Review and photos by
Jil McIntosh, Autos.ca
Every now and again, I end up in a vehicle that really doesn’t stand up and holler to me in any regard, and yet, the entire package turns out to be a genuinely nice vehicle that I’m actually sorry to have to return to the company. That turned out to be the case with the 2011 Subaru Forester.
I’ve always been keen on this practical-sized SUV, and for 2011, Subaru has made a few important changes, including an all-new engine, gently-revised styling, and on my Touring trim line tester, new wheels and upgraded audio system. Pricing starts at $25,995 for the 2.5X with five-speed manual transmission, and tops out with the naturally-aspirated 2.5X Limited at $32,995, and a turbocharged 2.5XT Limited at $34,595. My tester, the 2.5X Touring with four-speed automatic transmission, was tagged at $29,795.
The new engine is the naturally-aspirated one, found in all but the turbocharged 2.5XT Limited trim line. The 2.5-litre horizontally-opposed four-cylinder has the same displacement as the powerplant used in the 2010 model, and Subaru says it’s the first complete engine redesign in 21 years, following the second-generation boxer engine introduced in the first Legacy models in 1989. It’s now a dual-overhead cam in place of the previous single overhead rod, and the piston stroke is longer. The horsepower remains unchanged at 170 ponies, although it now peaks at 5,800 rpm versus 6,000, while torque rises from the previous 170 lb.-ft. to 174, and peaking at 4,100 rpm instead of 4,400 rpm. Naturally, fuel consumption drops: formerly rated at 10.4 L/100 km (27 mpg Imp) in the city and 7.7 (37) on the highway, the 2.5-litre with automatic transmission now churns out published figures of 9.9 (29) on the highway and 7.5 (38) for the highway. In combined driving, with bitterly cold weather and including a couple of days stuck in city traffic, I averaged 11.4 (25).
The Forester remains one of the best-driving sport-utes on the market. It feels “right-sized,” the handling is crisp and confident, the seating position and visibility are good, and it seems stable and well-planted whether driving straight or taking a meandering motorway. Naturally, it uses Subaru’s trademark symmetrical all-wheel drive (the name refers not to the torque distribution, but to the fact that the components are arranged symmetrically on either side of the vehicle’s axis), running 60 per cent front and 40 per cent rear in normal driving, and transferring torque up to 50/50 when wheel slippage is detected.Other changes to the engine include lighter-weight components, a compact oil pump, improved intake port configuration and better cooling. Subaru says that the engine is specifically designed so that future upgrades can be easily and seamlessly made. As I’ve noticed with most of this automaker’s engines, the 2.5-litre isn’t entirely smooth at idle, making almost a buffeting sound when it’s sitting, especially when it’s cold. It smoothes out on acceleration, though, and other than that, I have absolutely no complaints. It’s a perky little engine that does a great job, whether when passing trucks on the highway or gently nudging around traffic on congested streets, and with nice throttle tip-in for smooth acceleration. The four-speed automatic still holds its own in a world of five- and six-speeds, with manual shift mode on the lever but no steering wheel-mounted paddles. Even so, that was no great loss; the engine and transmission are well-mated and I really didn’t feel much need to override the gearbox’s decisions.
The interior is handsome and put together very well, with a curvy “twin-cockpit” style dash, low-gloss metallic accents and lots of small-item storage. Most of the controls are very intuitive and simple to operate, save for a couple of head-scratchers. Alongside two easy-to-grasp dials for the temperature and climate mode, the fan speed is a small knob that slips between the fingers when you’re wearing gloves. The seat heaters are also tucked way back on the console, behind the parking brake lever, so I ended up reaching back and groping for them, rather than take too much time away from the road to look for them.
The base 2.5X model comes with 16-inch steel wheels, air conditioning, heated seats, auxiliary audio input and privacy glass; a Convenience Package can be optioned to add alloy wheels, the power driver’s seat and Bluetooth. My Touring tester further packed on 17-inch alloy rims, fog lights, wiper de-icer, a plastic tray for the cargo area, leather-wrapped steering wheel, iPod socket, Sirius satellite radio, auto up/down driver’s window, and an enormous sunroof that stretched almost to the seatbacks on the rear seats. The step up to the Limited then adds xenon headlamps, leather upholstery, automatic climate control and a premium Pioneer sound system.The seats, which give the driver ten-way power adjustment on the Touring trim level, could do with slightly longer cushions to give more support behind the knees. Passengers in behind get ample legroom, and those chairs fold flat, turning the cargo area length from 92 cm, to a full length of 170 cm when they’re down. Subaru is also one of the few automakers to offer pet barriers made specifically to fit the vehicle, making it one of the more pet-friendly models on the market, especially when combined with my tester’s specially-fitted cargo mat.
There’s also a PZEV model, available solely on the 2.5X with Convenience Package and with the four-speed automatic. Short for Partial Zero-Emissions Vehicle, it includes a special system of catalytic converters, engine software and a few other tricks to reduce tailpipe and evaporative emissions.
The Forester tackles an extremely crowded market segment, and one where a number of very good performers are vying for consumers. Subaru’s entry has the benefit of the company’s famous four-wheel system, and it’s a very good one, but that isn’t the primary reason that I like it. Rather, it’s simply a genuinely nice car to drive. I hate to utter the overused word “nimble” (and I’ve certainly uttered the word “nice” far more times than I think I’ve ever used), but that’s precisely what it is. The good balance, the light-but-not-overly-so steering and the tight turning radius made it pleasant to spin around in tight downtown traffic, and yet it’s still solid and secure on the highway. It’s right up there with my other sport-cute handling favourite, the Volkswagen Tiguan, a slightly more expensive model.
It isn’t flashy, it isn’t overly loaded with features, and the changes for 2011, at least to the naked eye, aren’t all that stop-the-presses different. Sometimes that isn’t necessary, and the driving experience is all that you really need. In Subaru’s case, here’s the nail, and the company has hit it squarely on the head. Once more, for good measure: it’s really nice.
Pricing: 2011 Subaru Forester 2.5X Touring
Base price: $29,795
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $ 1,525
Price as tested: $31,420
Crash test results