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BEHIND THE WHEEL

So, Is It a Rhino Chaser or Wagon in Disguise?

June 20, 1997|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Subaru's 1998 Forester places appearances before purpose, which makes it a cute kid playing cowboy.

It has tubes for running boards, no thicker than bar rails. They're too slender, too close to the door sills and no help at all in climbing in or stepping down from the vehicle.

But they are painted matte black and look like helicopter runners, and that's pretty cool.

A Forester can be fitted with a brush guard--sometimes called a rhino bar or saguaro smasher--that seems to contradict a peaceful, suburban mission far from hot deserts where tough brush grows.

On the other hand, should you be driving through Griffith Park during a zoo breakout, a rhino guard might be useful in making it to Pasadena.

There are stone guards over the fog lights.

Those, presumably, will be a hot item among folks living in those neighborhoods where youngsters make a practice of sitting on curbs and throwing rocks at your fog lights.

A chrome tailpipe yawns wider than the Second Street tunnel and implies high-speed breathing with high-performance braying.

But look closer into the sooty insides. The chrome tube is just the tip of the exhaust, a large, tubular dummy wrapping a regular-size tailpipe.

Forester, as a name, certainly smacks of adventure, the great outdoors, Robin Hood and men in tights. And from roof rack through black door handles to rear step pad, all-wheel drive and 7 inches of ground clearance, this vehicle couldn't be viewed as anything but a sport utility.

Yet its federal classification is "small station wagon."

And there you have Subaru doing what it does best: swimming a little upstream, snuffling for niches, massaging rules and norms, and opting for the eclectic and mildly radical because if you have nothing different to offer, why be in the automobile business?

So, when others waved off such mechanicals as expensive pretensions, Subaru stuck with flat, boxer engines and all-wheel drive as standard features of its little sedans, wagons and notchback coupes.

Surprise. Buyers found that horizontally opposed engines made a measurable difference to a car's center of gravity, ergo balance and stability. Although all-wheel drive couldn't pull you up the north side of the Empire State Building, it will keep you on the hard stuff and pointing toward home through wet, gravel and slush. And all this for prices well south of $20,000.

Last year, Subaru went right over the edge with the Outback treatment of its Impreza and Legacy subcompacts. It was largely cosmetic, adding not much more than a tougher, sportier look, elevated stance and a suggestion of mechanical attitude. And Subaru fessed to birthing a hybrid, an all-wheel drive vehicle with the look of a sport-ute, the driving behavior of a car and the passenger room of a station wagon.

Sales exploded. Even the younger, fad-driven generation blessed the Outback. Today, it accounts for more than half of Legacy sales, has started to dominate the Impreza crowd and has brought broad smiles to bottom-line feeders at Subaru.

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Now it is the Forester, pitched once more at those who want the rough-and-capable look of a spacious, vertically endowed, all-wheel-drive sport utility--but with none of the uncouth handling of a Jeep Wrangler or the parking characteristics of a Greyhound bus. And thoroughly cleansed of four-wheel-drive, elephant-towing technology, infamous for creating sticker prices that will burst your overdraft.

Watch Forester charge hard against new vehicles of similar size and concept--Toyota's successful RAV4 and the well-selling Honda CRV. The Subaru doesn't have the Christmas ornament look of the Toyota, and it rides taller and tougher in the saddle than the Honda. Which is another clear example of Subaru sniffing at a niche within a niche.

Mechanically, Forester is a marriage between Impreza and the Legacy, with floor pans from the smaller Impreza, suspension from the larger Legacy and a 165-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine borrowed from Legacy and the recently introduced Impreza 2.5 RS sport coupe.

This sport-utility-station-wagon-minivan comes in three flavors: base, L and S, with prices expected to start at $19,500 and estimated to touch $24,000 for something fully festooned. The only major options are a surprisingly slick automatic transmission and a completely useless rear spoiler.

Aesthetically, with image and purpose to the fore, Forester is a pretty traditional two-box design topped by a hefty greenhouse. But corners have been nicely rounded, fender flares that are bulges add width and soften the slab sides, and 16-inch alloy wheels (only on S models) with white-lettered Yokohama Geolander tires complete its silent invitation to go have fun.

The chrome grille, however, spent far too long in the ugly pool and peers blankly. Rather like a subbasement window. Or Uncle Miltie's grin.

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