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Now in its fifth year of production, the 2013 Subaru Forester is the only compact crossover utility with standard all-wheel drive. The sturdy and rugged but easy-to-use wagon is built on sedan underpinnings and offers a remarkably roomy interior, the handing of a passenger car, good ground clearance, and compact exterior dimensions that make it easy to park in even the smallest of spaces. It's virtually the ideal balance for small families in the Snow Belt and other locations that place a premium on the safety and capability of all-wheel drive.
First introduced for the 2009 model year, the Subaru Forester hasn't changed much since then. You might think of it as today's equivalent to the boxy Volvo 240 wagon--with its tall glass, boxy lines, practical utility, and reputation for remarkable durability. The simple, plain interior is unabashedly utilitarian, but its more outdoorsy, sporting users treasure the easy-wipe surfaces, rugged fabrics, and tough plastic surfaces. Subarus in ads often have skis, kayaks, or canoes on their roof racks, and that mirrors reality in many parts of the country--and even suburban families whose sport is soccer reap the rewards.
In 2011, the Forester received a new flat-four base engine that's more efficient but produces the same power as the previous engine. Performance is responsive if you opt for the standard five-speed gearbox, but the aging four-speed automatic has ratios so wide that they significantly slow down that model. There's also a turbocharged XT model with roughly 50 percent more horsepower; they're undeniably quicker, but still handicapped by the four-speed auto.
Handling is one of Subaru's significant strengths, although with the advent of the Mazda CX-5 and the Ford Escape, it has significant competition for the title of best-balanced crossover. But it remains confident, stable, and predictable on twisty roads, tight corners, and uneven surfaces. And the flat-four engine keeps the weight low, so it's far from tippy despite the substantial 8.9 inches of ground clearance that make it the perfect car for camping, gravel tracks, and unplowed snowy roads.
The Subaru Forester has more space inside than you might imagine. The front seats, while flat and short, are at a convenient height, and if you need to, you can fit three adults across the rear. Both driver and front passenger seats are now height-adjustable. The load floor is low, and the back seat folds flat, giving easier loading through the tailgate and the side doors. The ride is good and rarely harsh, but noise suppression isn't the best in class, and on some surfaces, there's quite a lot of road noise.
As one of the older entries in the segment, the Forester isn't top of the list in every safety test. The NHTSA gave it only three stars for side impact, for example, But it remains an IIHS Top Safety Pick, and its all-wheel drive system and stability control give it a surefooted feel on the wettest and snowiest roads--a safety benefit that can't necessarily be measured in crash testing.
The four trim levels are base, Premium, Limited, and Touring, though the turbocharged XT models come only in Premium and Touring. The top-of-the-line Touring models include HID headlamps, dual-zone climate control, rear seat backs that fold in a single touch, bright roof rails, and electroluminescent instruments. The Forester's audio systems were upgraded in 2011, adding an auxiliary jack and USB port, Bluetooth pairing for hands-free control, audio streaming, integrated iPod control, and Sirius XM satellite radio. The navigation system on Limited and Touring models brings with it a 6.1-inch touchscreen display, with voice control and functions like text messaging and iTunes tagging. Buyers of the All Weather Package can opt for a lower-cost TomTom navigation system, whose portable screen detaches from its base and can be carried out of the car.