BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Subaru Forester is a car that in many ways links 'old' Subaru with the new face of the company. Subaru was once a car manufacturer that appealed solely to eccentric country types and those who appreciated wilfully quirky engineering. Over a period of time, the company became better known for its rocket ship Impreza models and the increasingly sophisticated Legacy variants. The Forester, however, was still a little raw around the edges but nevertheless offered a very rare appeal. Few cars that are practical and reliable are in any way fun but the Forester serves up the fun factor in spades. Any Forester will paint a huge grin across your face and that alone is reason enough to track down a decent used example.
Models Covered: Second Generation [2002- to date] 2.0, 2.0 turbo, 2.5 turbo [X, XT]
Although the Forester originally made landfall way back in September 1997, the model we're concerned with here is the second generation car, launched five years later in summer 2002. The Forester had been making reasonable sales over this period but was starting to look a little old. The post 2002 car looks a little less cereal packet than its predecessor, the wheelarches neatly integrating into the slightly more voluptuous wings, the front end less resolutely craggy. The body continues an evolutionary styling theme, despite being completely different. Up against the tape the second generation Forester is slightly shorter than its predecessor but a handy bit wider, especially when it comes to rear seat accommodation. If the body has come in for an extensive reworking the same can't be said of the engines. There are still two to choose from, both flat fours in proper Subaru tradition. The one without the turbocharger manages 123bhp, the one with 174. A number of incremental changes such as exhaust gas recirculation and refettled piston rings on the normally aspirated model and hollow camshafts, lightweight valve gear on the turbo engine has meant smoother, more tractable and cleaner engines. Weight saving seems to have become something of a preoccupation. The bonnet, roof rails, sunroof frame and bumper beams are now fabricated from lightweight aluminium. Even the anti roll bars are now hollow tubes. In February 2004, an XLn special edition was announced which added satellite navigation and leather trim to the standard Forester specification. In the autumn of 2004, a 2.5-litre turbocharged Forester XT was announced. This vehicle came in to top the range with 210bhp and a 6.0s 0-60mph time. Next, just under a year later, the whole car received a substantial re-working. The 2.0-litre engine was boosted to 156bhp and the 2.5-turbo got 230bhp. A revised grille and headlamps were introduced as was a 'Sportsshift' automatic transmission for the range-topping engine.
What You Get
While the late shape Forester's a marked improvement over the old car in terms of overall ambience, it's still light on style or the conspicuous design many customers in this market sector crave. Jump from, say, a Nissan X-Trail into a Forester and you'll think you've regressed a few years. Nevertheless, everything functions superbly, it's comfortable and competitively equipped. All Foresters are fitted with remote central locking, a Thatcham Category One alarm, a CD stereo, dual airbags, windscreen wiper de-icers and climate controlled air conditioning. Electric windows and mirrors, a tilt adjustable steering wheel and dual 12v power outlets are also fitted. The XT adds alloy wheels, cruise control, heated front seats and a gigantic electric sunroof. You won't buy a Forester for all its gadgets however - or for its luxury ambience. The key appeals are the 200mm of ground clearance and the promise of as much four-wheel driving ability as you can probably cope with. Compact and wieldy, it's big on practicality, roomy, versatile and, if recent customer satisfaction surveys are to be believed, almost impeccably reliable. Whichever Forester you select, the design features a lower centre of gravity than any of its full-time four-wheel drive rivals, yet it still offers that extra ground clearance - over say a Legacy - that could make all the difference on bumpy tracks. Subaru learned the value of this in the forests of Carlisle, the gravel of New Zealand and the snow and ice of Scandinavia.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Forester-spotters should note that front fog-lights are the only external give away to the optional All Weather Pack's otherwise hidden appearance. Inside, look for the 'A/C' button, labels for side airbags and, on post-facelift examples, cruise control. Check for thrashed turbo models and signs of over-enthusiastic or incompetent off-road driving (especially underbody damage). A service history is essential to get the best sell-on prices and the air conditioning, massive sunroof and seat heaters of the All Weather Pack are also highly desirable. Subaru parts are usually rather expensive, so check your intended purchase carefully.
(Based on Forester 2.0 approx.) These are pricey. The clutch assembly comes in three separate sections which collectively add up to around £175. Front brake pads are around £75, a full exhaust (which also comes in three sections) about £330 including catalyst and an alternator (exchange) around £120 or £405 new. A headlamp is about £140.
On the Road
Like the Impreza platform the Forester is based upon, both the X and XT models have much to recommend them. The X is agreeably lively, the chassis letting you know it's capable of handling twice as much power with ease, yet it's never a tedious steer. 60mph is 10,9 seconds away whilst the top speed of 112mph should be enough for most. It always feels up for fun, the characterful engine giving something back even when you're bumbling along in the traffic. The XT model is easily differentiated by its Impreza WRX-style bonnet scoop. It shares plenty of its sibling's manic exuberance, hitting 60mph in just 7.9 seconds. To be frank, it feels a good deal quicker, the sheer unlikeliness of this unprepossessing estate car's turn of pace prompting pedal to the metal progress. It corners superbly too, flat and hard, all of a piece. Try to upset it and it behaves very tidily. There aren't too many sports coupes that can hold a candle to the Forester when it comes to handling. Part of the reason why is that the development staff at Subaru are all mad about cars in the same way that possibly only Porsche and BMW M division employees are. They live, breathe, eat and sleep performance and the Forester is evidence of that trickle down effect. The emphasis is clearly on dynamic excellence. The Forester XT proved its versatility by winning The Caravan Club's 'Towcar Of The Year 2004' in tests based on traction, stability, braking, acceleration and hill starts. The Forester's ingenious hill holder clutch proved a boon amongst the caravanners.
The Forester is a car that has excelled in reliability and customer satisfaction surveys. If you can live with its fuel consumption, you'll have a car that can turn its hand to almost anything at surprisingly affordable prices. Never has being so practical been so much fun.