Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Subaru remains one of the best

Forester boasts superior all-wheel drive and innovative gear system

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For those who worry that Subaru might be heading toward the mainstream of automotive design, the 2013 Forester is sufficiently distinct to quell such fears.

Compared to other compact utility vehicles, it has a distinctly more squared-off appearance, along with the best ground clearance in its class. Underneath, nothing is hanging down, such as suspension towers and odd bits, so all that clearance is useable.

It was a sunny autumn day in Vancouver when I picked up my Forester Limited test car, the normally aspirated 170 hp version, with the continuously variable automatic transmission. A CVT has no actual gears -- the vehicle computer creates them from a program. Fuel-economy specs show that this to be a very efficient drivetrain.

Regardless of manufacturer, all-wheel-drive systems have improved significantly over the years, and Subaru remains one of the best. I had no hesitation throwing some camping gear in the back, then pointing the Forester up a stretch of dirt road into the mountains.

Off the beaten path, the Subaru was in its element. While not a hardcore 4x4 machine, it was well up to the demands of moderate back-country travel. My test vehicle was outfitted with the X-mode feature, which controlled braking traction very well on downgrades. Visibility in all directions was better than in most compact sport utilities.

There were a few things I didn't like. Throttle tip-in, the vehicle's initial response to gas pedal application, was too abrupt. I got used to it quickly enough, but I've never cared for this sort of thing, which manufacturers use to make a vehicle fuel peppier. The seats, while comfortable, could have been a little more supportive given that leather is a slippery material. And while the CVT is an excellent automatic transmission, it's still no substitute for the control afforded by a manual gearbox.

It was interesting to find a simpler grill in the list of options. I generally dislike chrome, especially on utility vehicles, so I'd either go for the simple grille or have the stock one painted body colour. But I don't expect everyone to share my prejudices, either about chrome or my preference for good cloth seats over leather.

The Forester is a very solid and pleasant highway car. The driver will only be disappointed if he or she thinks they have bought a sports sedan. It's not an Impreza WR X and doesn't pretend to be.

I did a bit of a comparison between the Mazda CX 5 and the Forester. The Mazda is somewhat quicker, though Subaru does offer a turbocharged XT version which, by SUV standards, qualifies as rapid transit. The 250-hp Forester XT is only available with the CVT, which like my test car can be controlled with shift paddles on the steering wheel. Mazda has become very good at suspension tuning, so the CX 5 is more of a driver's car. The Subaru is no slouch either -- think BMW for the Mazda, Audi for the Subaru.

While other manufacturers have closed the gap over the years, Subaru has the better all-wheel-drive system. It also has better ground clearance and sightlines, especially to the rear quarters. Price comes out very close to the CX 5, just over $30,000 for versions I'd be happy with. Add leather and toys and the prices will climb quite a bit.

In Vancouver, as in most Canadian cities, it's getting harder and harder to find a manual-gearbox vehicle on a dealer lot. With other compact sports utilities, the stick shifts are only available on the most basic front-wheel drive models.

But the Forster can be had with a decent trim level, the excellent all-wheel drive system and a six-speed manual gearbox. Aside from its genuine agility in difficult terrain, it's a largely unadvertised advantage.

That's no big deal in Vancouver, and if I lived in a big city perhaps an automatic would make more sense. But here in the mountains, and for many in my circle of friends, the manual is a significant selling point.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at www.spdt.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2014 E3

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