1998 Subaru Forester

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

With the introduction of the Forester, Subaru brings us another example of what is touted as a new breed of hybrid automobile – part car, part sport utility.

The firm's previous attempts in this regard were modified versions of existing products.

In essence, the Legacy Outback is a compact wagon given extra headroom and ground clearance. The Impreza Outback Sport is an appealing exercise in tarty styling add-ons intended to impart an off-roady flavor.

The Forester, in contrast, is a purpose-built crossbreed made up of the Impreza's platform, suspension bits and four-wheel drive, plus a Legacy-sourced 2.5litre 65 horsepower four-cylinder engine, all hung beneath new wagon-shaped bodywork.

"Purposebuilt?" Perhaps, but to what purpose? And for whom? To answer those questions, perhaps we'd better start by considering the genesis of the sportute/truckwagon/4×4 trend.

The precursor to the entire class was the full-sized truck-wagon, a concept that found expression in such diverse vehicles as the Suburban, Grand Wagoneer, International

Harvester Travelall and the early Range Rover.

But the truckwagon didn't rise on the popularity curve until a large number of pickup truck owners let the automakers know that if a pickup could be crafted with a full-width rear seat and the entire rear area be covered by a weather-sealed canopy, they would line up to buy them.

"Build it and they will come."

Come they did, by the thousands, to purchase the new Ford Bronco, GMC Jimmy/Chevy Blazer and Dodge Ramcharger.

These folks needed a vehicle with the robust practicality of a four-wheel drive pickup, combined with the passenger space, interior amenities and weather protection of a sedan. Sounds like a hybrid to me.

Hybridization, far from being a new deal, is the hallmark of the sport utility. I can point to no better example than the luxo-ute, a big wagon built on truck underparts that has been given the gene code for an interior sumptuous enough to out-plush any luxury sedan.

Current sport utilities represent the ultimate in attempts to make the truck more car-like.

Subaru's Outback idea tried to infuse two capable and comfortable sedans with a 4×4 truck-wagon's air of sporty adventure, but failed to make them truly more truck-like.

So now we have the Forester, a small wagon that's supposed to be eminently practical, well suited for today's active lifestyles.

It's intended to carry sport ute loads and traverse moderate off-road terrain while retaining a semblance of the ride and handling characteristics of a sedan.

Moreover, it is also expected to impart a sense of rugged style and can-do truck capability that lures most sport ute buyers into showrooms.

And it's supposed to do all this at a moderate price, at least partly in competition with that other new breed, the bargain-ute.

The new Subaru's price is okay.

The lowest-priced model, a five-speed manual Forester L lists at $26,695, right in Jeep Cherokee Sport territory.

The range-topping Forester S with automatic, alloy wheels and chubby tires, a/c, cruise, power group and heated seats crests at $31,695 (plus freight and taxes).

I'll give full marks to the load space. The day I picked up the Forester I was also scheduled to collect a set of massive Yokohama AVS S/T 265/70R16 light truck tires. After I folded the rear seat down, the cargo area ate the four big donuts with ease. If I'd stood them up and used a little thought, at least two more of the tires could have fit in. Some regular sport utes out there will not accept this kind of bulk.

The nicely finished passenger area is just as task-friendly, with one exception. Japanese ergonomic research has provided supportive seats, a good driving position and convenient switchgear.

The always innovative Subaru designers have added details like pen and business card slots behind the driver's visor, and enough storage bins and boxes to rival a minivan.

The exception? The lone, single dash-mounted cupholder.

I'll grant that the Forester offers a semblance of sedan-like ride and handling on the road. Ride motions are well controlled and the suspension easily copes with our corrugated pavements.

It's no Miata through the turns, there is too much body lean, but it does hang on without any hint of hidden treachery.

Moreover, from behind the wheel the Forester feels like a car. On-road performance, unfortunately, is also just a semblance of what we've come to accept as typical for a sedan.

Although the flat-four "boxer" engine and the electronically-controlled automatic go about their work with spirit, 0-100 km/h acceleration runs lasted almost 11 seconds and the 90-120 km/h passing test took almost nine. Those are perfectly acceptable times, well within the requirements for safety, but much slower than those posted by family cars like the V6 Camry or a Honda Accord.

We have to admit that nobody ever takes these things off-roading. Nevertheless, we do demand that they pass the trail test. On my favorite crawl along the edge of the Grand River, the sturdily built Forester did just fine.

I wouldn't take it on a deep backwoods jaunt, there's not enough ground clearance and the long wheelbase-to-track ratio almost guarantees getting "high-centred." Even on the mild river trail, the undersides were scraping. But, it ambled along without complaint, ably accessing all of the trout-fishing hot spots.

Where the Subaru came into its own was at higher speeds on a more open trail. Here, the stability of a longer wheelbase is an advantage, and the control from the shock absorbers was perfect. In other words, the Forester is ideally suited for the worst of cottage lanes.

Thus, this hybrid does fulfill its purpose. As a compromise, it doesn't do anything particularly well, but it certainly performs a wide range of services well enough.

But we are still left with the question of whom the Forester will serve.

Potentially, there are two big markets out there, the aging boomers and their "echo generation" kids. The kids, aged 16 through early 20s, are an active lot. The Forester would be expected to support their extreme sports and attendant gear.

The wagon would excel at the task, but I doubt if many of the youngsters will choose it. The styling just doesn't have the necessary youthful pizzazz. The shape is too much station wagon and not enough truck. And where Subaru went all out for a kicky, fun look on the Impreza Outback, the firm has turned the cuteness wick way down for the Forester. The Legacy Outback is much sportier.

The over-50s won't like the Forester for the same reasons.

Remember that these are the car buyers who pass on sedans and minivans and who choose sport utes not only for four-wheel drive and cargo space, but for their ego-salving youth-inducing sex appeal. The conservative Forester is for those among us who will actively avoid the hey-look-at-me qualities of a Honda CRV or a Suzuki Sidekick Sport.

It appears that Subaru, while attempting to generate a new type of sport utility, has inadvertently succeeded in creating a new form of Buick.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on weeklong driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by Subaru Canada.

*1998 Subaru Forester

*Bodystyle: 4-door wagon

*Drivetrain: 4×4

*Engine: 165hp 2.5L DOHC 16valve flat-four

*Transmissions: 5-speed manual/4-speed automatic

*Exterior Length: 4450 (175.2)

*Wheelbase: 2525 (99.4)

*Width: 1735 (68.3)

*Track-front: 1475 (58.1)

*Track-rear: 1450 (57.1)

*Front seat: mm (in.) Legroom 1092 (43.0) Headroom 1031 (40.6)

*Curb weight: (automatic) 1425 kg (3142 lb.)

These specifications are supplied by the manufacturer and can change at any time.

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