The Subaru Forester, a trailblazer in the car-sport utility crossover segment at its U.S. debut more than a dozen years ago, still garners praise for its durability, comfortable ride and sure-footed all-wheel drive character.
It's one of the few compact SUVs that continues to offer a manual transmission, particularly with all-wheel drive, and at 15 feet long, the Forester is both nimble and nicely sized inside and out.
It's also a recommended buy of Consumer Reports and was among the top three compact SUVs in J.D. Power and Associates' most recent Dependability Study.
For 2011, a new, four-cylinder engine boosts the base Forester's fuel mileage. But given the soaring gasoline prices this year, the Forester's mileage improvement for 2011 is slight _ just one more mile per gallon in city and highway driving. Some other smallish SUVs have higher fuel mileage ratings.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $21,220 for a 2011 Forester 2.5X with manual transmission. The lowest starting retail price for a 2011 Forester with automatic transmission is $22,420. In comparison, an all-wheel drive, 2011 Hyundai Tucson has a starting retail prices of $24,440, while a 2011 Toyota RAV4 with all-wheel drive starts at $24,235.
The 2011 Forester is a no-fuss vehicle to drive. There were nary any gimmicks and distractions in the tester, and seats were supportive and provided a high ride height that lets drivers have good views through and around many other vehicles ahead. Yet, driver and passengers don't have to climb up to get into the Forester. They just turn and set themselves on the seats.
Passengers felt some vibrations over road surface imperfections and definitely were jostled over speed bumps and potholes. But overall, the ride was pleasant and the Forester maneuvered through traffic with ease. Steering had a bit of a light feel.
Considerable noise came inside, though. I heard road noise from the 17-inch tires and the racket of semi-haulers and delivery trucks as they passed by. The Forester doors felt and sounded less than impressive, with a lightweight, tinny character.
The driver doesn't do anything to activate the all-wheel drive. The system operates on its own to ensure good, four-wheel traction.
The revised, 2.5-liter four cylinder comes with double overhead cams and is the traditional "boxer" engine layout, which means that pistons move in a horizontal plane.
Horsepower remains the 170 that it was in last year's base engine. But the engine stroke now is longer and compression ratio is up, so there are 4 more foot-pounds of torque _ to 174 _ and peak torque is available sooner than before, at 4,100 rpm.
The manual transmission is a five-speed, but the automatic is a four-speed that worked smoothly in the test Forester but seemed a bit outdated by competitors' standards.
For example, the 2011 Nissan Juke with fuel-conscious continuously variable transmission (CVT) has a federal government combined city/highway fuel mileage rating that's 15 percent higher than that of the base Forester.
Specifically, the 2011 Forester 2.5X tester with new engine is rated at 21 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway. This is the rating for both manual and automatic transmission models. But in the test car, I scarcely managed 20.4 mpg in driving that was 65 percent city and 35 percent highway.
In comparison, an all-wheel drive Juke with turbo four cylinder and CVT is rated by the U.S. government at 25/30 mpg, and a 2011 Tucson with naturally aspirated four cylinder, six-speed automatic and all-wheel drive is rated at 21/28 mpg.
Note that the Forester has a 224-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine offering for upper models, with lower fuel mileage rating of 19/24 mpg. Subaru has not brought to the United States the fuel-efficient diesel engine that it uses in cars in Europe.
I liked the Forester 2.5X Premium tester's black roof rails, which added an SUV look. Many other crossover SUVs have taken the rails off low-end models.
The test vehicle also had heated front seats that were cloth-covered, so I didn't have to opt up for leather to get the seat heaters.
Overall, the Forester has a no-nonsense, non-glitzy appearance with good proportions. But the car never got a second glance from passersby.
My major complaint is the optional TomTom navigation system that's part of an unbelievably tiny and idiotic radio faceplate. The little knob to change band and stations felt so flimsy I was afraid it would break off.
The TomTom unit with 4.3-inch screen is removable from its spot atop the center of the dashboard. But so many cell phones now offer GPS aids with screens that size, I wondered about the logic of this offering.
Cargo space at the back of the Forester is flat and wide. While the key fob on the tester had a button for the liftgate, it only unlocked it; I had to manually disengage the latch and pull it up.
Predicted reliability, per Consumer Reports records, is average for the 2011 Forester.
Standard safety features include frontal and curtain air bags, electronic stability control, traction control and brake assist.
The 2011 Forester is rated four out of five stars in overall federal government crash testing, with side crash protection rated three stars out of five.
Note that in calendar 2010, the Forester ranked as the No. 1 imported vehicle from Japan in U.S. sales, tallying 85,080 sales, according to industry trade journal Automotive News.