Our long-term 2014 Subaru Forester 2.0XT test car is now in its fourth month, and in a new venue--New York state's Catskill Mountains, rather than the suburbs of Atlanta.
That's taken it into new roads and terrain, and posed some new questions too.
Today, we've been mulling over which we'd prefer for our own car: the well-equipped, high-end 2.0XT Touring test car, or a more basic 2014 Forester trim level.
As always, people call the Subaru Forester by different names. Our six-month test car is variously known as a wagon, crossover, or SUV.
But regardless of what you call it, it's getting new and more rugged use these days--as do lots of the many, many Subaru Foresters and Outbacks in upstate New York.
Dirt and gravel tracks, steep and broken roads along rocky "cloves" mapped by Dutch explorers four centuries ago, and general country hauling duties got us thinking about the advantages of base models.
The basic Forester 2.5i comes with a much less powerful 170-hp 2.5-liter flat-four engine producing 174 lb-ft of torque, and a standard six-speed manual gearbox.
And it's got fewer really nice things inside to get dirty.
More power, more luxe
Our test car, on the other hand, is the 2.0XT turbo model, with a 250-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter turbocharged flat-four producing 258 lb-ft of torque, with Subaru's continuously variable transmission (CVT).
In fuel economy, the 2.5i manual car gets the worst of all varieties: 24 mpg combined (22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway). But add the CVT to that model, and gas mileage rises to 27 mpg combined (24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway).
Our test 2.0XT falls between those two, at 25 mpg combined (23 mpg city, 28 mpg highway).
But in using our Forester long-term test car as some combination of pickup truck and lawn tractor, we started to wonder about some of the standard features fitted to the higher trim levels.
The window sticker on our test car carried a $36,459 bottom line--far north of the 2014 Forester 2.5i's base price of $23,020 (both prices include the mandatory $825 delivery fee).
Our test car has leather-trimmed seats, as well as leather wrappings for the steering wheel and shift knob. It certainly smells nice, but we worry about getting the nice upholstery all dirty.
Power tailgate? Subaru? Really?
It also has a power rear tailgate, with memory for the preferred height at which it would stop. The driver's seat has 10-way power adjustment, and the roof holds a large glassy panoramic power moonroof.
It also includes keyless entry and starting, and a one-touch folding rear seatback that's confined to high-end Foresters.
The Harman/Kardon audio system has a 440-Watt amplifier, and AM/FM/CD/satellite radio plus a navigation system with a 6.1-inch color touchscreen display in the center of the dash.
Here in the mountains, both radio and satellite radio are frequently interrupted by the rocky ledges through which roads pass. Doesn't matter how good your stereo is if it cuts in and out regularly during your daily errands.
In fact, the only option fitted almost universally here--and it's hard to find any recent Subaru without it--is the all-weather package that bundles heated front seats, de-icers for the windshield wipers, and heated side mirrors.
Responding to demand from wintry areas, Subaru has lately made its cold-weather package available as an option across a much wider range of trim levels on all its cars.
Statistically, few buyers order the very bottom-line Forester 2.5i model, but one level up, the Forester 2.5i Premium includes amenities like a one-touch up/down driver's window.
As of this year, the reversing camera is standard on all models of Forester, even the most basic 2.5i.
Leaking mulch bag
We're using the Subaru for our usual tasks: hauling gardening supplies, including that inevitably slightly leaky bag of mulch, taking recyclables and trash to what used to be "the dump" and is now the Joint Resource Recovery Facility, and delivering some used 50-year-old body panels for an arcane car to a friend 80 miles away.
And while we like the extra light of the sunroof, and appreciate the satellite radio once we're out of the narrow passes, and find the leather seats mostly supportive and comfortable--for our uses, we suspect a 2.5i Premium or perhaps Limited would work just fine.
It's less powerful, but more fuel-efficient. We'd pay the extra money to add the CVT, and of course the all-weather package. There's not a lot else we'd need.
Beyond that, it'd be what most of the Foresters around here are: a practical, hard-working, all-wheel-drive utility vehicle that's just a little sturdier and more capable than the rest.
Leather seats are nice, but basic cloth would do just as well. We like to think of ourselves as unpretentious up here, and we like our Subarus the same way.