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AUTO REVIEW: A stylish makeover doesn't dilute the Subaru Forester's utility

Wait a minute, this is a Subaru? It's really hard to believe. Model by model, year by year, the weirdness is being banished from this brand as its cars slip silently into the mainstream. Look at it and the first thing that strikes you is that not...

Wait a minute, this is a Subaru? It's really hard to believe.

Model by model, year by year, the weirdness is being banished from this brand as its cars slip silently into the mainstream.

Look at it and the first thing that strikes you is that nothing in particular strikes you. There's no weirdness, no oddball, goofy, overdone styling. Oh sure, the grille's texture and the radical corners up front are a residual bit of uniqueness. But overall, it looks so, so -- gasp -- normal. Viewed from the rear it looks positively European. Who would have believed it?

The buff new body is significantly larger since its redesign in 2009. No longer resembling a chiseled block, it still has a useful shape and an expansive interior that makes it comfortable for hauling five people and their stuff. Head and leg room are very good in both rows; the cargo hold is surprisingly roomy yet flat, and the cargo floor slopes rearward.

Not that normality totally reigns; there's still the special DNA that makes a Subaru a Subaru.

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The Forester, like all current Subaru vehicles, has standard all-wheel drive. If the front wheels slip, all of the car's power shifts to the rear wheels. That's handy when the iceman cometh.

Up front, the engine is unique. Its cylinders are horizontally opposed, they lay flat opposite each other, rather than being arranged in a straight line or in a "v" shape. Known as a "flat" or "boxer" engine, it displaces 2.5 liters. The base single-overhead-cam engine produces 170 horsepower on the 2.5X model; with a turbocharger and double-overhead-cams, 224 horsepower on the 2.5XT.

While the base engine comes with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, the turbo mill comes only with the automatic. Trim levels include Premium and Limited. Subaru provided a 2.5X Limited for testing.

Performance with the base four-cylinder was certainly peppy with just a couple people aboard. But packing this vehicle with people and gear would test this vehicle's 170 horses.

Handling was about what you'd expect given its mission as a suburban schlepper. The vehicle did an adequate job of soaking up bumps, but cornering brings out significant body lean. Grip was good in drenching downpours; the brake pedal didn't always inspire confidence due to its light feel.

Visibility from the Forester was a rare treat among new cars; it's excellent. There are no blind spots in this vehicle, a real safety feature that anyone can appreciate.

That said, this car is reliable if utterly devoid of the personality or fun associated with the smaller Subaru WRX. If the WRX is the wild child, the Forester is the mild child.

But for those who don't crave excitement, there's plenty to please here.

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The test vehicle had its share of creature comforts: leather trim, side curtain airbags, power driver's seat, heated front seats, am/fm/cd/mp3 audio system with satellite radio. There's also a navigation system. Both are activated through a large touch screen mounted on the dashboard.

There were only a couple down notes. The cabin's ambience seemed dull, yet durable, thanks to an abundance of hard plastic. The seat heater switches for both seats are buried on the right side of the driver's seat. After starting the car, you must always endure a legal warning before using the touch screen. This would be OK if it only affected the navigation system, but it also must be endured just to turn on the radio. It's incredibly annoying.

But those faults aren't enough to cloud the Forester's essential goodness as the ultimate cul-de-sac servant. No, it's not glamorous enough to get you a top spot when you valet park the car, but it will shine when it really matters: every single day.

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What we say: A great way to schlep around

Pro: So practical

Con: So practical

Stats:

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Engine: 2.5-liter SOHC four-cylinder

Wheelbase: 103 inches

Length: 179.5 inches

Weight: 3,360 pounds

Cargo space: 30.8-63 cubic feet

Towing capacity: 2,400 pounds

EPA rating (city/highway): 20/26 mpg

Fuel economy: 24.5 mpg

Fuel type: Regular unleaded

Base price: $25,995

As tested: $29,148

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