Finally, I See the Forester through the Trees

2023 subaru forester touring front
Finally, I See the Forester through the TreesSubaru
  • The author doubts anybody buys a Subaru thinking it’s beautiful.

  • But Subaru lovers, including his wife, want value and all-wheel-drive practicality more than style.

  • Its inside where the Forester makes sense, with a tall greenhouse, slim pillars, and low cowl and beltline contributing to an open and airy cabin with visibility that no other midsize crossover can match.

Several years ago, my wife was in the market for a new car, and we were both excited to have a new, exciting vehicle in our garage. I told her she would likely have this vehicle for a good long time, so she should get whatever she wants.

After test driving a few, she chose a Subaru.

At first, I said, “You can’t have one of those—it’s just too ugly.” I argued that she wouldn’t be able to park it in front of the house for fear of driving down property values. What would people think? More importantly, what would they think of me, a car designer?

This, of course, did not dissuade her. She bought a Forester, a green one.

1997 forester
First-generation 1997 Subaru Forester.Subaru of America

Sure, a Subaru is known for being a good value, offering standard all-wheel drive while the competition does not. I have facetiously suggested Subaru is able to do this with the money saved from not having to operate a design department.

Just look at current Outbacks, Crosstreks, and the new WRX and you’ll see vehicles overwrought with cladding and the resultant incoherent graphics. Character lines that seem unjustified and arbitrary. Strange lighting shapes. I doubt anybody buys a Subaru thinking it’s beautiful. But before you Subaru loyalists start writing nasty letters, hear me out.

The company has come a long way since the US introduction of the 360 in 1968, a tiny, ugly thing that sold 332 copies. It’s taken a long time, but Subaru sales have skyrocketed, meaning a lot of people either don’t agree with me or have other priorities besides styling.

For a clue to those priorities, just look up Consumers Reports. Legacy, Outback, Forester, Crosstrek—really most of Subaru’s lineup—are at or near the top of their ratings. CR doesn’t score for styling, basing their ratings on more objective criteria like performance results and reliability data.

Which all suggests these vehicles appeal less from an emotional perspective than they do as rational, pragmatic transportation.

While I remain skeptical of Subaru’s attempts at styling, I respect the way they’re designed. That’s not a contradiction. Part of the Forester’s challenging aesthetic lies in its proportions. Compared to the competition, it is more boxy, more upright, with a tall unfashionable greenhouse, and an upright, vertical backlight angle. Graceful it is not.

2010 subaru forester
2010 Subaru Forester.Subaru

Once you get inside, suddenly it all makes sense. That tall greenhouse, slim pillars, and low cowl and beltline contribute to an open and airy cabin with visibility that no other compact crossover can match. Compare this to contemporary SUVs that employ large, stylized D-pillars that compromise rear visibility.

The driver’s seat height in the Forester makes it easy to get in and out, and that boxy, upright architecture turns out to be a very effective way to swallow up Costco runs while still maintaining a small overall footprint.

2023 subaru forester touring cargo
2023 Subaru Forester cargo hold.Subaru

Simply put, the vehicle has great, efficient packaging. All vehicles start with packaging, but this one clearly prioritizes the interior above all else. A Subaru designer (seems they do exist) once told me their engineers were strict in maintaining hard points, or the architectural criteria that designers must adhere to, partially to explain why the vehicles look the way they do.

It must be a winning formula for them, because while the current Forester is on a newer platform than ours, architecturally and proportionally the two are very similar. Subaru knows what their customers like.

2023 subaru forester touring interior
2023 Subaru Forester interior.Subaru

At first glance, these vehicles may not have the curb appeal of some of their more stylish competitors, and they may not possess the right aura for buyers who look for their vehicle to make a certain visual statement.

What Subarus do have—besides an extremely loyal following—is day-to-day livability and ease of use that you only really appreciate after that new car smell begins to fade. Subaru celebrated the sale of 2 million Foresters in the US in 2019, and the 3-million mark will be in sight in a few years.

2023 subaru forester sport
Lots of headroom in Forester.Subaru

About a year ago my son’s first car finally ate its transmission and had to be towed away. The car was 20 years old, and we could see it coming. My wife had already decided, when the time came, she would give him her Subaru, which he was very happy to have.

So, she was again in the market for a new car, and once again I suggested she get whatever she likes because she would have it for a while.

dave rand design consultant
PA Images

She bought a new Forester, a green one.

Seems like both my wife and Subaru know what works for them.

Dave Rand (pictured right) is the former executive director of Global Advanced Design for General Motors.