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Back when I was in law school, my more outdoorsy friends — the ones with the bandana-collared dogs and country digs outside of Charlottesville, Va. — drove Subarus. They appreciated the all-terrain traction, the ample cargo room, and the reliable Subaru’s tough, low-profile image. In those days, Subarus were “SUV” before SUV was cool. Today, the Subaru still has much to offer the socially conscious suburban dweller who realizes that you don’t need a 6,000-pound assault vehicle just to haul around a couple of rug-rats and their gear. And while Honda, Toyota, and Ford have recently entered this market, it’s Subaru that still bears the standard in this class. The Forester is the smaller of Subaru’s all-wheel-drive wagons, and what sets it apart from the competition is its unique combination of genuine all-weather utility and European-inspired handling. The Subaru drive system shifts power both from front to back and from side to side to assure maximum traction. In spirited highway driving, the power transfers are virtually seamless. Only when I threw the Forester — which is not a “performance” car — into tight curves at high speeds did the inside wheels begin to leave the pavement and the outside wheels take over. In every other type of highway and city driving, the little turtle stuck fast, reminding me of the secure feeling I get when handling all-wheel-drive Audis. And, in fact, the Forester transcends its plain-looking Japanese utility vehicle origins by mimicking the Audi’s road feel — albeit at lower speeds. I didn’t have a chance to drive the Forester in snow, but a friend who literally lives on a Virginia mountaintop swears by it, as does a Manhattan litigator with a fondness for adventurous driving in Quebec and mud-wallowing on Vermont’s back-country roads. The Forester’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is well suited to this car. It’s not particularly quick, but it runs smoothly and has plenty of torque. The fit and finish are quite nice, and the driver’s seat is the most comfortable I’ve experienced in any small car. Not only is there plenty of hip and thigh support, but the height, tilt, and lumbar adjustments allow a comfortable and relaxing driving position — a scarce commodity nowadays. Additionally, overall cabin space is good, control ergonomics are intuitive, and the standard audio system includes a six-disc in-dash CD changer. The verdict: If you’re looking for a rugged small wagon with sophisticated handling, go-anywhere utility, and the seating comfort of a larger car, the Subaru Forester should be at the top of your list. STATISTICS M.S.R.P. — $22,895. Price as tested — $25,412 Mileage — 22 city/26 highway Warranty — 3 years/36,000 miles basic, 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain, with roadside assistance

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