In March we decided to put six of the highest-selling, highest-ranking compact SUVs to the test in the form of an 800-mile round trip between our offices in Southern California and Phoenix. In the course of the event we got to drive the Forester against its peers in a wide variety of driving conditions -- high-speed freeway, city streets and twisting mountain roads -- and we came away respecting the Forester but at the same time ranking it at or near the bottom in most categories against what is admittedly a formidable field. The Forester shines in accessible cargo room, and we were very impressed that three grown men could ride in the back seat without immediately coming to hate each other. Certainly standard all-wheel drive is also an advantage, but since all our testers featured available four-wheel or all-wheel drive, that didn't carry as much weight as it does in sedan segments where all-wheel-drive is relatively rare.

Other than those highlights, the Forester did a workmanlike job, but didn't engender much love. While the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter horizontally opposed 4-cylinder engine provided adequate power in both mountain and freeway driving, its effectiveness was blunted somewhat by a continuously variable transmission that was the least-liked in the bunch. We suspect that a Forester with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four offering 250 versus 170 horsepower would be more satisfying and less "buzzy" under brisk acceleration. We also have to suspect that Subaru engineers put a quest for fuel economy above a desire for sound deadening. The EPA numbers are impressive -- 27 miles per gallon combined and 32 on the highway -- but at the cost of freeway drone. We didn't come too close to that highway number, but we might have driven the Forester a bit harder than called for in the EPA cycle.

While on the road we had ample opportunities to become frustrated with the seemingly archaic radio/navigation system. The tiny touchscreen buttons proved very difficult to use when the vehicle was moving, and that task was made even harder by the fact that the screen picked up glare as well. Doing something as simple as changing a radio station was an exercise in futility.  The long hours behind the wheel on the trip also highlighted the inadequacies of the front seats, which many testers suggested could be much more comfortable and supportive than they are. At the same time for around-town use, especially in areas that get a lot of rain and/or snow, the Forester would be a good, economical choice, and its excellent exterior visibility could give it a safety advantage.

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