Finding Forester

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I was stuck in traffic the other day and saw a 190-mile-per-hour Lamborghini Countach inching along in the other lane. The driver looked hot, which is not surprising considering his open window was about as wide as the gun slit in a pillbox. With super-hot supercars, air conditioning isn’t an option.

I realized, watching the poor rich guy move along at 5 miles per hour, that I have absolutely no desire to own a dream car. Sure, I’m jaded from driving a lot of fancy automobiles, but the utility of vehicles like the Countach disappeared around the same time as the open road. I drove a mega-expensive Callaway Corvette in New York City recently and it just wasn’t much fun. If you really need to drive in a city, tiny Euro-style Smart cars can at least fit into a parking space.

Car magazines will always sell dreams; people don’t buy them to read about Chevy Cavaliers. But they shouldn’t be taken seriously as consumer guides. Face it, you really should buy a practical car, not a troop transporter or a racing machine.

The road to practical cars got a bit clearer last week when General Motors and DaimlerChrysler dropped their lawsuits opposing California’s clean car rules. That should pave the way for a whole new generation of low-emission cars, both for California and the many other states that follow its rules.

And that also leads us to this week’s review subject. Reviewer Ann Job says, "Subaru’s Forester is a sensible SUV — sensibly sized, sensibly priced and sensibly equipped. There’s no outlandish styling, no gimmicks and no intimidation factor for which many other SUVs seem to strive."

I’ll buy that. My wife actually did buy a close relative of the Forester last week, a ’96 Legacy Outback. One reason they’re close relatives is that both are really cars, not trucks, but with SUV cues that have turned them into bestsellers.

There’s very little mechanical difference between the Outback and the standard Legacy (both have all-wheel drive, for instance), but those off-road touches sell the car. For this exact reason I’d have preferred to get a plain Legacy, but I didn’t have the final word. I expect our purchase to be very reliable, as was its 1990 Legacy wagon predecessor.

Buy a 2004 Forester with the 2.5-liter, 165-horsepower four-cylinder engine and you should be able to achieve 28 miles per gallon on the highway. The Forester is built on the Impreza platform, which means it’s a practical small car under the skin.

But car companies like to gild the lily. Our test car was not a plain-Jane 2.5X, but an all-new turbocharged, 210-horsepower XT (following the lead of the similarly turboed Impreza WRX STi). Believe me, you don’t need this package, which adds $5,000 to the entry-level Forester and includes a really silly looking (but functional) hood scoop. What’s worse, fuel economy drops to 18 mpg in the city, 23 on the highway.

For the record, the XT will probably do a better job of climbing mountains and towing boats than the 2.5 X. But are those things really part of your daily routine? The 2.5 X comes with most of what you need, including all-wheel drive, ABS brakes, air and a CD player. Many other things about the XT are just swell, including the great front and rear legroom, the large cargo area, the huge sunroof and the practical controls. One odd failing: The CD player’s dim readouts are nearly invisible during the day.

The Forester is fine, practical transportation, as is. The enhanced edition should be reserved for people who envy that guy sweating it out in the Countach.