March 28, 2009

Subaru Impreza

Take a Subaru Impreza - a capable rally car with all wheel drive and a tough, torquey boxer engine - make it taller, and you have the heart of the Subaru Forester. But wait, isn't there a WRX version of the Impreza, with a turbocharged engine? Say no more - now there's a turbocharged Forester, too.

To say that the Forester is an Impreza on stilts is an oversimplification. The current generation Forester is considerably more refined than the previous generation, and that one was competitive with other medium sized SUVs. Now, with a new interior, more comfortable and less buzzy ride, and the aforementioned turbocharger, the Forester is a much nicer package than it was, able to do battle with the CR-Vs, Vues, and Escapes of this world.

From the outside, the Forester is an interesting package, with a grille that would not be out of place on the new Cadillacs, a massive hood scoop (feeding an intercooler to reduce air temperature, not going directly into the engine - on the whole, a very clever idea), and a rear that could, if a bit lower, easily be on a station wagon. The interior is clever and classy, in the modern style - no wood, but several different textures and metallized plastic in the center console. Unusual features include a top-center covered console, fabric map pockets in the doors, dual sunglass holders overhead, thermostatic temperature control, and the obligatory extra power outlet in the console. The cup holders and top center console have padding on bottom to mimize jangling and hold things in place.

Speaking of interesting, let's get to the turbocharger. The four-cylinder "boxer" engine, with two cylinders on each side laying flat, has a smooth idle and plenty of torque, not to mention a decent 165 horsepower. The turbo comes on rather suddenly, not like the gradual Volkswagen turbos, but with a more exciting activation that, combined with the downshifting of the automatic transmission, makes it seem as though there's a multistage rocket strapped to the undercarriage (in this case, a rocket worth about 40 extra horses). Under ordinary driving, the Forester is perfectly well behaved, but hit the gas, wait a moment or two, and you launch forward with surprising speed. Not for nothing has the WRX carved out a name for itself - and you don't pay too much of a price for it in gasoline use. The all wheel drive is handy for preventing tire squeal on takeoff. The darker sides are rather firm (and sometimes indecisive) shifting under power, and the need to use premium gas.

Handling isn't bad, but the tires tend to squeal rather easily around sharp turns, and there is some body roll. The ride is generally quite good, smoother and better insulated than the first Forester - just as the current Impreza is far more comfortable than the prior model.

The interior is well presented, with a clear instrument panel sporting three gauge clusters - speedometer, tachometer, gas, and temperature, nicely arranged though the 150 mph speedometer crams all legal speeds into a rather small area, and 0-10 mph are barely two millimeters wide. At night, the displays are backlit with a gentle green light, for a surprisingly elegant look. The outside temperature is right under the odometer.

The stereo is very good looking and easy to figure out, with separate buttons for tone and balance control (both operated via the volume knob), and an integrated CD changer. The thermostatic control below it is easy to use, but the automatic system tends to favor putting the defroster and air conditioner compressor on when started in cold weather. We guess that's a safety thing, and were glad the system works just as well on manual control. Winter drivers will be happy with little snow belt touches such as dual-level seat warmers (with the switches right out in the open), and extra defrosting capacity underneath the rear window wiper. One feature we'd like to see in all cars - it was in the Chrysler minivans and Subaru Outback - is an electric defroster underneath the front windshield wipers, too.

We've mentioned some of the clever interior features already, but there are a few extra useful gadgets scattered around. The driver's visor not only has the usual turnpike ticket-holding strap, but also two extra compartments for small cards, and a pen holder. The moonroof is far larger than most, letting in lots of light, and there's a small Toyota-style compartment on the bottom left of the dashboard. The glove compartment is as large as the center console is small.

Interior space is, as with most SUVs, a bit disappointing, seemingly no larger than a Subaru Impreza wagon. Rear passengers don't have much leg room, but there is decent cargo space. Generally, you don't gain anything from the SUV form factor; it's a sop for the American public, which simply likes big, tall vehicles (we can't see any other reason why anyone would buy a Lexus RX330). If you can live with an actual car, the WRX and Impreza are better buys, and they handle a lot better. You know both are tough - that's why people win rallys with them. They all come with Subaru's wonderful, reliable all wheel drive system, which unlike some [cough, Audi, cough, Volkswagen, cough] systems will actually help you out in bad weather. We've snow-tested the Subaru system and it passed with flying colors.

Two advantage of the Forester's sensible design are entry ease and visibility. Few SUVs have the perfect ride height of the Forester, which lets you simply sit down into the interior - no climbing and no descent, either way. The other benefit is visibility, which is unusually good for any vehicle. The rear gate has a larger than usual window, allowing the driver to see even relatively short objects - bicycles and children, for example - which nearly any traditional SUV, and quite a few cars, will block from view. There are very few blind spots, thanks to unfashionably small rear pillars. Features like this can literally be life-savers.

There are some quirks, with a moderately tricky wiper-washer stalk (controlling both front and back), a cruise control system with a button on the left side of the dash that must be pressed each time you start the car to get the system working - even though there's a convenient steering wheel stalk for actually setting the system, and the transmission shifter gate. This gate puts neutral, Drive, and third into the same slide area, and it takes a bit of practice to shift right into Drive instead of neutral or third gear from Park. Those with small children may find the tether strap attachment for the rear seat to be quite annoying - it's up in the roof! In back are a pair of moderately flimsy cupholders that smaller kids won't be able to reach, and in front, the cupholders are molded in place, accepting one size. Child seats' rear tether strap anchors are all the way up in the roof, all the way in the back of the cargo area, a distraction while driving.

The Subaru Forester is a nice, civilized SUV from a company used to making all wheel drive vehicles that can easily brave snow and rain, but the Forester turbo, despite tires that aren't up to the standards of the engine, is an SUV with surprising punch. On the other hand, for the price, you can get a Grand Cherokee V8, which is a bit larger and more refined. We'd rather have a Forester than most other contenders; we like it better than more popular offerings from General Motors and Ford, for example, as well as those from Suzuki, Isuzu, and Honda. If it wasn't on your list, put it there - and be sure to try out the turbo version.


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