For its compact all-wheel-drive Forester, Subaru designed a sport-ute body to drop over the chassis used by its wagons. Stylish, it is not. But over the years, it has become the quickest of the compact sport-utes and today it can put all competitors and most cars in its rear-view mirror. Prices: US $21,020 to $27,645. Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain.
Back in 1997, Subarus outstanding Legacy Outback offered families plenty of room, cargo space and car-like performance and handling. Crocodile Dundee told us how great the Outback was -- and I agreed with him. Subaru publicly poo-pooed the need for a sport-utility vehicle. Yet it couldn't ignore the fact that it was losing a segment of vehicle buyers. So, in 1998, Subaru dropped a boxy body over the Legacy chassis and dubbed the thing the Forester. In the beginning, it offered no reason to buy, other than sport-ute envy. But even then it was superior to truck-based sport-utes, which often beat up those inside. Now the 2004 Subaru Forester 2.5XT has borrowed from the screamingly-fast WRX to create the world's quickest compact sport-ute. Car-based and comfortable, it outclasses rivals when performance tops the list of vehicle desires. From the early-90s SVX, which never got the accolades it deserved, to the WRX Sti, which young people now covet, Subaru has carved out a reputation for performance with safety. But in all our attention to acceleration let's not lose track of the fact that the Forester tops every compact sport-ute in crash tests done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
2004 Subaru Forester 2.5XT Interior© Subaru
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the 2004 Subaru Forester XT's coachwork is that no mistakes have been made. Entry and exit are easy. The roofline is tall. The front seats are not of the racing variety found in a WRX, but still have lateral support to hold occupants in place for a spirited romp. The cargo bay, which can store 32 cubic feet of stuff, is functional and liftover is reasonably low. And the rear seats can fold flat, to accommodate another 32 cubic feet of skis, bags and gear. The door handles are of the proper design. There's a functioning scoop on the hood -- distinguishing the XT from other Forester models -- helping to shove air into a turbocharger with 11.6 pounds per square inch of boost. This model can tow 2,400 pounds and carry 200 pounds on standard roof rails. Instruments in the dash are minimal, with fair visibility from silver on black numerals. Sixteen-inch, 6-spoke alloy wheels make this model stand apart from lesser speedsters. Other standard equipment items on the XT include climate control, heated seats, a stereo system with a six-disc in-dash CD player, cruise control, power windows, and remote keyless entry. Our tested silver XT had a base price of $24,970 and no options at all.
On the Road
The 2004 Subaru Forester 2.5XT scats 0-to-60 in 5.3 seconds. Not long ago, such a rapid rush was the province of sport sedans or cars. But not once did I climb behind the wheel with less than a grin on my face. I scatted across intersections and stunned Mustang drivers. "What is that?" I could almost hear them ask. Well, it's almost a Subaru WRX with a boxy body, that's what. Its four-cylinder, 2.5-liter boxer engine pumps out 210 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 235 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm. And it weighs only 3,210 pounds. Atop that 2.5-liter four is a turbocharger detuned from the WRX specs, but providing enough boost to snap heads back. Don't worry about tire spin on launch, even in the worst of conditions, thanks to Subaru's all-wheel-drive all the time. The clutch is light and easy to engage. A five-speed manual transmission is standard and shifts without fuss. Braking is not up to acceleration, but sufficient for non-rally use. An anti-lock brake system is standard. Gas mileage is estimated at 18 city and 23 highway. Figure about 20 if you drive it hard, as it begs to be driven. Begs? It rips off a quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds, an eyeblink slower than the almost-$90,000 Porsche Cayenne Turbo sport-utility.
2004 Subaru Forester 2.5XT engine© Subaru
Three compact sport-utilities stand atop the competition when it comes to mistakes NOT made (no tailgate-mounted spare tire, no fingernail-breaking flip-lid door handles, etc). They're the Hyundai Santa Fe, Ford Escape and Subaru Forester. Of the three, the 2004 Subaru Forester XT is the least stylish but the best performer. It does what competitors can do -- only faster. It's a good family hauler around town, but a blast to drive fast in the mountains. Ready torque means you pass with right-now urgency. The turbocharger spools up in a heartbeat. There's no noticable lag. Handling doesn't match performance, but is more than sufficient for anyone driving any sport-utility, a model configuration that simply cannot handle on a par with cars due to the basic design. Besides, the comfort level is more important here. If performance and/or safety is near the top of your list, and a sport-utility is your need, then the clear choice is the 2004 Subaru Forester 2.5XT.