COAL – 2017 Subaru Forester – Sube’s Small SUV

My 2017 Subaru Forester is the closest to a new car that I’ve owned, and unlike many of the cars I’ve owned, it’s far from an unusual vehicle – there are two nearly identical ones in my San Francisco neighborhood, down to the color and trim level.

My mother was the original owner (or, rather, lessee) of this Forester. It replaced a 1996 Chrysler Town & Country minivan that was starting to show its years. When her minivan started to exhibit a troubling oil consumption issue, she enlisted my help in finding a new car.

My mom’s old minivan

She seemed most interested in a compact SUV – more for ease of getting in and out and cargo capacity than for any ability offroad. I initially suggested a Mazda CX-5 and I recall we also looked at offerings from Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota, and Honda.

During our search, she asked me what car I’d buy if I had to get a new car. At the time I tended to buy older used cars – my 1995 Legacy was still serving me well. I said, though, that if I were to buy a new car, I’d probably consider a Subaru Outback or Forester, though I pointed out that I tended to use cars a bit differently than she did, and AWD was a big selling point for me but probably wasn’t something she’d ever need, as she lived near Sacramento and did almost all her driving around there.

Our next stop, though, was a Subaru showroom. The Outback seemed too large, the Crosstrek seemed too small, but the Forester appealed to her. The styling, though boxy, provided very good visibility, and the interior was comfortable and easy to get in and out of. While earlier generations of the Forester had been essentially tall station wagons, this one was a crossover SUV in the mold of a Honda CRV or Toyota RAV4. The ergonomics and controls were fairly conventional, which was a definite plus for an older driver such as my mom – the Forester started with a key rather than a start button, it had a handbrake and an automatic transmission shift lever that operated much like those on cars from previous decades, and the HVAC system was operated by a familiar set of knobs rather than a touchscreen.

There were some attractive lease deals being offered, and my mom was uncertain how much longer she’d be driving, so a 3-year lease seemed to make sense in her situation. The dealer, though, only had Foresters on the lot in neutral colors such as white or silver, and my mom was looking for something a bit more colorful — ideally in red. The salesman let her know that they had additional cars coming in and a week or so later, phoned her to let her know they had one in Venitian Red Pearl on the lot. It was a 2.5i Premium, one up from the most basic trim level. We went to look at it, and she rather quickly decided that this was the car for her, and after signing the paperwork she headed home in her newly-leased Forester. We ended up selling her minivan to Carmax not long afterward.

It served her well for several years. She garaged it, drove it gently, and took excellent care of it. She scrupulously followed the maintenance schedule – it had a 6-month/6,000 miles oil change and service interval, and there were occasions that she took it in at 6 months, having not yet put on 6,000 miles.

She had one fender bender in it – in her case quite literally. The driver’s side fender was dented, which was fixed at the dealer’s body shop & covered by insurance, and I was surprised at the various ancillary trim pieces that were also replaced due to very minor damage. I’ve given the car a close looking over numerous times after the repair work and have never been able to find any evidence of crash damage.

Some years later she decided to downsize and move closer to me – moving to a seniors-only apartment building in Oakland. She kept her Forester but was driving it less and less. She had moved from Roseville (a suburb of Sacramento) and found traffic and parking in Oakland far more difficult. I would occasionally borrow it, partly just to keep it from deteriorating due to sitting, and partly because my 1995 Legacy was starting to get rather long in tooth.

The Forester proved to be a very capable vehicle on trips out of town, and I took it on a few trips to Tahoe where snowy and icy roads showed the efficacy of the stability control, ABS, and full-time AWD. It also was noticeably more powerful than my Legacy, and despite the higher ground clearance, handled well on winding mountain highways. The CVT, which I was initially leery of, also worked well on such roads – it always seemed to be in exactly the right “gear” and had none of the hunting between gears that the 4-speed auto in my Legacy sometimes exhibited.

I spend a lot of time in Tahoe these days, and my Forester showed up on street view.

Toward the end of the lease, my mom had a few scares driving and decided that it might be time to end her career as a motorist. Though I was starting to think about replacing my Legacy with a newer used car, my mom’s Forester at the time seemed too new, too nice, and too expensive a car for me – the lease buyout was around 70% of the original purchase price, and I was initially thinking of picking up some kind of Subaru newer than my 1995 Legacy but not as new as my mom’s then 3-year-old Forester.

When I  began to look at used Subarus, though, I found that they retained their value quite well. An 8 to 10-year-old Forester or Outback with over 100,000 miles would end up being only a few grand less than my mom’s lease buyout.

After going over the numbers with my wife, it started to make sense to buy out my mom’s lease. Her car was in great shape, had low miles, and was very much a known quantity. We had taken weekend trips in it and both liked it (my wife was especially fond of the heated seats). As my mom was no longer driving the car, we ended up buying out the lease a few months early to save her unneeded payments.

Being a newer car, dealer accessories were still available, and as I’d be parking it on the street in San Francisco, I put on color-matched side moldings, which came with an elaborate paper template to align the adhesive-backed pieces of plastic when installing them on the doors. The moldings have somewhat helped against dings, but the car still has a number of chips  & dents on the side after several years of parking in SF. The photo below shows both my old and new Subaru parked in the side-by-side spots commonly found on San Francisco hills — you may see why door dings are so common here:

The Forester came stock with a mini-spare, but after a flat on a Friday night led to a weekend trip being canceled, I switched to a full-service spare. The spare tire well in the Forester can hold a standard spare, although I had to remove the Styrofoam tray above the tire and make a small spacer to elevate the panel above the spare tire a half-inch or so. Oddly enough, I’d switched my Legacy over to a full-size spare some years into my ownership of it but had never had a flat.

As an aside, and to stave off any well-meaning comments, Subarus, like all vehicles with full-time AWD, are sensitive to mismatches in tire diameter. There’s substantial debate over just how much mismatch they can handle, and for how long, but I feel confident I could drive several hundred miles over several days on my full-size spare, whereas a mini spare is far more limited in both mileage and maximum speed.

One thing that surprised me about owning a newer car is how much larger the owner’s manual has become. My Forester came with a several-volume manual in a vinyl slipcase. The audio/multimedia system has its own manual that’s thicker than the whole owner’s manual on my 1995 Legacy. As a point of contrast, my 1968 Falcon’s manual was not much more than a small pamphlet.

While my mom had preferred to have the Forester serviced at the dealer, once I owned it, I decided to do my own oil changes myself, as I’ve done on all my cars. This is as much a function of time as of money – I can generally drain the crankcase, swap the filter, and have fresh oil in a car in 10-15 minutes, whereas taking it to a shop could easily eat up an afternoon.

Despite having done oil changes for nearly four decades, I hit a snag on the first oil change I attempted on the Forester – the drain plug had a small 14mm hex on it, and I rounded off the bolt head attempting to remove it. I sheepishly took it to a shop, where they removed the plug with an extractor and did the oil change for me. I shortly thereafter learned that this is a common issue with Subarus of this vintage, and swapping to a drain plug from older Subarus with a 17mm hex can prevent this. I made the swap, and have done several oil changes since without a hitch. Subaru later put out a TSB about this very issue and introduced an updated plug:

On the subject of oil changes, the motor in my Forester has a top-mounted oil filter that makes swapping it out extremely easy:

I recently received a Fumoto oil drain valve due to a rather odd promotion the City of San Francisco was running — they were providing them to residents who worked on their own cars, presumably to avoid spilled oil on streets and sidewalks. It’s currently in my garage, and I’ll likely swap it in on my next oil change.

The Forester has otherwise been trouble-free. The battery died after about 4 years, and I replaced it with an AGM battery which has so far given me no issues. After about 50,000 miles, the rear brake pads were getting fairly thin, and I opted to do a brake job myself – the discs showed almost no wear, so I reused them. I did the front pads shortly thereafter – they still had at least 30% left on them, but I figured it made sense to replace them at my leisure rather than right at the end of their life when I might be pressed for time. It did feel a bit strange to be working on a car much newer than the typical ones I’ve owned, especially after I’d botched something as simple as an oil change, though the absence of rust, caked-on grease, and grime, or damaged fasteners made the job go very smoothly.

The Forester, like most Japanese cars of the past few decades, has jacking points on the pinch welds. On older cars I’ve owned, these sometimes get mangled over the years. In an effort not to do so on my Forester, I purchased a set of pinch-weld adapters for my jackstands and jack. It has made lifting the car so much easier, and I wish I’d picked them up years earlier – in the past, I’d sometimes drop the pinch weld directly onto a jackstand or futz around with wooden blocks, neither of which felt like a good approach.

A pic of the pinch weld adapters lifted from eBay.

The only work I’ve had to do has been expected routine maintenance and even that has been fairly minimal. This is the first vehicle I’ve owned with a cabin air filter, and I’m always amazed at how much dust and dirt it’s carrying when I swap it out. The 2.5-liter motor has a timing chain, so there’s no looming timing belt replacement in the future.

In years past I was somewhat disdainful of crossover SUVs, but they seem to be taking up a niche in the vehicular ecosystem similar to that occupied by station wagons in the 1950s through 70s, and after owning one I can see their appeal.

While I rarely take it off-road, I do sometimes go “off pavement” on logging, fire, or unimproved roads, and I’ve found my Forester to be capable in such situations – the “X-mode” switch near the shifter puts it into a heightened, all-terrain traction control mode at low speed, which does seem to make a difference in marginal situations.

When X-mode is engaged, an amusing graphic appears on one of the dashboard displays, showing AWD power distribution, Stability Control/ABS status, and the orientation of the front wheels.

And while there’s a burgeoning aftermarket for this generation of Forester,  and I’m one who’s prone to tinkering and upgrading most machinery I own, I don’t feel any inclination to modify my Forester — I have an old Falcon and a vintage BMW motorcycle that keep me busy enough, and the Forester seems more than adequate as-is. I also have never activated the Starlink subscription — the added connectivity and security features it provided never seemed worth the $149/year that it costs.

I tend to hang on to cars these days, and I can see myself continuing to drive this Subaru for some decades, and hopefully getting somewhere close to the life I got out of my 1995 Legacy. A 1995 Subaru and a 2017 Subaru are conceptually similar vehicles that differ mainly in details — they’re both all-wheel-drive, powered by a flat-4 internal combustion engine, driven through an electronically-controlled automatic transmission. I’m curious how technologies such as electric cars, fuel cells, or autonomous vehicles will play out over the next few decades. When it comes time to replace my Forester, whatever car I get in place of it may well be very different.