If you've driven a Subaru during the last decade or so, chances are more than one non-automotive aficionado has asked how you like your Australian car. This question shouldn't necessarily make you assume that the name Subaru has an inherent Australian ring to it, but rather that the eight-year Subaru of America advertising campaign featuring Aussie Paul Hogan of Crocodile Dundee fame was a huge success.
Back in the day when all-wheel drive became a Subaru model line standard, Hogan made the perfect spokesman, as Subaru wagons, one aptly named Outback, were seen slogging repeatedly through commercial mud. But now the beauty of all-wheel drive, a feature that once separated Subaru from the rest of the wagon and small SUV crowd, is available on a wide variety of vehicles Subaru Forester competitors Mitsubishi Outlander, Ford Escape and Honda CR-V included. So Subaru is looking for a new edge, and therefore has begun to shift its focus, and advertising dollars, from the advantages of all-wheel drive to touting performance instead.
The turbocharged, 227-horsepower 2002 Subaru Impreza WRX was the first sign of the magnitude of true power the Japanese company is able to bring to American shores. Earlier this year, Subaru again amped up the Impreza line to include a 300-hp 2004 Impreza WRX version. Along with the new STi came a fresh company tag line, "Driven by what's inside" with accomplished bicyclist Lance Armstrong delivering the new battle cry.
But the Impreza wasn't the only car to get a performance makeover. Subaru also dialed up the power on the 2004 Subaru Forester and Baja models, as well.
Completely redesigned in 2003, many fans of the Subaru Forester were begging for more power. The new Forester was still using a 2.5-liter, horizontally opposed, four-cylinder engine from the previous model, and Subaru loyalists were questioning the rationality of not offering the 3.0-liter six-cylinder that has been available in the larger Outback wagon since 2001. In 2003, Subaru officials explained that they didn't want the heavier six-cylinder engine to alter the Forester's handling characteristics. But with the introduction of the 2004 Subaru Forester, engineers will finally be able to give consumers the power they want, by way of a 2.5-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine instead.
Built on the Impreza platform, the 2004 Forester XT benefits from the engine technology introduced in the Impreza WRX STi with a new turbocharged and intercooled 2.5-liter boxer engine that produces 210 horsepower a considerable increase over the normally aspirated 165-horsepower version still utilized in the 2004 Forester X and XS models. But the real story here is torque. The new 2.5-liter power plant produces 235 pound-feet of torque (42 percent more than other Forester models) at 3,600 rpm. Subaru engineers tell us that this impressive torque figure, plus the boost in horsepower was achieved by increasing engine weight only 115 pounds over the normally aspirated 2.5-liter engine, therefore preserving the Forester's previous handling characteristics. An Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) system is also present to help the Forester reach its best fuel efficiency, while remaining a Low Emission Vehicle (LEV), and an Active Valve Control system (AVCS) works to optimize the engine's efficiency at all engine speeds. Aiding the engine-mounted intercooler is the functional aluminum hood scoop that provides fresh air to the engine.
Having spent a good deal of time behind the wheel of our long-term 2003 Subaru Forester XS test vehicle, we were immediately struck by the increased power in the XT version. Climbing and passing on mountainous roads was effortless, and we felt a rush of satisfaction as we wound our way to higher elevations.
Our test vehicle was equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission which utilizes Subaru's Hill Holder feature that was reintroduced for the 2003 Forester. Although we weren't able to experience the new optional four-speed automatic tranny, we believe we'd be hard-pressed to choose it over the manual, as the latter's smooth shifts make it the ideal mate to the turbocharged engine.
In spite of Subaru's shift toward performance, all Subaru vehicles sold in the United States still come standard with full-time all-wheel drive. Models equipped with the manual transmission use a continuous viscous-coupling system that splits power 50/50 front to rear and adjusts accordingly when slippage occurs, while automatic-equipped Foresters get Active All-Wheel Drive that electronically monitors available traction and transfers power where needed.
The turbocharged Forester still rides on the same four-wheel independent suspension as other Foresters, and uses the same variable-ratio power rack-and-pinion steering. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes and an Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) system, which allows independent braking of each rear wheel based on traction and weight transfer, are standard on the XT.
If Subaru engineers were initially concerned about preserving the Forester's handling characteristics with the burden of additional curb weight, they accomplished their goal. The Forester turbo rides the same as the naturally aspirated version, with its soft suspension and predictable steering. It also displayed capable braking during our initial drive, even when we were forced to brake hard in order to avoid an unexpected dog crossing the road.
While the turbocharged engine is the most distinguishing feature of the Subaru Forester XT, there are a few other distinctive design cues as well. The XT's functional hood scoop, body-color side cladding, natural aluminum finish and body-color mounts on the standard roof rails are the main exterior indicators. Others include body-color door handles; unique six-spoke, 16-inch alloy wheels with black letter tires; and a chrome tailpipe.
Inside the cabin, the turbo Forester looks the same as its less powerful siblings, with just a few detail differences. Black flat-woven upholstery with cloth side bolster trim and a standard sport design gauge pack complement the Forester's newfound power. Leather-trimmed upholstery is standard in Foresters equipped with the Premium Package, which also includes an automatic transmission and power moonroof. Front-seat comfort in the XT remains the same with suitably wide comfortable seats flanked with ample bolstering.
The black perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel, shifter handle and parking brake handle not only look sporty, but also feel good in your hands. Additional touches, like illuminated power window switches on all doors, chrome interior door handles, aluminum sill plate covers with Forester badging and retractable grip handles add to the interior's charm and functionality. We also took note of the standard center console with an additional 12-volt accessory power outlet and two cupholders.
Peering into the rear cargo area, you'll find that the rear seat still splits 60/40 and folds flat to convert the fully carpeted cargo area from 32 cubic feet with the rear seats up, to 64.1 cubic feet with the rear seats folded (Foresters with the Premium Package have 62.7 cubic feet instead due to the presence of a moonroof). The turbo Forester also gets a retractable cargo cover as standard equipment.
The XT builds on the luxury of the XS model, with standard automatic climate control, a seven-speaker sound system with door-mounted tweeters and a rear subwoofer to enhance the notes from the standard 120-watt AM/FM/weatherband stereo with an in-dash six-disc CD changer. Lastly, the regular Forester's All-Weather Package is standard XT equipment with dual-mode heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors and a windshield wiper de-icer.
Since Subaru isn't ready to talk pricing yet, it may be hard to determine whether the 2004 Forester XT is worth the premium consumers are likely to pay for the turbocharged engine. A 2003 Forester XS with the naturally aspirated engine is already running approximately $2,000 over a comparatively equipped Outlander, Escape or CR-V. But none of the aforementioned competitors have a model that can compete with the XT's performance figures. If power means more to you than your pocketbook, the Subaru Forester XT is the best compact SUV choice.