Pros: Standard all-wheel drive; well equipped even at base trim level; IIHS Top Safety Pick; panoramic moonroof

Cons: So-so fuel economy; no high-end audio or communications system; some rattling in the dash and doors; limited interior color choices

The 2012 Subaru Forester is perfect for those looking to move out of a small car and into something with a bit more room and capability. With the Forester, you get an exterior design that is attractive but not revolutionary and a simple, straightforward instrument panel that is a welcome respite from more advanced designs that can sometimes feel too technical.

But, the Forester's most valuable assets are its permanently engaged Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive and up to 8.9 inches of ground clearance. Most CUVs use a part-time system that only engages when the rear wheels slip, but the Forester's system is always on the job. Standard on every model, the Forester's AWD system doesn't increase the vehicle's price by much, making it competitive with similarly equipped front-wheel-drive CUVs.

The Forester is also rated highly by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), performing well in all of its crash tests. And, although newer CUVs like the Honda CR-V and the Kia Sportage get better gas mileage, the Forester's fuel economy still falls in the respectable range. If fuel economy and price are not your top concerns, the turbocharged XT trim offers more power and fun without a great decrease in fuel economy.

Comfort & Utility

The Forester comes in 2.5X, 2.5X Premium, Limited and Touring models, as well as turbo Premium and Touring. In any form, it's big on room, overall comfort and flexibility. Standard features include power windows, locks and mirrors, cruise control and air conditioning. All but the base 2.5X have Bluetooth as standard. Desirable winter options, such as heated leather seats, heated mirrors and windshield wiper de-icers, are also available. The Forester's driver's seat has an adjustable lumbar feature (power operated on all but the base 2.5X) for added back support on long trips. The Forester's passenger's seat is height adjustable, a welcome feature at this price. Rear passengers enjoy ample room and can recline their seatbacks.

The Forester's cargo area is large enough for a big dog or a couple of backpacks. With the rear seats folded, the Forester offers a large, level floor and a tall roof ideal for carrying items too big to fit in a conventional trunk. If you run out of room inside, there's an available roof-rack-mounted cargo carrier that can nearly double the Forester's capacity.

Most versions of the Forester have steering-wheel-mounted controls for cruise, audio and Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, along with auxiliary audio input jacks and the option for upgraded speakers and a powered subwoofer.

Visibility is excellent all around, although the front seats are a bit low and may leave some occupants feeling as if they are sitting in a bathtub. We also like the accessibility of the Forester's audio and temperature controls. However, we did find some of the steering wheel's control buttons small and difficult to decipher at night.

Perhaps the Forester's greatest feature is the available panoramic glass moonroof that extends the length of both front and rear seats. When open, it provides an immense view of the outside world, perfect for a warm summer day's drive or camping out under the stars.

A major weakness of the 2012 Forester lineup is the inability to choose interior color; Subaru automatically assigns it based on the vehicle's exterior color.

Technology

The Forester's simple controls and lack of overly technical features are two of its more appealing qualities. The few options worth noting include Bluetooth, a navigation radio, a rear-vision camera, HD and satellite radio capability and a speaker upgrade kit. The navigation radio on the Limited and Touring is a 6.1-inch touchscreen design, while the Premium model offers a TomTom navigation radio with a removable nav unit. Also available is a seven-speaker radio with a USB port, HD radio and streaming audio. Touring models include dual-zone automatic climate control, HID headlamps and electroluminescent gauges.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 2.5-liter boxer engine (so named because its pistons lie on their side) serves up 170 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. For the Forester, this is plenty of power, even with the added weight of the AWD system. The weak link in the Forester's drivetrain is its antiquated four-speed automatic transmission. It works just fine but doesn't deliver the good fuel economy of a more modern five-speed or continuously variable transmission (CVT), as found in the Outback. Because of this, the Forester earns somewhat weak EPA fuel economy ratings of 21 mpg city/27 mpg highway; the figures are the same for the model with five-speed manual.

One step up is the turbocharged version of the same 2.5-liter engine. Offered only on the XT trim and only with the automatic transmission, this engine develops 224 hp and 226 lb-ft of torque. Although acceleration is better than the non-turbocharged engine, don't expect WRX-like performance, as this turbo engine doesn't have the same high pressure boost or sporting intention. Fuel economy isn't far from the base engine, however, rated at 19/24 mpg.

Safety

The 2012 Subaru Forester features six airbags, including front side impact and side curtain airbags as standard equipment. Also standard are Subaru's AWD and electronic traction and stability control. Manual-transmission Foresters feature Incline Start Assist, which keeps the vehicle from rolling backward when starting out on an incline.

Driving Impressions

Thanks to its Impreza roots and its double-wishbone rear suspension, the Forester is a very maneuverable CUV. The soft suspension makes for a comfortable ride, but it does get a little bouncy over rough terrain. The steering is nicely weighted without too much assist. Despite more than eight inches of ground clearance, the Forester maintains its composure even in the sharpest of turns. Thank the low center of gravity provided by the boxer engine and the big 17-inch wheel and tire combination (Premium trim and higher) for the Forester's stability. The 2.5-liter engine delivers spirited driving performance, never lagging in power but not bowling anyone over with its acceleration time, either. The turbo is a better choice for those who crave V6-like power, but it's not a high-performance engine, and its power comes on gradually rather than in a rush.

The four-speed automatic is a real buzz kill, offering neither great performance nor great fuel economy. Oddly, the five-speed manual isn't offered with the one model in which it would most be appreciated: the turbocharged XT. Then again, given the manual's long throws and rubbery feel, it's probably best left to the base model.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda CR-V - The CR-V is all new this year, with more modern styling than the Forester and a slightly more upscale interior. AWD is optional on the CR-V, but the system isn't active full time. The CR-V also goes farther on a gallon of gas.

Kia Sportage - Like the CR-V, the Sportage does not offer full-time AWD, but its styling is decidedly sportier than the Forester, and it offers more features for less money and a better warranty.

Chevrolet Equinox - The Equinox has more rear-seat legroom than the Forester and offers the option of a V6 engine. However, the Equinox feels a bit heavy on the road, it costs more and visibility from the driver's seat is not as good.

AutoTrader Recommends

The 2.5X Premium offers the most Forester for the money. For around $24,000, you get lots of cool standard features, including a 10-way power driver's seat with power lumbar support, a huge panoramic glass moonroof, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel and Bluetooth. For a few hundred dollars more, you can add the All Weather Package (heated seats, mirrors and wiper de-icer) and a TomTom navigation radio.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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