Off-highway capability with sports-sedan performance.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $19,190
As Tested $23,790
The Subaru Forester isn't a sport-utility vehicle in the traditional sense. There's more car in the Forester than truck-a good thing because cars handle all but the roughest situations much better than trucks. Add Subaru's well-designed suspension and excellent all-wheel-drive system and there's nothing to fear from snow, mud, dirt, gravel or wet pavement.
The Forester was designed using technology gained by racing rally cars over the most treacherous roads in the world, in Africa, Asia and Europe. Subaru has learned to cope with adverse conditions, winning the highly competitive World Rally Championship three years in a row. And it shows in its production cars.
The Forester inspires confidence in slippery conditions in ways that traditional truck-based sport-utility vehicles can never hope to do. Subaru's all-wheel-drive system constantly redirects power to whichever tires offer the best grip, providing precise control in all types of conditions. Its long, soft springs and stiff shocks allow lots of controlled wheel travel, so bumpy corners don't upset the handling balance. And Forester's generous 7.5-inch ground clearance allows it to tread places a sedan cannot go.
On the road, which is where most of us spend most of our time, the Forester drives like a car. It 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. In fact, the Forester holds up well against a sedan. It's fun to drive, a phrase that doesn't apply to trucks in quite the same way. Forester is similar in size to the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, but offers superior performance and handling.
Launched as a totally new vehicle in 1998, the Forester is based on the Impreza platform. The Impreza boasts a rigid chassis and provides the foundation for Subaru's rally cars.
All Foresters are powered by Subaru's biggest engine, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer that produces 165 horsepower. As Subaru points out, torque is the force that gets the car rolling and provides acceleration. Horsepower merely helps the vehicle sustain its speed. Torque has increased for 1999 to 166 pound-feet at 4000 rpm. While horsepower figures help sell cars, Subaru says it prefers to engineer its cars to perform well in real-world conditions. In those conditions, the Forester accelerates quicker than the Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V.
With horizontally opposed pistons, Subaru's 2.5-liter four-cylinder is much shorter than a traditional in-line four engine. That leaves more room for people and cargo. This design allowed Subaru's engineers to mount the engine farther forward in the car and use equal-length driveshafts that are aligned directly with the front wheels, which eliminates torque steer and reduces driveline friction. The boxer engine is also not nearly as tall, which permits a low hood line for excellent visibility out front and a low center of gravity for improved handling balance in corners.
All Subarus sold today are equipped with all-wheel drive. It happens to be one of the best systems in the world, rivaled only by Porsche and Audi all-wheel-drive systems. 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 takes up little space and adds little weight. Designed for blasting through snow and mud, the system does not have a low-range set of gears, so it isn't suitable for creeping up steep rocky faces. The RAV4 or the Jeep Wrangler are 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.
Because it isn't nearly as tall as a sport-utility vehicle, it's much easier to load a kayak, a set of skis and other car-top gear onto the roof of the Forester.
For 1999, the Forester has a thicker roof panel, roof stiffeners, front and rear center pillar reinforcements and reinforced side sills and rails-all designed to increase side-impact protection. The seats and seat belts have been modified for improved safety and the airbag system has been revised.
Forester is available with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The automatic has been extensively modified for 1999; friction has been reduced and it works more closely with the engine management system for improved efficiency. It's a good system. A new five-speed manual gearbox offers smoother shifting and easier engagement into reverse. It shifts like a compact sedan and the clutch is light and easy to use.
Three trim levels are available: Forester, L and S. All three are mechanically identical and the base Forester comes with a high level of standard equipment, including air conditioning, power windows, fog lights, roof rack, rear window defogger, trailer harness connector, reclining front bucket seats with adjustable lumbar support, tilt steering, and an AM/FM/cassette stereo. The L model adds anti-lock brakes (ABS), power locks and a cargo tray.
We opted for Forester S, which adds rear disc brakes, a chrome grille, big power mirrors, deluxe cloth interior, cruise control and vanity mirrors. The S model's wider, lower profile 215/60HR16 tires on alloy wheels provide better cornering performance on wet and dry pavement than the 205/70SR15 tires on steel wheels that come on the other two models.
The Inside Story
One of the first things we noticed about the Forester is that the seating height is comparable to that of a sedan. It doesn't offer that master-of-the-universe driving position that many sport-utility buyers prefer. We don't see this as a negative. Being closer to the ground means a lower center of gravity for better handling. That's why expensive sports cars and sports sedans don't offer high seating positions.
The driver's seat is comfortable and offers a myriad of adjustments. Visibility out front is excellent, a benefit of a low hood and large windshield. Controls have been revised this year for easier operation, though this wasn't really a problem before. Instruments are straightforward and easy to read. A windshield wiper de-icer prevents freezing.
There's plenty of headroom front and rear with comfortable seating for four. When the split folding rear seats are down, the Forester offers 64.6 cubic feet of cargo space. That's slightly more than the RAV4, slightly less than the CR-V and nearly 80 percent of what a Ford Explorer offers. It's easy to load cargo into the back of the Forester; the rear gate lifts out of the way and a rubber cargo mat protects the interior.
Interior trim comes in softer, warmer fabrics than the Toyota RAV4, though it lacks the design elegance and refinement of the Honda CR-V. The seats have been improved this year for more lateral support and comfort. Subaru's radio controls are on the small side.
Ride & Drive
We drove the Subaru Forester up and down gravel roads on the western slopes of Washington state's Cascade Mountains, then we spent a week on the curving rural roads outside Annapolis, Maryland.
Crisp throttle response and competent handling make the Forester fun to drive. There's more low-rpm torque available for passing and better steering response in transient maneuvers than what's available in the RAV4 and CR-V.
Our Forester S was equipped with the four-speed automatic, which we found to be responsive and a good match for the engine. We have driven the Forester with a 5-speed manual, which makes it more fun to drive and provides more precise control. The pedal arrangement is such that the Forester can be driven like a sports sedan and this makes it more enjoyable on mountain roads and dirt trails.
Winding gravel roads are the perfect environment for the Forester. The all-wheel-drive system offers predictable handling when sliding around corners yet the suspension offers sufficient damping to soften harsh vibration and big bumps. Subaru's four-wheel MacPherson strut suspension uses soft springs, stiff shocks and relatively long suspension travel to achieve this balance. Hitting big bumps in the middle of a turn won't upset the handling.
The Forester provides superb traction and balance on slippery pavement. This is among the best cars on the road in a real downpour. Heated front seats, heated outside mirrors, windshield wiper deicers help make the Forester feel at home in the snow and ice.
The Subaru Forester offers excellent dirt road and winter weather performance. On dry paved roads, it offers performance and handling comparable to a sporty compact and is dynamically superior to the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.
Its off-road capability approaches that of a sport-utility vehicle, yet it inspires much more driver confidence on tricky mountain roads with superior braking and handling performance. Comfortable seating for four and commodious cargo capacity make it an attractive alternative to a truck-based SUV.
Anyone who needs to haul gear down marginal roads should seriously consider the Subaru Forester.
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