The Subaru Forester is more fun to drive than any sport-utility vehicle and will run circles around them. It handles like a car and can be driven like one. It rides well and takes bumps very well.
The Subaru Forester 2.5 XT is very fast, and the power is so steady and linear that you'd never know it was a turbo, although the functional scoop on the aluminum hood for the intercooler tells you something special is under there. Its excellent throttle response, clutch take-up, and all-wheel-drive traction allow incredibly quick launches for those so inclined.
The XT's turbocharged 2.5-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine makes 235 pounds-feet of torque, an increase of a whopping 43 percent over the non-turbo engine, and with Subaru's experience with turbocharged engines from its years of racing in the World Rally Championship, there are no turbo lags or bugs, period. Subaru's variable valve timing system helps too. The horsepower peaks where it's effective, at 5600 rpm, and the torque is strongest at a beautifully low 3600 rpm. One drawback to the XT is its lower fuel mileage of 18/23 mpg EPA City/Highway with the five-speed, compared to the XS model's 21/27. And the XT requires 91 octane fuel.
The standard engine delivers good acceleration, though it doesn't match the exhilaration of the turbo. Subaru's horizontally opposed engine structure (called a "boxer") is similar in concept to Porsche's. The engine design offers the ability to achieve a low center of gravity and a more rearward placement, putting less weight forward of the front axle, which helps balance handling. Though powerful, Subaru's engine isn't as smooth as some.
The five-speed manual transmission works well, though it feels a ropey and has a long throw. A special and exceptional feature is Subaru's Hill Holder clutch, which prevents the car from drifting backwards when the clutch is engaged on a hill, such as pulling away from stop signs or red lights.
The Forester offers excellent handling. The variable-ratio rack-and-pinion steering offers quick response, while allowing a turning circle of 34.8 feet. The ride is relatively firm due to the short 99-inch wheelbase. Equal-length axle shafts help eliminate torque steer. Underneath the skin, Forester's new body structure is strong and light, further improving handling and reducing stopping distances.
The cabin is quiet, even at triple-digit speeds, as we learned on the high-banked oval at Talladega Motor Speedway. Newly designed suspension struts help reduce noise, vibration and harshness. Believe it or not, the Forester is aerodynamic, achieving a 0.36 coefficient of drag. That helps reduce wind noise and improves fuel economy.
The brakes are excellent. We didn't experience any fade while braking hard for the first infield turn off of the oval lap after lap.
Later, we tested XS at Mudfest near Seattle, the Northwest Automotive Press Writers' annual event for new and redesigned SUVs. On an obstacle course consisting of cinderblocks and wood blocks, the Forester's 7.5 inches of ground clearance passed the test, while the ride was surprisingly non-traumatic. But it dazzled us on the slalom course. There were more than 30 SUVs of all sizes there, and the Forester XS was the hands-down winner in the slalom. It felt like a sports car as it weaved through the cones at more than 40 mph, when some of the other SUVs struggled at 30-35. It was precise, quick and steady, and was the only SUV that could clip the cones with control.
Two different all-wheel-drive systems are available. Models with five-speed manuals use what Subaru calls Continuous All-Wheel Drive, in which a viscous coupling center differential divides engine power 50/50 between the front and rear wheels, which shifts when the front or rear tires slip. Foresters with automatic transmissions use the Active All-Wheel Drive system, in which a variable transfer clutch delivers power where it's needed, as determined by electronic sensors that measure wheelspin. Both work well. Not only will you not get stuck, but they greatly enhance control in slippery conditions.