Road Test

2011 Subaru Forester a near-ideal people and package carrier

Forester is the introductory vehicle for Subaru's new 2.5-litre DOHC engine

2011 Subaru Forester - Front

The Forester has become a mainstay in the Subaru line. A reflection of the company itself, it is straightforward, practical, devoid of frills and hard to categorize. The Forester is neither a wagon nor an SUV or CUV, yet it is all of the above.

Subaru has always refused to follow the pack and the Forester is a perfect example of the company's desire to build what people need, not necessarily what they say they want.

The Forester came to market here in 1997 and the boxy shape was last updated three model years ago. Sales took off immediately, confirming that Subaru really was building what consumers need.

The company has some of the most loyal customers in the industry and it is not at all uncommon for them to own more than one and to return multiple times for another.

For others new to the brand, the sheer simplicity and practicality of the design is the attraction. The upright style makes it extremely easy to get in and out and to load packages. The tall roof means there is load of headroom in all positions and the amount of glass ensures excellent visibility in all directions.

So as a people and package carrier it is near ideal. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Subaru is noted for reliability and longevity. Instead of bling you are buying peace of mind and the knowledge that not only will it go hundreds of thousands of kilometres it will do so in any weather or road condition thanks to a sophisticated and proven all-wheel-drive system that is standard on all models.

There have been few noticeable changes to the Forester since the major makeover for the 2009 model. But, in addition to a new front bumper/fascia and upholstery, the 2011 Forester gets the newest engine developed by the company that has steadfastly pursued the ·flat is better· motto.

Subaru is a subsidiary of Fuji Heavy Industries and as independent as they get in this industry. It has insisted on all-wheel-drive in an era when even a tenth-of-a-litre/100 km improvement in fuel consumption is the Holy Grail. It has insisted on horizontally-opposed engines when everyone else in the world avoids them.

General Motors bought into Subaru a few years back to gain access to some of its engineering expertise, only to have to sell it when bankruptcy loomed. Then Toyota came to the table with some money and that marriage is about to yield a two-door sporty coupe to be wrapped in different clothes for Subaru and Toyota. Beneath will lay the flat-four engine and AWD systems Subaru is famous for.

The point is that competitors around the world respect Subaru's engineering prowess, so the arrival of a new engine is big news.

The 2.5-litre four found in the new Forester is of similar displacement and 170-hp output as the older version, but by adding a second camshaft atop each head and playing with bore and stroke (the size of the pistons and how far they move up and down within the cylinders) Subaru engineers were able to move the torque peak (174 lb-ft) down by 300 rpm, where it is more readily accessible and thus used, and to squeeze some more efficiency out of the engine.

They also took this opportunity to relocate the oil filter for ease of maintenance and replace the timing belt with a longer lasting chain.

Emissions, driveability and fuel consumption have all been improved. The new engine is rated at 9.9 litres/100 km in the city and 7.5 on the highway compared to 10.4 and 7.7 for the outgoing version.

The new DOHC engine is normally aspirated and used in the base Forester alone for now. It will move into other models in the coming years. Higher Forester trim levels and other Subarus get the older engine in both normally-aspirated and turbocharged guise.

Subaru is behind in the transmission game, however, short a gear or two in both the manual and automatic which offer five and four speeds respectively in a market where six speed manuals and six, seven and even eight-speed automatics are all but the norm.

While the new engine is thriftier it is not blessed with a surplus of power. Thankfully it revs easily and with less of the drumming sound typical of Subarus, but it will not set your heart a-flutter.

My tester had the manual gearbox and the ratios, clutch action and linkage were all well sorted. The standard hill-holder system takes the worry out of getting started on hills by keeping the brakes applied when you let your foot off the pedal for a few seconds or until you engage the clutch.

Forester pricing starts at $25,995 and that includes a fair bit of standard kit: air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and locks, ABS, electronic stability control, and heated seats. Hats off to Subaru for making heated cloth seats available!

Also, kudos for the electric grid built into the windshield where the wipers rest, preventing ice build up.

Our $28,695 tester had the Touring package which adds secondary audio controls on the steering wheel, 17-inch wheels, hands-free communication and an audio upgrade.

Safe, practical and year-round able, the Forester continues to make sense on so many fronts.

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