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2011 Subaru Forester 2.5 X

Forester an all-wheel-drive marvel Add to ...

The big full model makeover came in 2009 for the Subaru Forester. That means it's time for what the car business calls a mid-cycle update or a facelift for 2011.

Now if by "facelift" you're thinking, oh, a new grille and perhaps new colours, you'd be right. Subaru has done both to dress up the 2011 Forester. The seat cloth repels water more effectively, too.

But this is Subaru. An engineering company, not a design house of great distinction. People buy Subaru's for the engineering, for the hard bits, the clever nuts and bolts of a car.

Which brings us to Subaru's new 2.5-litre "boxer" or horizontally opposed engine. It now has twin overhead cams, versus the single one in the outgoing engine of the same displacement. You may yawn at this, but for Subaru types this is huge news - the first major redesign of the boxer engine in 21 years.

You might ask why, given power and torque remain essentially the same: 170 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. The answer is not how much power, but where is gets to work when you mash the throttle. For 2011, you have more power sooner and it comes on in a smoother manner. Overall acceleration comes in at about 9.5 seconds for 0-100 km/h, but fuel economy has improved to 9.9 litres/100 km in the city (from 10.4) and 7.5 highway (from 7.7).

Pricing? The 2011 starts at $25,995, which represents a zero price increase. The Forester range tops out at $35,495 for the 2.5XT Limited model, a modest $200 jump in price.

What hasn't changed a whit for 2011 is the all-wheel-drive systems offered in the 2011 Forester. That's good. The Subaru people almost gleefully point out that their full-time AWD system is just so much better than the competition's on-demand AWD systems - and they have a point. Power is always going to the wheels at both ends, compared to, say, a Honda CR-V, which only sends power rearwards when the front start to slip and spin.

A big part of the Subaru story has been AWD, dating back to 1985 when the Loyale arrived with AWD and an automatic transmission. Then in 1995, Subaru went exclusively AWD from top to bottom in its lineup and good things have been happening for Subie ever since - though slowly, for sure.

Subaru's buzzword is "Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive" and there is more than marketing spin at work here. What Subaru does is symmetrical in that the AWD design is balanced, with all the mechanical pieces oriented down the centre line of the vehicle - from the engine to the drive shaft. This means driveshafts are equal length and weight is distributed evenly. All good.

And, of course, Subaru's AWD system is always working to send traction to all the wheels - or I should say AWD systems. You see, the Forester is offered with two different AWD systems, one with the manual transmission and a better one with the automatic.

The manual system splits power evenly front to rear and when wheels front or back start to slip, a viscous or fluid coupling lock the centre differential to change how power is distributed. It works fine, but if you get the autobox, you buy more brainpower. That is, throttle and vehicle speed sensors tell the computer brain to move power around. What's here is smart enough to anticipate problems and move power accordingly, though in the normal cut and thrust of things 60 per cent of the power goes to the front wheels. If you need more power at the rears, then the system sends it there with no driver input at all.

On a snowy, miserable half day of driving the updated Forester about the Quebec City countryside, our little Forester never seemed at risk of getting stuck or even out of sorts. Here we have something of the ideal Canadian winter car. Because of how the AWD system operates, engine power is unlikely to overwhelm whatever traction the tires have, thus it's rare to suffer spinning wheels in a Subie.

As for the rest, the Forester is not a flashy ride, but it's comfortable and decently quiet. The pricing is competitive against the heavy hitters of the segment, ranging from Ford's Escape to Toyota's RAV4 and the CR-V and Volkswagen's Tiguan, too. Sure, sure, the Forester is not the most memorable design and the interior is nice enough but hardly breathtaking.

But the first and most important reason buyers go with Subaru is for the engineering. If you've shopped the Forester recently and dismissed it, then the new boxer engine should be cause for a second look.

2011 Subaru Forester 2.5 X

Type: Compact crossover wagon

Price: $25,995 ($1,525 freight)

Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 170 hp/174 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.9 city/7.4 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Rogue, Dodge Journey, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-7, Mitsubishi Outlander, Volkswagen Tiguan

jcato@globeandmail.com

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