited-slip differential, rear disc brakes, 16x6.5-inch alloy wheels with 215/60R16 tires (the L uses 15 x 6-inch steel wheels), upgraded moquette upholstery, heated front seats with net storage pockets in back, dual vanity mirrors, heated sideview mirrors and keyless entry. New equipment for 2001 includes Titanium pearl paint for the bumpers and cladding; 6-disc in-dash CD sound system; leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and handbrake handle; variable intermittent wipers with de-icers and driver's side fin; and the five-spoke alloy wheels. Our test model was equipped with the optional Premium Package on the Forester S, including monotone paint (Sedona Red Pearl), power moonroof, front side-impact airbags, and gold accent wheels. Other options were the automatic transmission, $42 chrome tailpipe cover and $183 auto dimming rearview mirror with compass, bringing the sticker price to $25,412 including $525 delivery.

Walkaround

Forester remains utilitarian in appearance. Because it isn't as tall as a sport-utility (it's 2.5 inches lower than a Toyota RAV4), it's easier to load a kayak, skis, sailboard, duffels or other gear onto the roof.

Styling revisions last year freshened the appearance of the Forester. For 2002, there were no changes except for the addition of daytime running lights and a new Graystone Metallic color.

The moonroof that comes with the Premium Package is huge. It measures 31.5 inches long by 33.5 inches wide, extending past the back of the front seats. To keep all that heat from the sunlight out, it's tinted green and coated with a UV protectant.

The body was reinforced substantially for 1999 to improve side-impact protection, and along with the S's front-seat side-impact airbags, the security level is high.

Interior Features

Seating height in the Forester is comparable to that of a sedan. It doesn't offer that master-of-the-universe driving position that many sport-utility buyers prefer, yet it doesn't leave the driver with the sunken feeling offered by the Subaru Legacy wagon. Visibility is excellent, a benefit of a low hood and large windshield.

The driver's seat is comfortable despite being a bit hard, with good lateral support, and offers a myriad of adjustments. Controls are easy to operate, instruments are straightforward and easy to read, and interior trim is relatively soft and warm, though it lacks the design elegance and refinement of the Honda CR-V. Radio controls are on the small side.

There's plenty of headroom front and rear with comfortable seating for four. With the split folding rear seats, the Forester offers 64.6 cubic feet of cargo space, slightly less than both the RAV4 and CR-V. It's easy to load cargo into the back; the rear gate lifts out of the way and a rubber cargo mat protects the interior. Heated front seats, heated outside mirrors and windshield wiper de-icers make the Forester feel at home in the snow and ice.

Leather touches on the Forester S are nice, and the six-disc in-dash CD changer is a great addition. But what matters are the front-seat side-impact airbags (S only), and the improvements in the seatbelts, plus rear seat headrests.

Driving Impressions

Forester is fun to drive, a phrase that doesn't apply to trucks in quite the same way. The touch is extremely light. There's good low-rpm torque available for passing. With horizontally opposed pistons, Subaru's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is much shorter than a traditional inline-4. That left more room for people and cargo. It also allowed Subaru's engineers to mount the engine farther forward in the car and use equal-length driveshafts aligned directly with the front wheels, which eliminates torque steer and reduces driveline friction. It also permitted a low hood design for excellent visibility out front and a low center of gravity for improved handling balance in corners.

The 4-speed automatic is responsive and a good match for the engine. The 5-speed manual makes it more fun to drive and provides more precise control. It offers smooth shifting and easy engagement into reverse. It shifts like a compact sedan and the clutch is light and easy to use. The pedal arrangement allows the Forester to be driven like a sports sedan and this makes it more enjoyable on mountain roads and dirt trails.

On the road, the Forester drives like a car. In dry and in slippery conditions, the Forester offers substantially better braking and cornering performance than a truck, making it easier to handle on winding roads or in emergency situations during the stop-and-go of the daily commute. It also holds its own against most sedans. It provides superb traction and balance on slippery pavement. This is among the best cars on the road in a real downpour as we learned on some rural roads in Maryland.

Winding gravel roads are the perfect environment for the Forester as we discovered while driving one along the western slopes of Washington's Cascade Mountains. The all-wheel-drive system offers predictable handling when sliding around corners yet the suspension offers sufficient damping to soften bumps. Hitting big bumps in the middle of a turn won't upset the handling.

Because the S weighs 30 pounds more than the L, much of that in the power moonroof raising the center of gravity, the shocks and springs in the S are re-tuned; plus, the wider wheels and tires give it a slightly wider track.

Subaru makes one of the best all-wheel-drive systems in the world, rivaled only by Porsche and Audi. The Forester offers sure-footed traction in slippery conditions in ways that traditional truck-based sport-utilities can never hope to do. Subaru designed the Forester using technology gained by racing rally cars over treacherous roads in Africa, Asia and Europe. Subaru learned to cope with adverse conditions, winning the highly competitive World Rally Championship three years in a row. This shows in its production cars.

The beauty of Subaru's system is that it works full time and operates seamlessly, redirecting power to whichever tire offers the best grip. About the size of a grapefruit, the transfer system adds little weight. Designed for blasting through snow and mud, the system does not have a low-range set of gears, so it is not suitable for creeping up steep rocky faces. The Jeep Wrangler is much better suited for rock climbing. The Forester, however, is quite capable of carrying a trout fisherman to a remote stream and it's perfect for heading to the ski slopes.

Its long, soft springs and stiff shocks allow lots of controlled wheel travel, so bumpy corners don't upset the handling balance. Its generous ground clearance allows it to tread places a sedan cannot go. Its light weight allows it to brake, accelerate and corner more quickly than a big, heavy truck.

Final Word

Subaru Forester offers excellent dirt road and winter weather performance. On dry paved roads, it offers performance and handling comparable to a sporty compact. Its off-road capability approaches that of a sport-utility vehicle, yet it provides more driver confidence on tricky mountain roads with superior braking and handling performance.

There were no changes for 2002, but prices haven't increased for two years.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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