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We found the Forester dazzling in its sure-footedness and comfortable ride, never once whimpering in the face of abuse. The suspension isn't firm but offers relatively long travel. There's 8.7 inches of ground clearance and good Yokohama Geolander tires with the 17-inch wheels.
The electronic stability control is programmed to allow the tires to spin a bit, under acceleration, so the throttle won't cut out on dirt roads. We tackled an awe-inspiring steep rutty hill, foot to the floor to climb the final 100 yards, and the Forester made it. A Honda CR-V couldn't come close on the same run.
The two engines differ dramatically in torque. Torque is that force you feel when you accelerate up a hill and more is better. The normally aspirated single overhead-cam engine delivers 170 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. The turbo delivers 226 pound-feet at 2800 rpm and 224 horsepower.
On the freeway, a Forester 2.5X has to work to keep up with a Forester XT. We found the four-speed automatic transmission and the 170-horsepower engine a weak combination. Running with the flow of traffic into LA on an extremely slight upgrade, ours needed to frequently kick down. It kicked down a lot in other places, too, including off-road. A five-speed automatic transmission seems called for. Or a five-speed manual.
The five-speed manual shifter feels soft, has a longish throw, and raises the NVH level in the cabin, but we'd still choose it over the automatic with the non-turbocharged engine. A nice touch on models with the standard five-speed manual transmission is Incline Start Assist. If the car is stopped on a hill, the brake stays applied for one second after you take your foot off the pedal, allowing time to accelerate smoothly.
The rack-and-pinion steering gives the XT a tight steering radius, similar to that of the RAV4, tighter than that of the CR-V, allowing it to turn around in less space, important for parking and maneuvering. When cornering on smooth roads, the suspension feels relatively soft, though on dirt roads or rough pavement it feels perfect. The suspension does a good job. The highway ride is comfortable, with no harsh spots.