Outdated four-speed transmission hampers new, more powerful engine; only four serviceable seating positions; subpar interior materials
It used to be that people bought cars like the 2011 Subaru Forester because they truly needed the capabilities offered by such unconventional, all-weather compact crossovers. They were "Subaru People." They lived in rainy (or snowy) northern climes. They wore flannel shirts without irony and duck shoes because they had to keep their feet dry. Their everyday environs included charming wooded glens, streams brimming with trout, densely forested mountainsides and rain-choked rivers threatening to overflow their banks.
But these days, commuting San Diegans and mall-bound Dallas DINKs have joined snowshoeing Vermonters to avail themselves of the all-weather Subaru. The promise of the all-wheel drive is indelibly woven into the Subaru story, but the company has done much to broaden its appeal, so it expresses not just all-terrain mobility but also a quiet, unpretentious ruggedness and performance that's as useful in the city as it is in Maine. It turns out that Subaru isn't just for the flannelled elite who navigate Nor'easters anymore.
In the crowded party of compact crossovers, the Forester is the earnest choice. It eschews the swoopy design of the Honda CR-V, offers only two rows of seating unlike the Toyota RAV4 (which offers a third row as an option) and isn't as much fun to pilot as the Mazda CX-7 or the less expensive Kia Sportage. But despite the strengths of its rivals, the 2011 Subaru Forester is an excellent choice for those who value a smooth ride, useful cargo area and comfortable passenger accommodations in an out-of-the-ordinary all-weather package. Galoshes are definitely optional.
Beginning in 2011 Subaru has gifted the Forester with a new 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. It still delivers 170 horsepower, but torque improves fractionally to 174 pound-feet. More important, the engine has a wider, more usable power band, plus it accelerates with more eagerness. This engine gets you another 1 mpg in both EPA city and highway fuel economy when you choose the automatic transmission. Unfortunately this new, free-revving DOHC engine is otherwise hamstrung by the Forester's outdated four-speed automatic, which is slow to upshift and does its job with a very obvious amount of effort.
As a result, it's difficult to tell if the engine is truly any good. Most of the competition has moved onto five- and six-speed automatics and it's a shame that Subaru hasn't also. In Edmunds track testing, we got our best 0-60-mph time of 10.1 seconds while shifting ourselves in the transmission's Manual mode. Likewise, the Forester's braking distances don't impress us either. In a panic stop from 60 mph, our 3,344-pound Forester came to a halt in 122 feet on its 225/55R17 Yokohama Geolander G95 tires, a fairly average performance. Additionally, the brakes don't feel very confidence-inspiring, maybe because the pedal seems to travel a long way before the brakes fully bite.
Like every Subaru on the market today, the Forester comes with all-wheel drive as standard equipment. And while all-wheel drive is your best friend when the weather turns nasty, there can be consequences when it comes to fuel economy. It is usually hard on fuel economy in even the sunniest of times. But thanks to the slight fuel mileage improvement that comes with the new engine, the Forester now achieves 21 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway. This boost in fuel economy gets the Forester neck-and-neck with the AWD version of the Honda CR-V and within 1 mpg of the AWD Hyundai Tucson, front-wheel-drive Toyota RAV4 and AWD Chevrolet Equinox.
Meanwhile, the Forester's towing capacity is 2,400 pounds, an impressive number in a market segment where 1,500 pounds is more often the norm.
The 2011 Subaru Forester does an excellent job ensuring occupants are comfortable. On rougher pavement, small jolts are felt, but the overall ride is quite controlled and smooth, especially compared to the Honda CR-V. There's only a mild amount of wind noise, and road and engine noise are less noticeable than in the Honda, but there's still a significant, general low rumble while driving on all but the glassiest of road surfaces. So, the Forester is not particularly quiet, but neither are most of its competitors, and it's useful to remember that this is a utility vehicle, not a limousine.
In terms of seat comfort, the small crossover's firm front seatbacks have prominent side bolsters, but the seats are fairly wide with flat seat cushions, so it's easy to make yourself comfortable, although the front footwells are oddly small and cramped. The outboard rear seats are spacious and comfortable, but the center seating position is rendered unusable due to cupholders hidden in the seat, which turn the "cushion" into a hard, segmented bump. Technically, the Forester is a five-passenger car, but in reality, it's made for only four.
The upright 2011 Subaru Forester has plenty of glass area so there's excellent visibility both forward and rearward. This is a breath of fresh, Vermont-infused air compared to the generally poor visibility of the Forester's more design-forward competitors, with their tiny windows, thick C-pillars and constrictive roof lines.
The Forester's simple, boxy design — modeled after a duck shoe from L.L. Bean, no doubt — also makes the most of its rear cargo area, which at 30.8 cubic feet is a bit smaller in volume than most of the competition yet quite usable because of its more forgiving shape. Maximum cargo capacity in the Forester is 68.3 cubic feet thanks to the flat-folding 60/40-split rear seatback. We also quite like the thick, rubbery cargo tray that lines the bottom of the cargo area, which facilitates easier clean-up after an outdoorsy adventure.
When installing our convertible child safety seat, we notice that the LATCH anchor points in the rear outboard seats are easily accessed behind small flaps, but the top tether anchor mounted on the roof loses points in our child-seat-installing book, not the least because it obscures the view through the rearview mirror. Additionally, the Forester's rear-seat leg- and hiproom feel a little tighter than that of its competition (and feel tighter than the measurements would suggest), which makes it tighter for both rear passengers and the installation of rear-facing child safety seats.
The Forester's just-tall-enough step-in height makes ingress and egress a bit easier than in a taller crossover or SUV. And while this Subaru's overall height of 66.9 inches puts it in the middle of its class, ground clearance (at 8.7 inches) tops the compact crossover category, further underscoring this Subaru's all-terrain utility for the real world.
Audio and climate controls are simple and clean, consisting of knobs when you want them (particularly for temperature control) and enough dedicated buttons to make things easy. The Touring model comes standard with a back-up camera, although we aren't impressed with the optional navigation system's small and fiddly screen.
Design/Fit and Finish
We've already mentioned the Forester's more boxy shape, especially when compared to competitors. And while aesthetics are subjective, in our opinion, its design also feels the most dated of the compact crossovers, displaying very little of the sleeker, modern lines of rivals like the Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage and Toyota RAV4, especially around the front roof pillar. Still, its boxy lines have a certain retro appeal and give it a look that is undeniably distinctive; for this reason, it's definitely a good pick for compact crossover shoppers who want to stand out a bit from the pack in the parking lot at the nearest big box store.
In terms of build quality, our test car had no significant squeaks and rattles, but while the doors felt light and easy to close, they required unexpected effort to make sure they actually shut all the way. (It repeatedly took us multiple attempts to achieve a fully closed driver-side door, which was frustrating.) While the selection of materials within the Forester's interior is unimpressive, the cabin's architecture is simple and fairly attractive.
Who should consider this vehicle
All-wheel drive (and all that these words promise) is irreversibly integrated into the fabric of Subaru's brand. And while you can get most of the 2011 Subaru Forester's competitors with all-wheel drive, you just don't get the heritage that comes with the company's hard-earned reputation for all-weather prowess.
True back-country gadabouts as well as urbanites in North Face fleece will benefit from all this well-rounded compact crossover has to offer, as will small families who occasionally need wet-weather capabilities in addition to versatile storage capacity. Lastly, the Forester's elevated but not ridiculous ride height can give drivers of shorter stature the feeling of security that comes with a more commanding view of their surroundings.
You don't have to wear a flannel shirt to drive a Subaru Forester, but it's nice to know that you can if you want to.