Small station wagons aren’t nearly as popular in the U.S. as they used to be. Twenty years ago, you could get a compact wagon from any number of companies, including Ford, Honda, Toyota, and GM.
But the SUV trend put wagons on the extinction list here, even though they’re still wildly popular in Europe. Sure, there are some niche players in the wagon market, including the rather stylish Acura TSX wagon. Still, even though they’ve been on sale for a couple of years, you could go several days without seeing one on our local roads.
One brand has really attached itself to wagons, and that’s Subaru. Their various Legacy and Outback models over the years have been stand-outs, especially since they come with all wheel drive as standard equipment. Whether the majority of buyers in our mild climate actually need all wheel drive is debatable, but many people seem to want it nonetheless.
Which brings me to one of my favorite Subaru models of all, the Forester. It’s sort of a station wagon, and it’s sort of an SUV. Subaru does market it as the latter, against competitors like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. But in reality, it’s more wagon-y than those others, and that’s a good thing.
And for the 2014 model year (yes, it’s barely 2013 but we’re going to start seeing ’14 cars in showrooms), the Forester is all new. Subaru knows to leave well enough alone with the basic size and shape, but it gets a bunch of new styling touches and features to keep it competitive. And, Subaru points out that this fourth-generation model has more space inside for passengers and cargo while maintaining the same basic exterior size.
Of course, since this is a Subaru, the engine is their famous “boxer” four cylinder. Technically, the design is called horizontally opposed, a design Porsche has used for decades. Base models carry a 2.5 liter engine that produces 170 horsepower, and the sportier 2.0XT versions have a turbocharged 2.0 liter boxer four making an impressive 250.
Standard on all turbo models and those with Limited or Touring trim (and optional on others) is Subaru’s latest CVT automatic transmission. Instead of shifting through gears, with the engine changing rpm frequently, a CVT essentially has an unlimited number of ratios available. This keeps the engine in the sweet spot for either fuel mileage or performance.
Early editions of CVTs (continuously variable transmission) didn’t always win drivers over, as they had a sloppy feeling to the way they transmitted the power. The latest ones (from Subaru as well as other brands like Nissan) are much better. In the Forester 2.0XT, there are even paddle shifters on the steering wheel to actuate 8 artificial “gears” for a more performance-oriented feel.
On the miles per gallon front, the CVT helps the Forester do very well. The 2.5 liter engine with that transmission (sporty or frugal types can still choose a 6-speed manual on the lower trim examples) is rated at 24 mpg city and 32 highway, for an average of 27. Considering that the Forester has all wheel drive and carries quite a bit of cargo, that’s pretty good.
Subaru also decided to make the vehicle more upscale, if a buyer so chooses. The 2.0XT Touring I drove (the most high-end configuration) was quite crammed with features, including a power liftgate that’s a first-time option for the car. But even lower trim levels get a bunch of standard stuff, including a rear-view camera on all but the entry-level model.
That base version (2.5i) is a bargain at $21,995. It’s by no means “stripped,” but the Premium, Limited, and Touring models add in the features as you step up the price scale. My fully-loaded, turbo-engined Touring model came in at a bottom line price of $36,220, including destination.
And the best part of the Forester is that it’s a wagon. And, that it’s an SUV. And finally, it’s really both.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave