Review and photos by
Chris Chase, Autos.ca
In the compact crossover set, the manual transmission plays hard to get. Many of the big names, like the CR-V, RAV4, Rogue and CX-7, come only with automatics. The ones that can be bought with a stick, such as the Tucson, Sportage and Ford Escape, force compromises on the buyers, such as limiting the availability of a manual transmission to models with front-wheel drive, in a class where many shoppers place a high priority on all-wheelers.
This is where the Subaru Forester is a unique choice among its compact crossover competitors: it comes standard with all-wheel drive (naturally) and can be fitted with a manual gearbox: gearheads rejoice!
The Forester, of course, is also unique in its competitive set for Subaru’s dedication to horizontally-opposed (or boxer) engines, and for 2011, the Forester gets a new version of the company’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder. The changes aren’t revolutionary. The only mechanical update that might interest the casual consumer is a move to a chain-driven twin-cam valvetrain, in place of last year’s belt-driven single-cam set-up, a change that eliminates the need to replace a timing belt every 100,000 km or so. Fuel economy in manual transmission models improves to 9.9/7.4 L/100 km (city/highway), compared to the 2010′s 10.6/7.5 L/100 km ratings; economy in automatic models improves similarly.
The Forester’s base price is $25,995, which includes standard kit like a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, powered and heated outside mirrors, stability/traction control and two-step heated front seats. My tester had the 2.5X Touring package, which adds 17-inch alloy wheels, power sunroof, reclining rear seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift lever, 10-way power driver’s seat, an upgraded stereo with USB audio input, Bluetooth connectivity and an auto up/down function for the driver’s window.
The Touring group is the only option available to stickshift buyers, and it boosts the price to $28,695. A four-speed automatic transmission is the other gearbox choice, and comes standard in trims other than the base and Touring models.
The new motor makes the same 170 horsepower as the outgoing engine, but torque rises by four pound-feet to 174 at 4,100 rpm (compared with a 4,400 rpm peak in 2010). That means that if I hadn’t just told you about the new engine, you’d be none the wiser driving this 2011 model back to back with a 2010.
On dry roads, the Forester pulls smartly in the transmission’s lower gears, and the combination of all-wheel drive and standard stability control, plus the winter tires my tester wore, makes this car more or less unstoppable in wintry conditions. The engine’s power is less impressive at highway speeds, but a single downshift to fourth gear creates plenty of useful passing power in freeway driving.
Turn the stability control off, and the Forester will happily drift all four wheels through the slippery stuff. The boxer thrum is still evident with this new motor, something I suspect is a selling point for some Subaru drivers, and perhaps a turn-off for many shoppers who wind up buying elsewhere. The most pertinent point to be made on the topic of noise is that more mechanical clatter gets into the cabin of a stickshift Forester than in automatic-equipped cars.
All things are not equal in the Forester’s all-wheel drive hardware, either. With the manual, a locking centre differential splits power 50/50 between the front and rear axles at all times, while automatic cars get a more sophisticated system that runs 60/40 until a wheel slips, at which point it goes 50/50. Subaru says this set-up also helps keep handling more neutral by working to reduce understeer and oversteer.
That might tick off some gearheads, but this simpler all-wheel drive system is still preferable to the slip-and-grip systems found in many other crossovers, which only engage four-wheel power when the fronts (usually) lose grip.
The tall shift lever looks like it was pulled from a 1990s BMW, and it’s almost as nice to use. The throws are short, and the shifter moves easily between the gates without feeling loose or too rubbery. If I had a complaint, it’s that the shifter always feels like it wants to get hung up on the way into fifth gear. The clutch is likewise a nice tool to use, allowing easy modulation and smooth launches from a stop.
Despite the new engine’s promises of improved economy, my tester averaged no better than 9.0 L/100 km in highway driving, and 12.6 in the city. Those figures sound high, but compare them to the 13 L/100 a Tucson tester managed earlier this winter, 10 L/100 km in a Mazda5 that saw a fair amount of highway cruising, and a Nissan Juke that had a hard time breaking the 12 L/100 km mark around town, despite its small 1.6-litre turbocharged engine.
Beyond the new motor, changes are limited to feature packaging, a revised grille and new upholstery for the seats. That means the Forester carries on with an interior that’s put together pretty well, but made up of hard plastics that come off as low-rent. The Forester’s tall roof gives the impression of a larger vehicle, but remember that this car is based on the Impreza, which is a no-bones-about-it compact. So while headroom is grand, space in every other direction is limited compared to some of the bigger names in this class. The front seats are smaller, too; they feel narrow and the bottom cushions stop short under the thighs. Despite that, I was quite comfortable after spending the better part of five hours in the car driving from Ottawa to Toronto.
The Forester’s compact lineage pays off in its good manoeuvrability. It doesn’t have the tightest turning circle in the world, but visibility is so good that jockeying in or out of a tight parking spot is easy. The ride is soft and the steering light, so the way the Forester tackles corners might not light your heart on fire, but handling is nimble. The compliant suspension makes this a comfortable car to spend time in, no matter what kind of shape the asphalt is in; I can’t say the same for the RAV4, CR-V or Tucson.
Subaru’s basic stereos are far from the best sounding on the road, but the top-trim Limited model (available either with my tester’s engine or a more powerful, turbocharged motor) comes with a Pioneer stereo that would be a worthwhile upgrade – if only it could be added to lesser trims. For the record, Subie’s accessories list includes a subwoofer/amplifier combo and a tweeter kit that adds two more speakers to the standard four. If you’re picky about sound in your car, some sort of sound system upgrade would not go amiss.
In spite of all the work Subaru has been doing to move itself into the mainstream (to the chagrin of some long-time loyalists), the Forester still possesses a notable amount of the brand’s old quirk. I could easily see some buyers finding this car too small compared to some of the class leaders. Its biggest selling points, in my mind, are its great all-wheel drive system and the availability of a manual transmission in a model that’s not an absolute stripper. The Forester isn’t top of mind for a lot of crossover shoppers, and despite its downsides, those buyers don’t know what they’re missing.
Pricing: 2011 Subaru Forester 2.5X Touring
Base price: $28,695
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $30,320
Crash test results