The Subaru Forester is not about looks. It's not bad looking, but it's a pragmatic vehicle, not meant to be a pretty one. There are no touches that you could call especially lovely, as there are none you could call unattractive. Its shape is sporty enough, but it doesn't shout sport. It's squarish, but not blocky. It's slightly longer than a Honda CR-V, slightly shorter than a Toyota RAV4, and an inch narrower than both; slightly taller than the CR-V but not as tall as the RAV4.
The Forester's wing-shaped headlamps might be the snazziest feature, somewhat Saab-like in their appearance. Nice amber turn signals in the headlamp corners blend into fenders that are nicely wrapped around the car. The hood has sculpted edges, so subtle they're not noticed, but like the headlamps/eyes, the hood is a reminder that looks are not abandoned.
The front and rear fascia and rocker panels surround the car, and they're not very pretty in flat black plastic. They too have a function, being more rugged than shiny paint on sheetmetal, although no one does metal fascia any more anyhow. And at least the flat black plastic doesn't continue around the wheelwells, like on some SUVs. Also, those wheelwells are not overflared to attract attention. That would be unlike Subaru.
Along the sides, above the flat black rocker panels, there's a straight styling groove where once there were ding strips.
The 10-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels that are standard equipment on the 2.5X Premium are nice. We also like the wheels on the Forester XT we drove.
The Forester XT is mostly distinguished by the scoop on the hood that takes in air for the turbocharger intercooler. From the rear, the XT has a twin chrome-tipped exhaust and a spoiler over the rear window that makes its statement.
The Forester cabin is comfortable and the seats are good. We like the leather better than the cloth. The cloth seats come in gray or black, are more conservative than sporty, and the material doesn't feel as rugged as the material that Mazda uses. The available perforated leather is a whole new ball game, eclipsing the mundane cloth. Forester XT gets sporty aluminum pedals.
Visibility is excellent through the windshield, with a modest hood, tight front fenders, and A-pillars designed to minimize blind spots. Visibility in the rearview mirror is not so good. The rear glass fills the mirror, but the rear seat headrests, middle seatbelt hanging from the ceiling, and rear center-mounted-stoplamp all intrude. Over your shoulder around the C-pillars, visibility is okay again, the blindspot a small one.
We drove the Forester in summer and winter, and found that the air conditioning cools fast, but the heater heats and defrosts less fast, not a feature when it's cold. The fan is louder than in other models, also.
The dash has a beautiful sweep like sculpture, from the center stack off to the passenger side, in dark titanium plastic that looks nice, with more of that trim on the center stack, instrument panel, and doors. The glovebox is big. There's a thin digital display inserted at the top center of the dash for time, temperature, and fuel mileage.
The tachometer is on the left and larger speedo in the center, both with blue rims at the numbers. There's a smaller fuel gauge to the right, in a space where there could and should be an engine temperature gauge, but it's been erased by an idiot light, which we only knew because it comes on blue when the engine is cold.
Just forward of the shift lever is a big deep slot for storage, although you have to reach around the lever to use it. Climate and audio controls on the center stack are simple to operate, no touch screen that doesn't always respond or menus to figure out and navigate, just old-fashioned knobs to turn. We like this, because old-fashioned knobs always work, at a time when always working seems not to be in fashion. The front doors have a nice elbow rest and large pockets each with a recess for 24-ounce bottles. The center console is deep, and slides forward four inches to make an armrest, on all models but the base 2.5X.
The new integrated navigation option, available on Limited and Touring models, is accessed through a 6.1-inch touch-screen display. The navigation package includes a rearview camera and an AM/FM/HD stereo with six speakers (seven on Touring, which adds a subwoofer), voice-activated controls, a single-disc CD player with MP3/WMA capability, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and audio streaming, iPod control capability, iTunes tagging, a USB port and 3.5mm auxiliary input jack, SMS text messaging capability, and satellite radio.
We drove a turbocharged XT as well as the X Limited with the old TomTom navigation system and cold-weather package. The TomTom was just as effective for getting around as navigation systems whose option prices are twice as much, although the buttons, combined with the audio system buttons and screen, were tiny and few. TomTom found an address for us using our voice command, and its own voice instructions were good. Although nav systems all seem to have quirky flaws; for example, the TomTom lady insisted on calling interstate route 405, “four-west-five.”
The cold weather package is a good thing to have. We got to test the windshield de-icer one morning when there was a sheet of clear ice, and it worked fabulously; the ice slid off in big thin slices, within seconds. By comparison, the rear window defogger took a long time to melt the ice on the rear window. The switches for the heated seats are way back between the front seats where you can't see them, but it's no big deal, you just feel for them.
Cargo space measures 33.5 cubic feet with the rear seat up, 68.3 with the seats flat. The rear seats are split 60/40 and easily fold flat to make a gigantic cargo area capable of carrying lots of gear.
The rear seat reclines and includes a retractable center tray with fixed drink holders. Legroom is excellent for a compact SUV, with 38.0 inches; that's a big plus, and it's one of the reasons the Forester is such a good family vehicle. The front doors are wide, and the rear doors swing open 75 degrees and feel light, making it easy to get in and out.
There's also good front and rear headroom, even when you jack the height-adjustable driver's seat to the top. The panoramic moonroof, standard on our Limited, cuts into headroom, but if you're not tall it feels like more because it's the sky that's over your head.
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