2012 Subaru Forester Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
January 26, 2012

The 2012 Subaru Forester is tough, all-weather-capable, and one of the best-handling compact crossovers--plus, a blast to drive in XT turbo form--but an old-tech automatic transmission and econo-caliber interior remain letdowns.

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. 

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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.

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2012 Subaru Forester

Styling

The 2012 Subaru Forester is nicely proportioned, and it provides classic crossover utility without the overbearing and aggressive lines found in some of its competitors.

Now in its fourth year, the 2012 Subaru Forester is still a handsome and well-proportioned crossover. Its relatively square corners and tall windows maximize interior space on a compact footprint, positioning it exactly halfway between a "tall station wagon" and a more truck-like small sport-utility. The combination works well, and the Forester isn't as aggressive looking or awkwardly tall as some of its competitors, despite ground clearance of almost 9 inches. The front end styling especially is just rounded enough to maintain a family resemblance to other Subarus while keeping the Forester distinct and recognizable.

Inside, the 2012 Forester has a modified version of the swooping central console and dash design pioneered a few years earlier in the larger Tribeca crossover. The design of the center stack and controls is upright, but the top horizontal portion of the dash smoothly flows into the doors. Parts of it are somewhat plain, reflecting the practicality of this all-purpose vehicle, but it's well suited to the understated buyers who value the Forester for its ability to handle kids, stuff, and a host of outdoor gear, boats, and anything else.

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2012 Subaru Forester

Performance

The 2012 Subaru Forester's handling and all-wheel drive may be the best in the crowded class of compact crossovers, though its ancient four-speed automatic isn't a high point.

The 2012 Subaru Forester benefits from an all-new, 170-horsepower 2.5-liter flat-four engine that was introduced last year. The new engine delivers better fuel economy than in older Forester models, and should require less maintenance due to its chain-driven dual overhead camshafts. Acceleration is good with the five-speed manual transmission--available only in the 2.5X model--but the wide ratios of Subaru's aging four-speed automatic transmission slow things down a bit.

The more expensive 2.5XT model adds a turbocharger, boosting power to 224 horsepower and torque to 226 pound-feet. It drives only through the four-speed automatic, so while acceleration is good once the turbo spools up, the same problem of widely spaced ratios handicaps the Forester's overall progress, meaning it's not as enjoyable as it might be with a more modern automatic.

Like most Subarus, the handling is the secret strength of the 2012 Forester. The flat four gives it a low center of gravity, and it's simply the best-balanced and most rewarding crossover in its class. The handling is closer to that of a sport sedan than of a tall crossover, and the low seating position belies the practicality of the whole vehicle. Subaru's all-wheel drive system provides enormous grip out of corners, as well as the ability to negotiate both muddy trails and deep snow. And its 8.9 inches of ground clearance only reinforce its mountain-goat tendencies.

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2012 Subaru Forester

Comfort & Quality

The 2012 Subaru Forester offers a remarkably roomy interior, plenty of space for passengers and cargo, and supreme practicality, but interior materials aren't impressive and road noise can be higher than usual.

You may not recognize how much space there is inside a 2012 Subaru Forester until you climb inside. The seats are well-placed, the cargo floor is low, and it will hold not only four full-size adults--five in a pinch--and a surprising volume of their gear. Loading and unloading through the tailgate is easy (that low cargo floor again), and the rear seat folds flat. One weakness may be the front seat shape, with some of our reviewers finding them flat and unsupportive, especially for taller drivers. 

Traveling in a 2012 Forester is a relatively refined experience, though all the new compact crossovers are considerably quieter--and the Forester faces increasingly tough competition on that front. The ride is well-damped and surprisingly soft, but Subaru's chronic challenge of road noise and wind roar from around the door mirrors remains. (The mirrors themselves are large and well-shaped, but perhaps as a result, they're noisy.)

The interior materials and trim plastic, especially those used on the large flat surfaces of the dashboard, aren't up to the best in class. They look good, but feel hard and occasionally hollow. They're undoubtedly practical, which may be the right choice for the hard wear that some Subaru owners expect out of their Foresters. But other crossovers now have more pleasing and stylish interiors.

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2012 Subaru Forester

Safety

The 2012 Subaru Forester scores well on most safety ratings, though new Federal side-impact tests did not produce good results; its outward visibility is second to none, however, which we laud.

While the Subaru Forester did well in safety ratings when it was launched in 2009, revised and much tougher Federal crash tests have taken a toll on its ratings. First, the good news: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 2012 Forester its highest rating of "Good" for frontal, side, and rear impact tests. The Forester also scores a "Good" on the new IIHS roof strength test.

On the other hand, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the Forester only three stars out of five for its side impact crash performance--and a low two stars on its side pole test, although that brand-new test isn't factored into the overall score. The 2012 Forester did rate four stars overall, and four stars on front crash performance as well.

The Forester is fitted with standard safety features that include stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, a tire-pressure monitoring system, and six airbags. And the Subaru Forester's outward visibility is simply excellent, with the low beltline and large glass area giving superb rear and rear three-quarter vision. That's a quality that's quietly vanishing from many crossovers with rising window lines and enormously thick roof pillars--largely for styling reasons--so we complement Subaru on getting the basics of driving safety right.

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2012 Subaru Forester

Features

The 2012 Subaru Forester offers a wide range of trim levels, from basic and utilitarian to almost luxurious, and we applaud its offer of both a less costly TomTom GPS unit and a traditional navigation system.

The 2012 Subaru Forester has a remarkably low base price of around $21,000 with delivery for the entry 2.5X model, and that trim level includes a tilt-adjustable steering column, power windows and locks, cruise control, automatic headlights, and keyless entry as standard features.

The 2.5X comes in base, Premium, Limited, and Touring models, and is the only trim level that offers a five-speed manual transmission option (except in the 2.5X Limited). The turbocharged 2.5XT comes only in Premium and Touring models.

All but the 2.5X base model come with a six-speaker audio system that includes integrated Bluetooth for hands-free control and audio streaming, compatibility with Sirius Satellite Radio, iPod controls, and both an audio-in jack and a a USB port.

The Premium trim level adds 17-inch alloy wheels and a panoramic sunroof, among other features, and the Limited bundles in upgrades for all six speakers, HD Radio, and a backup camera with a 4.3-inch display in the dash.

Touring models can be identified from their High-Intensity Discharge (HID) headlamps and chromed roof rails, along with dual-zone climate control, a single-touch folding seatback for the rear seat, and instruments with electroluminescent displays. Note that the 2.5XT Touring model starts at around $30,000 with delivery and can climb a few thousand dollars above that if fully outfitted.

Bowing to the realities of the fast-changing in-car navigation market, Subaru offers a TomTom portable navigation system that can be removed from the car; it costs just $595, if ordered together with the All-Weather Package. A more traditional touch-screen navigation system, with a larger 7-inch display, can be ordered for the more traditional price of $1,800.

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2012 Subaru Forester

Fuel Economy

The 2012 Subaru Forester is slightly less fuel-efficient than some competitors, but compact crossover mileage is likely to rise quickly in the years to come--making the Forester less than competitive.

The compact crossover segment is rapidly getting more fuel efficient, and while the 2012 Subaru Forester is within 1 or 2 mpg of its rivals' all-wheel drive models, that may not last too much longer. At 21 mpg city, 27 mpg highway, its EPA gas mileage ratings for the 5-speed manual model aren't bad, but most buyers are likely to buy the automatic.

That powertrain is rated at 19 mpg city, 24 mpg highway, which is lower than ratings for the AWD models of the Chevrolet Equinox and Hyundai Tucson, though on a par with those of the outgoing Ford Escape. The new 2013 Escape is likely to do far better, however, putting Subaru at risk of below-par gas mileage. 

We averaged about 23 mpg overall in a recent Forester road test, including a mix of cold-weather conditions, so you'll likely meet or beat that gas mileage number. Note that the faster turbocharged 2.5XT Forester models, however, get much lower gas mileage.

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