About four years ago, I went to the local Subaru dealership and purchased a brand new 2012 Subaru Forester. This probably had something to do with Whole Foods opening up near my home. There’s something about that place that makes people walk around in the city like they are preparing to ascend a mountain or go on a canoeing expedition or something, just to get their non-dairy ice cream and baked kelp crisps.
The stereotypes about this car abound. It’s the lesbian answer to the minivan. It’s the car of choice for people who own sporting dogs. It’s the car for people who procrastinated and never got around to buying that diesel Mercedes to run on used kitchen grease.
Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but unless English bulldogs are considered sporting these days, I might not be the target market for a Forester. Or am I?
I’ve got a wife and three kids, and a few times a year we all pile into the Forester for a road trip. I’ve got two dogs, but they are hardly ever in my car. Most of the time, this car is used for commuting from my home in Raleigh to my job in Durham. I occasionally take it on solo adventures on the weekend, sometimes really showing off what the Subaru can do.
Let’s get something out of the way first: this is not going to be a review. This is going to be a retrospective. I’m looking back over the last four years, reflecting on the experience of owning a 2012 Subaru Forester, calling out both the good and bad aspects, and leaving Subaru some action items on things that they could have done better (if they haven’t done it already in later models).
The car has been remarkably free of trouble. I’m not exactly on top of my regular maintenance. I take it to the local oil change joint and have them change the filter and I do use synthetic oil. I’m still on the original tires, though I expect to have to change them this year. I’m still on the original brakes, battery, pretty much everything (minus oil & filter). The wiper blades need to be replaced. That’s about it.
In the first few weeks after I took delivery, it did have to go back to the dealership once. I’d been getting great fuel economy, much better than I expected, but one day the engine computer went into a limp home mode and the dash lit up like a Christmas tree. The dealership assured me it was safe to drive it in to have it checked out. They updated firmware on the engine computer and it’s run fine ever since, though the fuel economy dropped measurably.
Speaking of fuel economy, how is it? Well, I don’t drive it too carefully. But I don’t drive it like it’s stolen, either. I tend to go with the flow of traffic, which means on a 65 MPH highway I’m going somewhere between 70-74MPH (not wanting to drive it more than 9MPH over the posted limit). Most of my miles are on a commute mixed between suburban primary roads, major highway, and urban streets. I typically pull about 22MPG on a tank. On long road trips with the family, where most of the miles are on the highway and I’m driving a bit more carefully, it’s good for about 26 or 27MPG.
What else has broken?
- The plastic tether that attaches the gas cap to the body of the car was the first to go. This was just a cheap and terrible design, and I’m surprised that Subaru was still doing this as recently as 4 years ago.
- The hinges to the glove box seem to have broken loose. It still shuts but there’s extra unwelcome movement now when you open it. I rarely use the glove box so I’m not sure how it got this way so easily.
A note on intermittent failures
- The seat warmers are fantastic. But sometimes they don’t work. If a few minutes goes by and the seat isn’t getting warm, toggling the seat warmer off and back on again usually gets it working.
- Bluetooth. Bluetooth is my nemesis. It’s so great on paper, but so klugey in practice. Usually it works great. Sometimes, not so much. I think a lot of this might be iOS on my iPhone, but it’s hard to say. The owner’s manual didn’t have correct or good documentation on setting it up, so the dealership awkwardly handed me a stack of printed looseleaf, stapled in the corner, which was the bluetooth instruction manual.
What do I love about it?
- For a small car, it’s very roomy. I’m 6’2″ and have only a 31″ inseam, which means I have a really long torso. This makes it super uncomfortable to sit in a lot of cars that have a lower roofline. The Forester is very tall. My wife has observed before that my head still looks like it’s close to hitting the roof, but I’ve not had a problem with this. I’ve also sat in the back seat, which was remarkably comfortable. I’ve had a family of five in there on 12+ hour long road trips, and aside from the expected sibling rivalry, things went remarkably well.
- Cargo capacity is insanely good. There was that one time I stuffed a 24U server cabinet in the back. I’ve also used it for a number of photoshoots where the car was stuffed with cases of lighting gear, camera equipment, and a large roll of white seamless vinyl backdrop that just barely fit, with one end inches from the stereo, and the other end inches from the tailgate.
- It’s amphibious. Or nearly so, it would seem. In the first week after taking delivery, I drove the car from Raleigh, North Carolina to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was nearly monsoon level rain most of the way up. The Subaru didn’t care. “Is that all you’ve got, bro?” One other time, I drove it through the Great Dismal Swamp with a model to get to a photoshoot location. Talk about scary! This was probably a foolish thing to do, but I drove it through the swamp up to the doorsills in muck and water. Every time I felt a tire slip, the car worked out where to redirect power to regain traction. It was brilliant. It just kept going.
- It’s great on ice. I’ve owned many 4×4’s over the years and there was one thing they were universally bad at: driving on ice. Raleigh doesn’t get a lot of snow, and when it does everything is closed, anyway. So I don’t really drive it much in the ice & snow. This weekend we had a moderately severe ice storm where untreated road surfaces were encased in a thick layer of slick ice. I was feeling a little cabin fever, and yes I was curious about experiencing the Subaru’s legendary winter driving competence. So, get ready to laugh at me, I drove it to Whole Foods. Yeah, yeah, I know. No, I didn’t wear my North Face parka. I don’t even own one. But the guacamole fix was great.
- In almost all driving conditions, it inspires confidence. It’s not a sports car, of course, but for real world every day driving conditions including the really crappy stuff this car is fantastic. I’ve owned an insane number of cars over the years, and none of them have engendered such a feeling of pragmatic competence and capability. You’re going to get there. I don’t care if it’s raining buckets. I don’t care if it’s snowing. Take your time, enjoy the seat warmers and the music, and trust that it’s going to get you there.
- The sunroof. This feature sold itself. The sunroof on this car is… Biblical in proportion.
- Ground clearance. My old Jeep Wranglers and Ford Broncos had more ground clearance, sure. But this is a relatively smallish car. And I’ve had it out rock crawling. I’ve actually gotten a $200+ parking ticket for taking it further back into a state park than I should have (again, for a photo shoot). Yes, I sometimes make irresponsible decisions in the name of making art.
What could Subaru do better?
Styling is something that Subaru has long struggled with. Their very best looking cars are merely homely. Their worst looking cars are downright fugly.
I’m not sure if a rear spoiler was available when I got this car, as I don’t recall seeing any, but the car would benefit from one.
The tungsten headlights are increasingly anachronistic and not as wonderful as some of the modern alternatives.
The car is high enough up from the ground, and so are the headlights, that driving lights would be a really great thing to add. I know this was an option, and if I’d gotten this car over again I’d opt for them. There is an overall theme here of make the lighting better. And make the better lighting standard equipment.
I should note that I was going to buy the top level trim model, but had to abort when my vegan daughter pointed out that she’d never be able to ride in my car. Please divorce the leather seats from the rest of the trim package, make them a standalone option. Vegetarians and vegans like nice things, too. But being forced to take “dead animal seats” (as she would say) just to get everything else is cutting out an important segment of your customers from the upsell.
Regarding the roof rack… I asked for one, and I got a pair of rails. But no crossbars. I know the rest of the industry is guilty of the same thing, but come on guys. Those rails are useless on their own. Don’t make me go to another place and spend hundreds more elsewhere just to finish what you started.
Will I get another one?
I have zero regrets about buying this car. If I could do it over again, I would. I will say: the dealership I bought it at seemed to be averse to stocking turbocharged models. I don’t get it. Looking around at a sea of Subarus, you can spot the turbo models pretty quickly from the hood scoop. There were none. I asked about driving a turbo model and they had none to offer. I can’t say I would have gone with the turbo model, but I wish I’d had the chance to at least try it out. The Forester is never going to win any races. It’s got enough power for day to day commuting, for long road trips, etc. But it’s a very practical car. Sometimes too practical.
That said, I’m ready for my mid-life crisis car. I figure I’ll keep the Forester another two years, and then I’ll be 45 years old. We’ll see if Subaru brings back the WRX STi hatch between now and then. But they got rid of the hatchback and only have the incredibly ugly sedan model. It looks like something a 12 year old boy would fantasize about driving, and not like anything a grown adult would want to drive. Where’s the STi for grown ups? I want to have fun without looking like a total knob.
It blows my mind that Subaru would drop the hatchback from the WRX series just as the global auto industry was getting really invested in hot hatches. Subaru was pretty much the reigning king of this category and then abdicated the throne just as things were really heating up.
Unless Subaru does something amazing in the next couple of years, my next car is likely to be a Ford Focus RS. Maybe after I get that last bit of youthful testosterone out of my system, I’ll return to the Subaru family.
I really do love my Subaru. This is the first car of many cars in 25 years of driving where I’ve felt some sense of wanting another car from the same manufacturer. Volkswagen, Ford, Jeep, Dodge, etc. have all left me wanting out long before the car was paid off.