I personally find the descriptor “crossover” to be a bit of a dirty word as I find most crossovers to be, in general, big, heavy, and sloppy, yet somehow they still manage to sell like hot cakes.
However, one crossover that feels quite the opposite, and actually has quite the cult following, is the Subaru Forester, the smallest SUV the company has offered.
The first generation Forester is one of the cars that really kick-started the crossover trend that now dominates the market, along with others such as the first generation Toyota RAV4.
However, the Forester is smaller than the RAV4, and this works greatly to its advantage.
Underneath, almost the entire platform is shared with the original Impreza, most notably the EJ20 engine and symmetrical all-wheel-drive system.
This means that the Forester drives like an Impreza. The steering is light, quick, and precise, and the all-wheel-drive helps the car stick to the tarmac like super glue through a fast bend.
The engine isn't exactly the most potent unit, a two-litre flat-four boxer engine that only manages to produce 92kW at the crank due to its single-cam design, despite having four valves-per-cylinder.
At best, the power could be described as adequate, with nothing really kicking in until 3000rpm, although the engine has just enough torque – 180Nm – to give some low-down punch.
The gearbox is a dual-range five speed manual which feels like, well, a 17 year old gearbox. When the weather's too hot, it grinds between second and third, and when the weather's too cold, it grinds between second and third.
That said, it doesn't take a lot of effort to change between gears as the gearbox has a nice throw to it. The clutch isn't bad either – not too light, not too heavy, but just right.
The interior isn't the worst place to be in the world, although it's definitely no Rolls Royce. Almost everything is black vinyl and plastic, unless of course it's grey vinyl and plastic.
The seats are something I cannot complain about. Yes, they might have a pattern on them that resembles that of a dodgy bus seat, but the side bolstering holds you into the forgiving seats snugly, and the built in armrests are fantastic for longer drives.
In terms of fuel economy, the engine can be frugal as long as you drive it conservatively, though with full-time all-wheel-drive, you're never really going to see particularly amazing numbers.
The car has been totally reliable to me over the few months I've owned it. The only real problems are typical high-mileage Subaru problems such as the head gaskets leaking oil. However, you can't really blame the car for this when it has over 336,000km on the clock.
But all these things are trivial compared to the car's personality, which clearly shines through. The Forester is like a determined sperm wriggling it's way around twisty roads – bitumen, gravel, or mud – with ease.
The dual-range gearbox and all-wheel-drive makes it feel determined to keep up with the big boys off the road, while the iconic burble of the boxer engine on the road makes you at least feel like you're keeping up with everyone else.
This determination can also be seen in the looks department too. It has good ground clearance, a thick nudge bar, and plastic bumpers that give it the impression of off-road performance, while flared fenders and subtle curves in the overall shape make it look just as dominant and sleek on the road as well.
Even the grumpy look on its face shows determination. It wants to dispel all the presumptions about crossovers – they don't all have to be sluggish and boring, because the Forester proves they can be just as much fun as the cars upon which they're based.
For only $3000, it was an absolute bargain.