Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Subaru Forester

I've always been a quiet fan of Subaru.

For years, they were the peculiar little also-ran of Japanese carmakers in the North American market.  They were, if you will, the AMC of Japanese carmakers.  Unlike AMC however, Subaru has survived the crucible of the late 80s, and the next crucible of the middle 90s when Daihatsu and Isuzu decided they couldn't cut it in the hotly contested American market.  That Subaru made it is a bit of a surprise.

For years, Subaru didn't bring a lot to the party: odd little cars with odd little engines.  An unattractive sedan that was also available as an unattractive wagon, and you could have them with four wheel drive.  Weird.  There was also a peculiar little truck, entirely too small to be any use as a truck.  They called it a BRAT.
Image from Cars

As you can see the Leone looks like it was styled in the clay buck by someone who only had a cheese wire and a ruler.  And this is what came out.  The BRAT, from a slightly earlier generation than this, had somewhat curvier shapes.  The Justy, Subaru's very compact car, was a three-cylinder little shoebox that looked a bit like this did.  Interestingly, it also could be had with four wheel drive, which by itself cast it into a completely unique category: micro offroader.

Subaru will say that they were the ones to make the first crossover and they have some merit there - but I say AMC beat them to the punch with the venerable Eagle.  Desperate for a new product to rebuild customer interest, AMC went rummaging about in their parts bins, found lots of Jeep bits and the Concord chassis and somebody wondered aloud, what if we mix these up?  Eagles in good condition command impressive resale prices considering their age.  So do Subaru BRATs, for that matter.

Fast forward a few years and we find next to nothing actually moving in the crossover segment.  The Eagle is long dead as a model because AMC is long dead as a marque.  It's 1998 and Subaru has tested the waters with the excellent Legacy Wagon Outback and gotten good results.  There's lots of people that want a tallish wagon without having to go the full Monty on a minivan.  Enter the Impreza.

The Impreza is Subaru's capable compact car, also a full-time AWD offering like everything else Subie cranks out since 1996.  If you want front- or rear-drive only, look elsewhere.  Subaru drives all four corners on everything.  But anyway, there's the Impreza, a popular alternative to the Corolla, certainly with much greater sporting chops than the Corolla.  It's fairly roomy inside.  But some people want roomier than the the Impreza without having to move all the way up to the big, expensive Legacy Outback.  They want their outdoorsy capability, but not necessarily all that length and weight.

Subaru saw the need and got out the cheese wire.  The '98 Forester was born.
 Image from  But my car looks exactly like this
one - I've even removed the roof rack's crossbars like this one.

It's compact in length and breadth like the Impreza, the weight is a manageable ton-and-a-half, and the power is relatively modest at 165hp.  That power output, by the way, makes the Forester far and away the most powerful vehicle I have ever owned.

In its most recent iteration, the Forester has grown in every dimension.  That's the way things go: model bloat.  As a car model ages, it gets bigger.  Power usually goes up too, and that's the case with the brand-new-for-2012 Forester.  But the growth is modest.  A few inches in length and breadth and height.  Weight only goes up by 100 pounds or so, really not too bad, considering.  Take a look at what happened with the Scion xB in its second generation model: a weight increase of nearly 600 pounds.  Yipes.

So in 13 years of production, the Forester has only gained 100 pounds.  That's pretty good.  Engine output is up a bit in the new model to help cope with the added weight, and Subaru is retiring the aging EJ series of engines (including the trouble prone EJ25 that my Forester follows down the road) to introduce an entirely new range of engines, the FB25 will have similar output but deliver better fuel economy, eliminate the notorious piston slap of the EJ's big bore, and also return the valve timing duties to a chain instead of a maintenance-heavy belt.

Hopefully they've sorted out some other stuff, too.  My Forester came to me with some other issues, it's eaten its own head gaskets a couple of times now - I work for a charity Subaru, didn't realize it was you - and it billows smoke from under the hood when at rest.  That's rather embarrassing.  Maybe the next time I get the timing belt changed (goodbye money, come back when you can stay longer) I can ask the mechanic to root around under there and find what the heck is causing that.  Because I blinking well hate that.

That's the downside of cylinders not all in a row.  If you blow a head gasket, you replace them both.  Twice the cost, nearly.  To do the job according to the book on my car you have to pull the engine entirely out of the chassis, though my mechanic has figured out how to do the job without going quite to that extreme.  Good on you, mate.

The Forester hasn't been hard to own, despite its assorted failings.  We got ours used so some failures can't be blamed on the builders.  For instance, the stereo came with a couple of buttons not working, and more dropped out of the race as years went on. Since Son #1 and I found an excellent factory installed Pioneer stereo in a Legacy at the junkyard a couple years ago to replace the original however, the radio landscape inside the car is pretty entertaining.  And this radio, while badged at the factory as a Subaru unit, was never offered in the Forester.  So it's factory, but it isn't stock.  Funny.

The clock didn't work.  Looking around online, I found instructions on what to look for and how to fix it.  Whip out Sweetie's wood burning iron, sizzle sizzle, hey presto!  Fixed.  One of the few first-gen Foresters on the road with a working clock.  I'm still over the moon about that, and it's been a year since I did the repair.

The cargo cover was an optional item - one our car didn't have.  But wandering through the Knox Area Rescue Ministries Thrift Store one day, I noticed a retractable cargo cover.  I don't know what caught my eye about it, but I asked the manager if I could test its fit in my car.  As it turns out it's an original Subaru cover - just not the same color as my car.  But what the heck, the cover is grey and the car is beige - that's like the difference between store brand vanilla and Breyer's vanilla - they both still taste like vanilla.

That same Legacy that donated the stereo also provided a couple of new buttons for the dash, to replace original switches whose lights had burned out.  Can't replace the lamp, have to replace the whole switch.  But no sweat, it's a no-tools process, they just click in and out in a minute.

All its faults aside, I do enjoy the Forester.  In snow it's really quite a blast, leaving everything behind.  It's not especially economical but since we carpool, Sweetie and I don't worry about that too much.  25mpg isn't awful. And I like it's no-nonsense shape, a basic box with seats inside.  I like that simplicity.

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