Cars and Trucks

Tested: 1998 Subaru Forester S AWD Alters the SUV Mold

From the May 1997 issue of Car and Driver.

Talk about a new wookie in town, this Forester is it. Subaru of America calls it a “‘new generation sport-utility-type vehicle for the 1998 model year.” It will be out late this summer and is meant to be “a true hybrid,” as capable off-road as Subaru’s larger Outback (based on the Legacy wagon). One of the chummier things about the Forester is it equals the Outback’s ground clearance and betters its approach- and departure­-angle clearances, thanks to shorter overhangs. But the Forester is also meant to advance the day-to-day character and talents of a very well-packaged and feature­-packed small car—okay, a useful-but-tidy wagon. Subaru describes it as a “unique hybrid vehicle offering the sporty design, rugged performance, and generous cargo capacity of an SUV and the ride quality, interior comfort, and low step-in height of a passenger car.” It will be made in Japan and classified as a passenger car, and it will come exclusively with Subaru’s trademark All­-Wheel Driving System.

What could be a better “handle” than Forester? (It has more of a stand-by-you ring to it than, what, “Deserter”?) Its S and AWD badges suggest that its sporting and all-wheel-drive abilities bring much more than mere surface (or surface-street) goodness. (There will also be an L model attired from the luxo rack.)

The rounded, fender-bulge styling of the Forester supports its ample greenhouse without making it look like a glass aviary. Windows and pillars are smoothed in, and it all looks solid. Fender flares curl into integrated mudguards that give it “stance” without weirding-out the proportions. There is something appropriately and modernly slick about it. Just enough roundness and coordination in the design to look all of a piece.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

The colorings on this unit couldn’t be better for a vehicle dubbed Forester. We can’t say much for the raised, white-lined markings on the tires, though. They look out of place on a vehicle that otherwise looks so nicely drawn. (Okay, except for the garishly chromey cartoon grille.)

The Forester is smaller and lighter than mid-size SUVs like Jeep’s taller Cherokee and Ford’s burly Explorer. But the Forester throws a somewhat larger shadow than Toyota’s taller mini sport-ute, the zippy, league-leading RAV4 (which actually handles dry roads like a dream). Although Subaru says the Forester’s wheelbase falls between those of its small Impreza and mid-size Legacy—its largest model—the Forester’s 99.4-inch wheel­base is only two-tenths of an inch longer than the Impreza’s.

Highs: Burly but artful lines, silky four-cylinder, blithe handling, sensational braking.

Long a believer in horizontally opposed boxer engines, Subaru made this flat­-blocked four-cylinder anything but flat in its responsiveness. Its aluminum block sports aluminum heads, displaces 2.5 liters, and whirs out 165 horsepower at 5600 rpm. Its redline is at 6500, and it loves to zing up there. It stays smooth as its power surges when it comes on the cam, or maybe that should be “cams,” since it has four pumping 16 valves. Owing to its flat configuration—four pistons horizontally opposed in its boxer block—there are none of the all-too-dynamic vibrations that can give in-line engines the shakes. Thanks to technology, there’s none of an inline four’s gravelly coarseness as revs rise. Instead, there’s a muted but symphonic shriek that helps the Forester sound and feel more potent than it is. Subaru’s four-speed automatic transmission (no manual will be offered) gives the Forester enough scoot to make some passengers think there must be an advanced six-cylinder in it.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Measured performance is slightly less inspiring but not at all bad. So buttery is the powertrain that the zero-to-60-mph time of 9.1 seconds feels quicker. It’s almost a surprise that the drag-limited top speed peaks at only 106 mph, though without engine complaints. Despite the added weight and modest mechanical drag of its four-wheel drive, this Forester scored 21 mpg on the EPA city cycle. It averaged only 19 mpg overall for the lead-foots around here, though.

If your friends peg this Forester as another otherworldly Subaru and therefore a dog, select from among your sportier roads one that cries out for a premium chassis package and good driving. Then take them for a ride to demonstrate the Forester’s dance talents, which range between the roadgoing equivalents of a Viennese waltz and an Irish stepdance.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Its boxer engine permits a lower center of gravity than do tall inline engines, which helps handling and braking. This Forester felt unfailingly deft on the road and zipped around the skidpad at 0.80 g. Thank its all-independent, strut-type suspension, coil springs, and anti-roll bars. Nice enough, but the four-wheel disc brakes and their anti-lock circuitry—despite the Subaru’s tall stance (although nose and tail are usefully short)—yanked it to a halt from 70 mph in an eye-popping 168 feet. That’s Porsche 911 braking territory. These amazingly good skidpad and braking numbers are better than those of most conventional passenger cars and an order of magnitude better than the results turned in by other off­-road-oriented vehicles with similar ground clearance and approach and departure angles. The Forester just flat feels good.

Lows: Chrome-crate grille, arms-out driving position.

Subaru specifies front and rear tire inflations of 29 and 26 psi. They help explain the Forester’s fine ride but not its gift for getting a grip—and keeping it. Somewhere in there are good suspension geometry and superb tire construction and compounding. The Forester’s 6.5-by-16- inch “wagon” wheels and Yokohama Geolandar H/T tires—plump 215/60s—are rated for mud, snow, and even 130 mph. Too bad the Forester’ burly shape snubs it 24 mph earlier. Its other big drawback is a tendency to get blown around by gusty winds and big trucks.

The Forester did take good care of our sorry carcasses. Suddenly, they felt a lot less sorry. The front seats are comfortable for cruising, supportive for active driving, and decently adjustable. The leather seating surfaces felt and looked very good. Unfortunately, Subaru says the final production upholstery will not be perforated like that in our prototype, which breathed (okay, dissipated sweat) quite well. Still, one among us of average height felt that the seat and the tilting steering wheel, which does not telescope, could not be adjusted enough for his arms to easily reach the wheel. His legs also had to be scissored too sharply to suit the close­-mounted pedals. This used to be a regular problem in Japanese vehicles, and sometimes still is.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

We also found that, in tucking the left foot past the high dead pedal into the comfier footwell, one’s foot settles behind the brake pedal. But when the need to brake comes, with it comes a shock—that foot keeps the pedal from moving—this can extend your braking time into, ah, eternity.

Overhead, there’s plentiful noggin space even if you were born with big hair. Plenty of glass all around opens up the views. The 33-cubic-foot luggage area expands to 65 cubic feet with the split rear seatback folded. That slots the Forester between the 58-cubic-foot RAV4 and the 71-cube Cherokee. The stowage area is full of touches like tie-down rings and tucked-away compartments. Yet Subaru still hones its rep as a vendor of the “automotively unconventional.” First, you find just one dash-mounted cup holder, wherein your container of quaffable refreshment blocks the ventilation controls and its temperature is—always wrongly, it seems—warmed or cooled by the air-vent flow. Another ersatz cup holder nests in the console, where you slide open an access cover to fold down a wobbly cup hanger that randomly anoints console contents with your refreshment.

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

We’ve praised the Forester’s dynamics more than usual for a pre-production car. As four-wheel-drive vehicles go, it transmits little sense of how much mechanism is at work. We hope the Forester takes a Bunyan-esque whack at the sales of porky SUVs. If presentation and efficiency can put butts in the seats, Foresters should be running around like mobile sit-ins for environmental rights.

Writers often joke about the name of Subaru’s parent company—Fuji Heavy Industries. The Forester feels so agile that FHI ought to be renamed Fuji Twinkletoes Travel Gizmos because, starting at an estimated base price of $19,500, this wookie is bookin’.

The Verdict: Here’s the Forester to hew out a whole new energy policy.


Counterpoint

I love driving tall wagons with four-wheel drive, from the original Plymouth Colt Vista to this new Forester. They work better for extreme driving than any other sport-utility I’ve driven. Never is weight more of a driver’s enemy than when the roads are black ice and unplowed. But the Forester is 350 pounds fatter than a Toyota RAV4 and 150 pounds heavier than my favorite adventure car, the defunct Mitsubishi Expo LRV Sport AWD. The 3200-pound Forester is plusher than the slim, tall wagons. But when you dodge a deer at 3 a.m. in January on an icy interstate, a plush ride is only as important as the number of standard cupholders. —Phil Berg

Aaron KileyCar and Driver

Driving the Forester is much like driving a Legacy wagon, although its shorter wheelbase lends it a lick of extra agility. And it offers conspicuous visibility, lagging behind conventional SUVs in no meaningful way. But if I’m to be burdened by the Forester’s ungainly visage—hey, is that an old Bronco grille?—then the vehicle had better swallow item A on my list of camping imperatives: me. For sleeping within, alas, the Forester is six inches too stubby. Of course, that’s true of most “real” SUVs, save the Suburban and the Expedition. —John Phillips

Subaru continues to be the automaker with an eclectic personality. The Forester is another of its odd ducks, platypus-like in that it looks like both a sport-ute and a station wagon. I’m afraid I don’t like its decidedly frumpy looks, but it drives well and has plenty of power, is easy to get in to and out of and to drive, has a wide view out the windshield, and appears to be fuel frugal. Its price—close to the mini-utes’—is its greatest advantage. —Steve Spence

Specifications

SPECIFICATIONS

1998 Subaru Forester S AWD 

VEHICLE TYPE
front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door wagon

PRICE AS TESTED (C/D EST)
$24,000 (base price: $19,500) 

ENGINE TYPE
DOHC 16-valve flat-4, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement
150 in3, 2457 cm3
Power
165 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque
162 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm

TRANSMISSION
4-speed automatic

CHASSIS
Suspension (F/R): struts/multilink
Brakes (F/R): 10.1-in vented disc/10.3-in disc
Tires: Yokohama Geolander H/T, P215/60HR-16

DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase: 99.4 in
Length: 175.2 in
Width: 68.3 in
Height: 62.8 in
Passenger volume: 95 ft3
Cargo volume: 33 ft3
 
Curb weight: 3191 lb

C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 2.8 sec
60 mph: 9.1 sec
100 mph: 33.1 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 9.3 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 4.7 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 7.1 sec
1/4 mile: 17.0 sec @ 79 mph
Top speed (drag limited): 106 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 168 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g

C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 19 mpg

EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/city/highway: 23/21/26 mpg

c/d testing explained

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