- Savvy, utilitarian look
- Nicely-detailed interior
- Excellent handling
- Standard all-wheel drive
- Automatic has four widely spaced gears
- Base model still without Bluetooth
- Small, flat front seats
- Chintzy cabin materials
The roomy, versatile 2011 Subaru Forester handles better than just about any other small crossover, though the need for a more modern transmission and a little more cabin refinement keep it from greatness.
When it first hit the market back in 1998, the Forester was one of the first crossover wagons—essentially a taller, more rugged wagon that carried a more SUV-like body but didn't give up its carlike handling. Today, the Forester keeps to that formula, still offering an almost incredibly roomy interior within a vehicle that can be parked in compact spaces; and just as with Subaru's other vehicles, standard all-wheel drive gives it all-weather tenacity.
The Forester was fully redesigned for 2009, gaining a slightly larger, slightly more rounded look that replaced its much-loved, more overtly boxy predecessor. In some respects the Forester had become a more contemporary take on the old Volvo 240 wagon formula, maximizing its space with squared-off corners and tall glass. Arguably, the look of the current Forester is more sophisticated—and looks more like a tall boxy wagon than a small-scale SUV. Inside, the Forester is a little plain, but it's a good fit for the outdoorsy, understated crowd that falls for the Forester in droves.
The big news is that the Subaru Forester gets an all-new engine for 2011. While it's only modestly more powerful—and makes the same 170 horsepower—the new engine gets slightly better fuel economy. With chain-driven double overhead cams, it promises fewer maintenance needs, too, than the belt-driven single overhead cam design it replaces. You'll find reasonably quick acceleration with the five-speed manual transmission, but it's hampered slightly by the wide ratios of the four-speed automatic. XT variants get a turbocharged four-cylinder with 224 horsepower and 226 pound-feet of torque. It moves very quickly, but with only the four-speed auto, it's not as enjoyable as it could be.
The Forester's strength is handling; it's by far the best-balanced, most dynamically proficient crossover, and the rather low seating position and low center of mass helps instill a stable feel on twisty roads and tight corners. The way the Forester handles is positively carlike, and the all-wheel drive system assists with traction out of corners, enhancing its already admirable poise. Yet the Forester has just enough give, and 8.7 inches of ground clearance—especially useful for negotiating deep snow or climbing up a modest trail to a camping spot.
The boxy shape of the 2011 Subaru Forester, along with ideally placed seating and a low cargo floor, altogether make it much roomier inside than you'd likely anticipate. It's actually good enough for four full-size adults, with the capability to fit three across in back in a pinch. The backseat folds flat, and the Forester has a lower cargo floor than some of the other vehicles in this class, lending a roomier feel and easier loading. All the while, the Forester feels quite refined. Ride quality is mostly quite soft, yet road noise can be obtrusive on some surfaces, and it's certainly not quiet. Also, the Forester's interior materials and trims—especially the unremarkable dash plastics—are a weakness, with dash and center-console materials, and grained and matte-metallic plastics used as surfaces, feeling a bit hard and hollow. Subaru claims to have improved materials for 2011, but the differences are very minor.
Top Touring models are again distinguished by their HID headlamps, bright roof rails, dual-zone climate control, one-touch folding rear seatbacks, and electroluminescent instruments. This year, you can get the top Touring trim with either engine.
For 2011, all but the base model get an all-new audio system with integrated Bluetooth hands-free functions, plus six speakers, an auxiliary jack, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod controls, a USB port, and Sirius Satellite Radio compatibility. A new TomTom navigation package—with a portable unit that can detach from the base—is being offered for just $595 when paired with the All Weather Package. A big seven-inch touch-screen nav system also remains available for $1,800.