There's no need to drive a truck.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $20,295
As Tested $25,190
Though it provides cargo utility and off-highway capability, the Subaru Forester is not a sport-utility vehicle in the traditional sense. 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.
All Subarus sold today are equipped with all-wheel drive and all Foresters are powered by Subaru's biggest engine, a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder boxer engine that produces 165 horsepower. Forester is available with 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.
Two trim levels are available: L and S.
Forester L ($20,295) comes with a high level of standard equipment, which includes air conditioning, power windows, power locks, fog lights, roof rack, rear window defogger, trailer harness connector, reclining front bucket seats with adjustable lumbar support, tilt steering, AM/FM/cassette stereo and a cargo tray. The S model ($22,895) adds four-wheel disc brakes (in place of the rear drum brakes) with ABS, limited-slip rear differential, remote keyless entry, color-keyed heated mirrors, in-dash 6-disc CD changer, dual mode heated front seats, 16-inch tires, alloy wheels, upgraded cloth, heated windshield washer nozzles.
The Forester is utilitarian in appearance. Because it isn't nearly as tall as a sport-utility, it's much easier to load a kayak, a set of skis and other car-top gear onto the roof.
The body was reinforced substantially for 1999 to improve side-impact protection. Seats and seat belts were modified for improved safety and the airbag system was revised.
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. 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 with good lateral support and offers a myriad of adjustments. Visibility is excellent, a benefit of a low hood and large windshield. Controls are easy to operate, instruments are straightforward and easy to read. Interior trim comes in softer, warmer fabrics than the Toyota RAV4, though it lacks the design elegance and refinement of the Honda CR-V. Subaru's 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. 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; the rear gate lifts out of the way and a rubber cargo mat protects the interior. Heated front seats, heated outside mirrors, windshield wiper deicers make the Forester feel at home in the snow and ice.
It's fun to drive, a phrase that doesn't apply to trucks in quite the same way. The Forester is similar in size to the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, but offers superior performance and handling.
There's good low-rpm torque available for passing. With horizontally opposed pistons, Subaru's 2.5-liter 4-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 automatic was extensively modified for 1999 for improved efficiency. 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 I learned on some rural roads in Maryland.
Winding gravel roads are the perfect environment for the Forester as I 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. The Forester provides better steering response in transient maneuvers than what's available in the RAV4 and CR-V.
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 RAV4 and Jeep Wrangler are 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. A generous 7.5-inch 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.
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 superior to the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.
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. 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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