Model lineup changes; safety stays the same
Safety has always been a Forester strong point. While many small SUVs and crossovers claim truck status, the Forester meets US safety standards for cars. Antilock brakes and front-seat-mounted side airbags come standard, but side-curtain airbags aren't available. XT and Bean models get turn signals mounted in the side mirrors. One important feature is the Forester's standard all-wheel-drive system, which gives it excellent accident-avoidance handling in all conditions. This year it gets an extra half-inch-or-so of ground clearance, improving its ability to drive over snow and rough terrain. (Did it really need improvement?)
Simplicity and storage
With so many tall cars and wagons on the road, the Forester's upright driving position is not the novelty it once was. I found all the seats comfortable; room is generous up front and tight but habitable in back. Storage space abounds, from the big bin atop the dash to small pockets in the passenger's footwell.
The Forester's tall roofline eases loading of bulky cargo, but its shorter length means its cargo bay can't accommodate as much as a mid-size wagon. My tester had an optional ($75) cargo mat, a thick rubber affair that makes cleaning the bay a simple matter of pulling out the mat and hosing it off.
Rust Belt residents will like the All Weather package, standard in all but the X: Heated front seats and side mirrors and an electric de-icer grid that keeps the windshield wipers from freezing to the glass.
I couldn't say for sure because Subaru supplied me with the XT, powered by the same 230 horsepower turbocharged 2.5 liter engine found in the hot-rod Impreza WRX. The XT's big hood scoop isn't just for show; it directs air over the engine's intercooler, which helps increase power. The engine is now up to 230 hp -- enough, Subaru says, for the stick-shift to make the 0-60 run in a sports-car-like 6 seconds or less. I drove the automatic; aside from the whistle of the turbo and a notable burst of power above 3,700 RPM, it pulls like a V6. One of my few complaints concerns the gear selector, which makes it easy to slip past Drive and into 3rd. Driving around in 3rd won't hurt anything but it will burn more gas.
Fuel economy estimates for the automatic XT are 21 MPG city/26 MPG highway, not too far below the non-turbo stick-shift's estimates of 22/29.
The few, the chosen, the Forester buyers
The Forester's uniqueness makes it hard to compare directly with other cars. In terms of interior space and off-road abilities, the Forester is similar to small SUVs like the Hyundai Santa Fe and Mazda CX-7. But its handling and fuel economy are in a different league, that of mid-size wagons like the Mazda 6 and Volkswagen Passat.
And don't forget the Forester's turbocharged engine, which makes it a lot of fun to drive.
My advice is that anyone shopping for a wagon, a small SUV, or just something that's small, unconventional and enjoyable should test drive a Forester. The Forester is not a car with mass appeal; it's a niche product. If you're one of the few for whom it was designed, chances are you're going to love it.