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The 2012 Subaru Forester is a tall, boxy crossover wagon, carrying a rugged-looking, utility-like body over somewhat sturdier passenger-car underpinnings. To us, the Forester strikes a nearly ideal balance for Snow Belt small families—with an almost incredibly roomy interior, carlike handling, standard all-weather all-wheel drive (with good ground clearance), and exterior dimensions that make it just small enough for compact-only spaces.
The Forester hasn't changed all that much since 2009, when it received a complete redesign and gained a somewhat larger body, with slightly more rounded cues compared to its much-loved, more overtly boxy predecessor. In some respects, the Forester is the present-day Volvo 240 wagon—unabashedly utilitarian, with its squared-off corners and tall glass, yet a bit more sophisticated. The Forester is a little plain inside, but its rugged fabrics and easy-wipe surfaces will be a good fit for the understated, outdoorsy crowd.
Last year the Forester got an all-new base engine that produces the same max power as the unit it replaced—though it's a little more responsive, and should have lower maintenance. With the base five-speed manual transmission, performance is quick enough, but the wide ratios of the four-speed automatic remain one of the Forester's most significant drawbacks. XT variants get a little bit of WRX flavor, with a turbocharged four-cylinder with 224 horsepower and 226 pound-feet of torque; they move quickly but are again let down with the four-speed auto.
Across the Forester lineup, handling remains its strength; 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. Yet those who need to take on deep snow or a deep two-track to a camping spot will appreciate the 8.7 inches of ground clearance.
If you haven't been inside a Forester before, there's likely far more space than you would have anticipated. The front seating position is at a nice height (though the seats feel short and flat), while you can fit three across in back in a pinch. For 2012, all Forester models get height adjustment for the passenger seat as well as the driver's seat. 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. Ride quality is mostly quite soft, yet road noise can be obtrusive on some surfaces, and it's certainly not quiet.
The Forester has a mixed reputation for safety. While its all-wheel drive system, combined with an excellent stability control system, make it very surefooted on snowy or wet roads, its achieved just three-star federal results for side impact. On the other hand, it's again an IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2012.
With either engine, top Touring models are distinguished by their HID headlamps, bright roof rails, dual-zone climate control, one-touch folding rear seatbacks, and electroluminescent instruments. Last year, the Forester got new audio systems, with integrated Bluetooth hands-free functions and an auxiliary jack, plus Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod controls, a USB port, and Sirius Satellite Radio compatibility. A TomTom navigation package—with a portable unit that can detach from the base—remains offered as a lower-priced option when paired with the All Weather Package, but the available nav system on Limited and Touring models now has a 6.1-inch display, voice-activated controls, iTunes tagging, and text-messaging capability.