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Click to view picture gallery“We’ve said it before
  and now we’re saying
  it again: in Subaru’s
  226bhp all-wheel drive
  five-door Forester you
  can have about as
  much fun as you can in
  an Impreza Turbo...”

SUBARU'S FORESTER HAS CARVED OUT a reputation for itself as the best-driving 'cross-over' sports utility vehicle on the market. A genuine and accomplished multi-tasker, it does — despite looking a tad too practical — fast, sporting and all-weather. And while the foregoing are all desirable qualities in themselves, more impressive still is that the Forester tops them all with its no-nonsense estate-car practicality.

In its latest evolution, the Forester sports its sleekest look yet since its 2002 launch. New front wings, bonnet, bumper, grille, headlamps and smaller front projector fog lamps all contribute to a stronger road presence. The new four-globe headlamps are swept back into the wings, matched at the back by rear lamps with cylinder-like lenses and a bright finish to highlight their roundness. Wheel arches, now filled by nice-looking five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels, are boldly emphasised and subtle. Low satin black rails define the Forester's roofline and larger door mirrors now feature triple indicator repeater lights inset into their lower housings.

Lurking beneath the Forester's facelifted bodyshell is Subaru's proven full-time symmetrical all-wheel drive set-up and legendary low-centre-of-gravity horizontally-opposed 'boxer' engine. Externally, the only clues to its blistering performance are a drainpipe-sized chromed exhaust tailpipe big enough to sink a fist in and that unmissable inter-cooler scoop set high and proud on the strongly profiled bonnet.

Unlike a lot of sports utility vehicles, the Forester manages without side steps. With the door open, the seat squab is exactly where most drivers will want it for an easy entry. Inside there's a satisfyingly well laid out cabin stocked with good quality kit that includes two-stage heated front seats, four electric windows (one-shot up/down driver's), automatic climate control air conditioning, fade-out interior lights, tinted glass, cruise control, speed sensitive power steering, an in-dash six-stacker CD/radio with seven speakers and remote audio controls mounted conveniently on the steering wheel, a huge electric slide 'n' tilt sunroof plus lots of space and some particularly comfortable seats.

Other useful kit includes a rear wash/wipe, windscreen wiper de-icer, heated electric door mirrors, Xenon headlights with auto levelling, pop-up headlamp washers, remote central locking and a Thatcham Category One immobiliser and alarm.

Upholstery is black leather and the trim — including the tactile, smart mid-grey headlining — is of patently good quality, endowing the fascia and cabin in general with a strong European ambience. The dimple-pattern texture of the material covering the fascia and the door cap-pings is pleasing to touch. Most lidded storage compartments have damped mechanisms and soft rubber soundproofing, and tough storage nets are fitted to both front seat backs and the passenger side of the transmission tunnel.

There are also five cup holders, a deep glovebox and good-sized door pockets. Plus two lined, drop-down cases for sunglasses above the rear-view mirror and a nifty multi-function central armrest that — as well as providing a compact storage bin with a 12-volt power point — offers a sliding armrest than can flip over to become a single cup holder and tray or a double cup holder for rear passengers.

We particularly liked the extremely handy lidded storage compartment set in the top-centre of the fascia — it's more like a second glovebox and holds all manner of items. The automatic climate control system is operated by three foolproof rotary controls sited below the CD/audio unit in the centre stack, and it despatches hot and cold air with equal efficiency. Other neat touches include the illuminated collar around the ignition switch (it's unbelievably handy when starting the car at night) and the quality feel and action door handles.

The view from the driver's seat over the air-intake scoop is first class and all occupants enjoy a good, comfortable seating position. The bol-stered sport-style front seats feature quick-to-warm two-stage heat-ing elements. Head, knee and leg room are all good — both front and back in the big cabin — with rear passengers also benefiting from a sculpted seatback.

The three-dial instrument cluster is well sited. Graphics are beautifully clear white-on-black, making it easy to get what you need with a glance at the 150mph speedo, rev-counter red-lined at 6,500rpm and fuel/temp gauge. The chunky Momo three-spoke steering wheel, wrapped in perforated leather, is tilt adjustable. In addition, the driver enjoys seat height adjustment. The all-black cabin's ambience is lifted by some smart aluminium-look trim to the centre console. And heartily appreciated by all who travelled in the Forester was the massive sunroof that spans a good two-thirds of the passenger compartment.

Twist the key in the ignition and you'll hear that same endearing, slightly uneven, burbly tickover as the rally-bred Impreza. Blip the accelerator and the only real clue that there's a turbocharger spinning under the bonnet and generating 226bhp is the fact that all it takes
to start the scenery blurring past the driver's window is a quick flex of your right foot. It's an easy driving technique — squeeze the accel-erator and punch towards the horizon. The biggest surprise is how much speed the Forester can carry through corners. A lot. Viewed as nothing more than a fully paid-up estate car, it can run rings around much of the opposition.

Against the clock, the 2.5-litre Forester powers off the line to clock sixty miles per hour in just 5.7 seconds. To put that into perspective, Audi's latest TT Coupe 3.2 quattro takes 5.9 seconds from stand-
still to hit 62mph. And it's also a sharp reminder that beneath the Forester's larger-than-life bonnet air-scoop beats basically the same punchy engine as powers its more glamorous Impreza WRX cousin.

Top speed, despite bluff aerodynamics, is a more than adequate 134 miles per hour. Above 3,000rpm there's a strong wave of thrust (the peak 236lb ft of turbocharged torque kicks in at 3,600rpm) from the turboed and intercooled 2.5-litre engine that provides vivid mid-range overtaking power. And with a rear limited-slip differential and full-
time four-wheel traction automatically distributing power 50:50 front
to rear, getting the power down is never a problem. However, if slip
is detected the centre differential sends torque to the axle with the most grip.

On the move an elevated driving position, high-speed stability, a good degree of comfort, positive short-throw gearchange and a clean clutch action all come together to make the Forester a particularly smooth
car in which to tackle long haul journeys. Come rain, snow or sunshine. And while there's bags of power making you feel the Forester is just begging to be driven hard and fast, it's perfectly content just pottering around town.

On tarmac, despite noticeable body lean when firing through the really twisty bits, the Forester feels reassuringly hunkered down. The stan-dard 17-inch 'cast look' satin silver alloys come fitted with 215/55 Yokohama Geolander rubber. Thanks to chassis fine-tuning by Subaru's engineers, pitch and roll have been reduced to the benefit of road-holding and steering precision. So while the standard tyres will squeal if you're brutal, the Forester never forgets what you're asking of it and always comes up trumps, tenaciously holding your chosen line. More good news is the fact that, despite its 'cross-over' DNA, the Forester honestly does demonstrate the handling dynamics of a 'together' road car.

However, just because it's so much at home on the black stuff doesn't mean the Forester can't hack it in the rough. While it delivers a nice balance between ride quality and handling for normal road work, the self-levelling rear suspension ensures you never have less than 7.8 inches of ground clearance — irrespective of the number of passengers or weight of luggage being moved around. As we've already said, given the performance on tap and its rather naughty BMW-baiting potential, it's very easy to forget that the Forester is equally adept at accom-modating and transporting your family too.

And if towing is on your agenda, you'll be impressed that it can haul a braked 2,000kg. That's a pretty big boat, a pair of horses in a trailer or a luxury caravan. For the record, the Forester is a regular winner at the Caravan Club's Towcar of the Year shoot-out, scooping coveted awards in 2004, 2005 and again this year. Making life even easier for when you're towing is the hill-holder clutch. It's standard on all manual transmission Foresters and prevents the outfit rolling backwards when stationary on a gradient.

Of special note is the rack and pinion, variable ratio speed-sensitive power steering. It's light yet strong on feel; and sharp enough for precise positioning through the twisty bits. Fling the Forester into some challenging corners and you'll be amazed. A good turning circle of 10.8 metres and 3.1 turn lock-to-lock help. Factor in the permanent all-wheel drive and a truly gutsy power delivery and you can be sure that genuine driving entertainment is high on the menu. Equally impressive
is the Forester's composed pace when blasting across country.

Large side (head and torso) and front airbags are standard, with a two-stage airbag for the front passenger. Front seat belts are height adjustable and there are active front head-restraints. Rear passengers are looked after by triple three-point seat belts and rear head res-traints and there are back seat Isofix child seat mountings. The brake pedal is designed to snap away under severe impact to protect the driver's lower limbs.

Brakes are large-diameter ventilated discs front and rear with four-channel, four-sensor ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. They have reassuring feel and shed speed with ease, pulling the Forester
up four-square without any drama every time. Also contributing to safety are the lights: the Forester's are first class, with a good spread and range of white light ensuring safe night-time progress.

Boot space is good too, with a useful 387 litres. Beneath the lift-up cargo floor there's a further selection of useful storage areas, including a large two-section storage bin in the upturned full-size spare wheel. There's even a place to store an umbrella! Naturally, there's also a roller-blind cargo cover. And with the 60:40-split rear seats folded down, the smartly-finished and regularly-shaped load area increases in size dramatically to 1,629 litres.

Overall we saw 26.1mpg, which is pretty good for a full-time, five-seater 4x4 — especially when you consider its gutsy hot-hatch performance (as close as dammit to the thrill of an Impreza Turbo). Official consumption figures are 26.4 combined, 19.2 urban and 33.6mpg touring. Backing up the Forester's endearingly addictive 'poke' is the model's well-earned reputation for reliability, customer satis-faction and good residuals. Confirming that, Subaru earlier this year celebrated the production of its one millionth Forester.

Sure, there has always been a lot to like about the Forester. Drive the latest incarnation hard for seven days and eight nights and you'll discover — as we did — that its well-rounded multiple personality ticks all the right boxes. And, thanks to the dynamic improvements (and extra power) over its predecessor, we defy anyone not to have a great time driving this car. Well — what are you waiting for?

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Subaru Forester 2.5 XT Leather
| 22,790
Maximum speed: 134mph | 0-60mph: 5.7 seconds
Overall test MPG: 26.1mpg | Power: 226bhp | Torque: 236lb ft

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