On the Road Review: Subaru Forester Premium Edition

In 1995, Subaru was in trouble in America.

The brand’s marketing push to move upscale with higher prices that reflected (what they thought) were the technologies evidently comparable to German automakers (AWD, independent chassis, boxer engines) had created the opposite effect — sales had plummeted to slightly over 100,000 units, down from the brand’s previous peak of over 180,000 units in 1986.

Subaru’s marketing evolved the next year, when the Outback wagon debuted. Sporting a higher riding stance, larger wheels and some body cladding, that made the car look larger and tougher. Subaru then hired Crocodile Dundee, Paul Hogan, to be the car’s spokesperson and the persona of Subaru suddenly changed. American-based managers also got the brand to rethink its pricing structure. Sales have not abated since.

In fact, Subaru sales are on pace this year to increase almost six-fold over the brand’s 1995 low point. Subaru in America outsells GMC Trucks, Ram Trucks, Dodge, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Buick and every other automaker except for eight rivals ahead of Subaru on the sales charts — with only a six-vehicle lineup. Pretty impressive for what many insiders still consider to be a “niche” brand.

Subaru’s recent sales surges have not only surpassed projections, but also surprised industry watchers and pundits alike.

In late 2012, Fortune magazine asked, “Are Subarus the best cars that money can buy”? They called the brand “artisanal” and extolled the industry awards for safety, reliability and elevated resale values. In 2012, Subaru sold just over 336,000 cars here, almost 60 percent of owner Fuji Heavy Industries’ entire car production.

In May 2013, the Wall Street Journal stated, “Shortages Loom for Subaru” as sales were outstripping the automaker’s production capacities. The Indiana assembly plant had already experienced one massive expansion to boost production to 300,000 units a year, but dealer inventories were much thinner than domestic rivals as dealers clamored for cars.

Three months later in 2013, the WSJ said, “Subaru’s Got a Big Problem; It’s Selling Too Many Cars.” At that point, sales were up 27 percent for the year, as new models such as the XV Crosstrek were flying off dealer lots. The new Forester and the revised Outback had only 11 and 15 days of inventory — a fraction of the industry norm of 60 days. In that story, two years ago, Subaru of America President Tom Doll expected the surge in Forester sales would peak and taper off.

Well, here we are late in 2015 and Forester sales have continued to grow. The Forester is now Subaru’s top-selling model; over 144,700 sold through the end of October (the last figures available as this is written in late November). That marks a 10 percent gain as the brand enjoys another season (six straight years) of double-digit volume growth. With compact class crossovers all the rage — for every automaker — Forester growth continues as this “niche” vehicle elbows its way into the conversation with the big-boys at Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Chevy and Ford.

From the car company that has produced the BRAT, the BAJA, the Justy and the SVX Coupe, Subaru has narrowed its product focus to automobiles that apparently fill the product gaps previously served by Saab, Volvo and Volkswagen. Subaru has strategically marketed itself to reflect consumer surveys, stressing smart function over form, while espousing the unique characteristics that “make a Subaru a Subaru.” Subaru was also one of the first automakers to advertise in alternative lifestyle publications, plus the brand seeks to extend its product reach into Sunbelt states and California from its stronghold markets of the Northeast and Northwest.

Conversely, there are issues. Production capacities will continue to limit potential sales while also stressing parts suppliers and vendors. Rapid growth has traditionally caused parts issues and Subaru must surely be concerned that it can manage growth accordingly so that the brand’s reliability scores and high resale values are not negatively affected.

Subaru also lacks two key product offerings. A larger seven-passenger crossover or family vehicle is missing from the lineup after the ill-fated Tribeca’s demise, and there is only one small car offering, the Impreza, which is doing very well in the current market conditions, but is not the entry-level economy car that will be needed to meet fuel economy requirements going forward. Subaru is also missing any kind of a pickup truck for the American market, and the brand is very light on hybrid and alternative-powered vehicles.

It may be difficult to envision a Subaru-branded pickup, but the fact remains that automakers make a ton of money from trucks — money that helps to pay for research and development for other vehicles. Subaru essentially builds all six of its current offerings from just two platforms, so major expenditures would be necessary to create a new vehicle platform, or, Subaru would need to collaborate again with minority holder Toyota like it did to create the BRZ sports car.

Of course, this only assumes that Subaru wants to expand its brand reach. Subaru could be very happy with the customers it has, the types of customers it sells too, as well as the margins and income that the brand derives from being a “small(er)” automaker rather than a full-line automobile company. There is a lot to be said for not trying to be “all things to all people.”

Extolling the virtues of the latest Forester, seen here in midlevel Premium trim, is easy. The car has convenient ingress and egress due to its elevated stance and wide doors. The interior greenhouse is expansive, with much larger windows all around than any rivals — all of which provides for great visibility. The seats — heated cloth in Premium trim, with power adjusters for the driver — give decent support and relative comfort, although taller drivers might want more thigh support and all drivers might wish for more lateral support. The power seat is much more flexible than the manual seat in base models, plus the seat heater is just right.

Controls and switches are better too. While the audio knobs on the dash are still too tiny, and lack any tactile grip or feel, the steering wheel buttons adequately compensate. Audio quality is also improved. Climate controls are contrastingly large and more convenient. With a larger, more detailed navigation screen, Subaru has made notable improvements that when combined with simple buttons for other functions, as well as a workable console, to create a more cohesive cockpit.

Rear seat space is ample, with great leg, head, and elbow room. The seatback splits to fold to expand the already large cargo area. It’s good packaging on a par, if not better, than the Honda CRV.

If we think back, again to 1995, when Subaru’s existence was threatened, imagine how much our cars have changed. Power locks, windows and cruise control are expected. Airbags and anti-lock brakes are regulated, yet consumers expect standard air conditioning, traction control, and power mirrors on base model cars. Automatic transmissions rule too, with only 6 percent of new vehicles even coming with manual stick-shifts anymore. Back-up cameras are now becoming standard, while satellite radio and remote starting are standard in many cars today.

Computers and electronic driving aids are no longer the provenance of the rich, as mainstream cars are filled with safety devices that are no longer expensive to install. Subaru joins this movement with its EyeSight Driver-Assist System.

Comprised of lane departure warning, forward braking assist, pre-collision throttle control and adaptive cruise control, the Forester packs four features into one package. Contained in a large console behind and above the rear-view mirror, sensors collect forward and lane data to help keep drivers in a safe zone. In everyday driving, I was accompanied by beeps, blinking lights and other assorted warnings as the Subaru detected errant leaves, heavy traffic, and other real-world driving situations to create more annoyance than assistance — a distraction unto themselves. It frequently became necessary to deactivate this “driving help,” especially when the car tries to brake as you are trying to accelerate and overtake slower traffic. The Subaru’s least intrusive laser cruise setting also allowed too much merging traffic in front of you, slowing your pace rather than maintaining.

Let’s chalk this up to over-exuberant initial programming and a little too much nanny-state protection. Many drivers will benefit; some will not. That’s why there is a button to turn the aids off.

Forester pluses: fuel economy has increased while employing the tried and true 2.5-liter boxer engine. Realized economy reached 30 mpg — right on target with the EPA ratings of 24/32/27 mpg with the Linetronic CVT automatic transmission and the standard AWD. The Forester’s roomy cabin cannot be overlooked when considering smaller rivals.

The Forester, however, still lacks push-button ignition and keyless access, which are available on many rivals.

Forester pricing starts at just over $22,000, with our Premium wagon listing for $24,795 before destination fee and options, which raised the price to $28,540.

The Forester is a relatively simple tool that works extremely well. Perhaps the car of New England, the Forester is practical, sensible, and what makes a Subaru a Subaru.





Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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