Sometimes, outside of the crucible of an autoTRADER Comparison Test, a car can redeem itself as a very good car in its own right, merely not as good in as many areas as the best in class.

The highway is where the Forester’s unrefined engine note seeps in and gets under the skin. It’s a metallic drone that says nothing but “Why are you making me work so hard?”

In the case of the Subaru Forester with the base 2.5L boxer-four engine, this is not one of those times, though that doesn’t quite fall down to the level of a bad car. Most of it boils down to one characteristic that makes it nearly insufferable beyond its shortcomings relative to its peers.

That horrible, horrible engine noise. Truly, even Subaru devotees might find it a bit much to bear for the essential practical qualities that it brings. Practical yes, but otherwise the Forester does little that is exceptional or distinctive. On the one hand you can say it’s good basic transportation, and it is, but the lustre wears off pretty quickly when spending time in it on the highway.

The highway is where the Forester’s unrefined engine note seeps in and gets under the skin. It’s a metallic drone that says nothing but “Why are you making me work so hard?” While the CVT can optimize ideal engine revs for cruising, and the 2.5L horizontally opposed boxer four-cylinder (naturally aspirated, not a turbo) seems overtaxed, or the engine management software is simply being stingy with the 170 hp and 174 lb-ft of torque. It reminded me of the 2013 Honda CR-V we put through a long-term test, which was similarly unpleasant when cruising at highway speeds, and both share the trait of poor quality audio, so turning the volume up merely adds to the cacophony rather than balancing out the offending sound. Perhaps the culprit was the old fashioned peak power at high rpm, horsepower at 5,800 rpm and torque at 4,100. That being said, competitors that make similar torque and power at similar ranges don’t have the same degree of cabin noise, the Nissan Rogue and Jeep Cherokee prime examples.

While fuel efficiency is some consolation, 10.4 L/100 km isn’t necessarily enough to give the Forester a pass. Its official NRCan ratings are 9.6/7.5, so perhaps the high speeds on GTA highways and cold weather were more than it could handle, bucking the trend of Subaru’s newfound penchant for impressive efficiency.

At the other end of the spectrum was Subaru’s performance off the line. If coming from anything with a mellow character, watch out! The Subaru just leaps off the line at the slightest brush of the accelerator, launching away from stops with frantic urgency, like someone left it in Insane Mode or something. Soon after, the dearth of power comes into play, but boy does this thing get going like the house is on fire. Some people like this. Most of us who drove it this time around did not. 

For its part, the CVT does its job, undetectably shifting the ratio of the variable bands, with only the noise levels giving away the game. Likewise, Subaru’s full-time symmetrical AWD was unfazed by our wintry conditions and deep snow and X mode is available to aid in low-speed crawling and hill descent control.

The driving experience was fair, with reasonable comfort if a bit bouncy. While it doesn’t have the same sharp instincts as the turbocharged and sport-sprung XT, it nonetheless turns where you point it without resistance or confusion, and maintains its composure on the highway, though braking was a bit spongy. Aiding in highway cruising was the Eyesight driver aid package, with lane departure warning, blind spot monitor and adaptive cruise, but with big, square windows outward visibility is stellar and makes it easy to navigate in tight quarters and parking lots.

Unfortunately, Eyesight comes at a price, $1,200 for Eyesight itself, available only as an option package on top of the $30K Touring trim and requiring the CVT at $1,300, adding up to $34,245 with the $1,650 Freight & PDI and $100 A/C Tax. It is also available on the 2.5i Limited or 2.0XT trims, though at a lower $1,200 package price because those trims are already equipped with standard CVT.

Indeed, the value of this particular trim was questioned by one of our own forum members (and Subaru aficionado) Noah Shapiro expressed big disappointment; “The interior was well-laid out, but boring and felt low rent. At $34K, it's unfortunately poor. I would expect that for $25K and no more. This is NOT the Subaru I fell in love with in 2011.” The high-quality soft-touch dash only goes so far and it can sometimes be hard to appreciate the high-tech features working behind the scenes but not felt immediately by our primary senses.

While the high-trim models we’re used to tend to dazzle with touchscreens and slick interfaces, even basic, conventional audio interfaces tend to be more straightforward than this tightly clustered set of buttons (Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and VW being my points of reference).

In this $34K Touring with Technology trim, it still lacks satellite radio, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, xenon headlights (and the halogen’s performance was mediocre at best) or leather seating, though the front seats are heated and power adjustable and a sunroof is on the list of equipment. Knocking off that $2,500 Technology package makes the more basic interior trimmings much more palatable.

That being said, the light grey headliner and generous interior space made the cabin feel airy, and I found the seats perfectly comfortable, though one of our testers expressed a dissenting opinion (ironically, another Subaru owner). Rear seats are spacious as well, and though they don't slide, they do recline slightly, and child seat installation is easy with a wide door opening and removable headrests.

Cargo space is on par with the best in the segment if not a leader in any regard, 892 L in the trunk and 1,940 with the rear seats folded down and reasonably low liftover height. However, the Forester must have the slowest power-opening tailgate ever, taking a solid three count before it even moves after pressing the button, and rising at a leisurely pace that will have you cursing if your arms are too loaded to help the thing on its way.

Also often overlooked, but nonetheless a potentially high priority for many car buyers is safety. We will soon have an in-depth look at Subaru’s excellent safety structure, but for now we will remind you that the Forester with Eyesight is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ with the best possible front crash prevention score, and the first to ace the new small overlap front crash test in 2013, with a rating of Good in this demanding new requirement, though a number of models have since received the score with their 2015 redesigns.

Also often overlooked but worth considering is Subaru’s potential resale value, an area in which it excels, even going so far as to earn Kelley Blue Book’s 2015 Best Resale Value Award for Brands in the U.s. and ALG 20105 Residual Value Award for top brand in Canada, the Forester itself ranked third in the compact SUV class. These aren’t exactly sexy qualities, and you will not find it rewarding until it is time to trade in or sell, but smart shoppers can still revel in long-term benefits if they can put up with some of the car’s more immediate drawbacks.

While we wholeheartedly love some of Subaru’s more passionate products like the BRZ and WRX, and have nothing but affection for the utility, value and sturdy quality of the XV Crosstrek and Outback, this Forester just failed to impress, partly because of the gauntlet of competition it faced in our compact crossover comparison, and partly because it was simply an unpleasant vehicle in which to spend time because of the mediocre quality and excessive noise. Subaru can and does do better, and we expect that a refresh will address these points and bring the Forester back to a competitive level in all areas key to the compact SUV segment.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Equinox
Ford Escape
Honda CR-V
Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Kia Sportage
Jeep Cherokee
Mazda CX-5
Mitsubishi Outlander
Nissan Rogue
Toyota RAV4
Volkswagen Tiguan

2015 Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring
2015 Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring
Base Price $29,995
Optional Equipment $2,500 (Technology Option: Eyesight Driving Assist System, proximity keyless entry)
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,650
Price as Tested $34,245
Optional Equipment
Scoring breakdowns 6.0
6 Exterior Styling
6 Performance
6 Interior
4 Comfort
8 Fuel Economy