Going & Stopping

Subaru expects the vast majority of buyers to pick the normally aspirated engine. It's a solid choice, mustering enough low-end torque to move the Forester smartly from a standstill. The five-speed manual is worth considering Ч it feels similar to the stick in the Impreza sedan, rowing with medium throws from one gear to the next. While it's a bit slushy in that sporty sedan, it feels reasonably precise in the Forester, given that it's an SUV. The clutch has a light touch and long take-up, and the engine revs freely when pressed for acceleration. Stay hard on the gas, and the drivetrain can get a bit loud, but it's never coarse or buzzy like some four-cylinders are. The stick shift includes an incline-assist feature to keep it from rolling backward when you release the brake on a hill.

A four-speed automatic is optional with the non-turbo four-cylinder. The turbo engine comes only with the automatic, and I spent several hours driving it on the interstate and some twisty mountain roads. The turbo spools up quickly and delivers commanding power, though there's still some noticeable lag under hard acceleration. The extra horsepower feels strongest in highway passing maneuvers, where the turbo colludes with the transmission to deliver excellent kickdown performance Ч when it finally happens. The problem is just how long that kickdown takes: The automatic's gears feel widely spaced, and it takes a determined prod on the gas pedal to induce a downshift from fourth gear. Short of that Ч and during most ordinary driving around town Ч the turbo doesn't feel decisively stronger than the regular engine, and it lacks the refined punch of a V-6 Toyota RAV4.

Though I spent the vast majority of my time driving the automatic in Normal mode, it's worth noting that it has a Sport mode with its own dedicated shifting program. Be sure to check that out before you discount the automatic as a whole. By holding gears into higher rpm, it should eliminate some of the downshifts entirely Ч though with a mileage penalty.

The turbo requires premium gas. Mileage with the regular and turbocharged engines rivals that of the four- and six-cylinder engines in various competitors, respectively. The premium-fuel requirement remains unusual for this segment, however.

Last year's Forester could be had with the turbo and a stick shift, which proved more fun to drive than any SUV deserves to be. Alas, due to poor sales, Subaru pulled the plug on that combo this year.

Antilock brakes come with discs at all corners, an improvement over the disc/drum combination in some trim levels last year. The pedal delivers linear response and firm stopping control, and I found brake fade minimal even at the bottom of a three-mile offroad descent. ABS shows its face only when skids become imminent Ч a welcome change from some of the more trigger-happy systems out there.

Towing capacity is 2,400 pounds with either engine. That beats most four-cylinder SUVs, though some of the Forester's V-6 competitors can tow 3,000 pounds or more.

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