From the backyard to the backcountry – the start of an adventure vehicle

For the past year a 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5XT has sat stored at our property. It was my folks and then my younger brother drove it until he got married last year and moved to the UK. It needed some work so they offered it to us. I had other things I’ve been working on… and there it sat largely forgotten.

Growing up in Quesnel, British Columbia was heaven. Miles of lakes, hiking, and rivers in every direction. My friend, Justin, who lived across the street came over. We grabbed our rods and walked to the lake to fish. As a kid I learned to tie my own flies and fly fish in the low rivers. And spent fond weekends backpacking neighbouring mountains with friends.

Canoeing Bowron Lake trail

In the winter we skied in a little resort called Troll Ski Hill – legend has it that it boasts the worlds longest T-bar. (As all great legends – this remains unverified to this day)

One day this same friend Justin and I took our snowboards and ventured to explore the backside of Troll Mt. The untouched snow was ridiculously deep – back then Justin and I estimated 4 to 6 feet of soft snow. We built a jump and spent the entire afternoon playing in the backcountry. We had to painfully slog our way back up the mountain in our boots using our boards as anchors. This was before split boards.

 

By the time we got back to the top everything was shut down. And I can still see the line of folks standing in front of the lodge staring at us as we rode into the village. It wasn’t that many people – maybe 8 – but it felt like the whole world. Apparently the ski patrol and every local volunteer were out looking for us. We were kids. My parents were furious. Justin’s parents were too. I laugh thinking about this. Inside I felt this deep sense of pride. We had dared venture into the wilderness and had returned victorious.

I’ve been mulling over setting up an adventure vehicle – and until about a week ago hadn’t seriously considered the Subaru. Last year I picked up a pair of Line Vision 108 ski’s for backcountry ski touring. And the one obstacle I face is deep ruts in the snow on the forestry roads getting to the backcountry mountains.

Skiing the Line 108s in the Monashee Backcountry

With access to the Okanagan Mountain Range, the Coastal Mountains, and Monashee Mountains – our area is an ideal place to tour. It just needs exploring. I completed the Avalanche Safety Training course and began scouting the forestry roads for access points. Then snagged the problem of ground clearance. The higher the elevation the taller the centre ridge of snow becomes. The last thing I want is to get high centred and stuck out there.

A month ago Shawna, my wife, decided it was time to sell her beloved Volkswagen Golf to get a small SUV. We checked out the dealerships to see our options. Her priorities were leather seating (easy to keep clean), A/C, space for kids bikes, comfortable, all wheel drive, and a bluetooth phone connection*. The last point was arguably most important to her.

The more we looked the more we both were coming to the same conclusion. We already had all those things in both our other vehicles. We also own a Mercedes GLK 350. It has all features these – plus some. So she decided to drive the Mercedes and I decided to fix the Subaru.

Shawna picked up a new battery for the Subaru. We popped it in and it fired up. I gave it an oil change. And commenced fixing the little issues. Fixed the A/C issue by replacing the cabin air filter. Cleared the check engine light by tightening the gas cap – seriously. Washed it and used Back to Black on the rubber. And it looks brand new. There is still the matter of lots of noise coming from the rear struts. They need replacing.

This is the moment I wondered if it’s possible to turn the Forester into a daily driver that could also become an adventure vehicle.

The Subaru Forester 2.5XT after some TLC

Over the years I’ve driven the 2nd generation 4 wheel drive Pathfinder, an AWD Subaru Impreza, a Mercedes GLK350 (Much more capable than one may expect – and it comes with a compressor stock). Of all these, the Subaru was the best in the snow. When snow fell it would come alive.

There are some iconic vehicles that I love. The Land Rover Discovery is one of my favourites. The Nissan Patrol is another. And the capable Mercedes G-wagon has a certain charm. Other than the Discovery these are not great daily drivers. I also happen to have two daughters (a 4 year old and a 2.5 year old) that need to be relatively comfortable for adventures. And while I see the practicality of the Discovery it requires patience for maintenance.

So began my quest. (And many questions)

I’ve always liked the turbo 2.5XT Subaru Forester. The 224 Horsepower it has doesn’t seem like much nowadays, but it’s surprisingly ample power. And it’s very easy to tune to increase the torque. It’s fast, quick on the accelerator and fun to drive. There’s something about the look of the 2009-2013 years that Subaru got right.

Oh, and the rear passenger seats recline. Even our Mercedes with all the comfort considerations doesn’t have that.

Yes, the Mercedes GLK 350, similar to the Subaru Forester, would be a worthy crossover vehicle to turn into a winter going adventure vehicle. Mercedes actually built it for exactly that. They tested it in the cold of Sweden and the heat of the Sahara – across sand dunes and freezing cold snow drifts.

The 7 speed gearbox is outstanding. And it’s built more like Mercedes of old – a bit over-engineered. I’ve owned that vehicle for years and it just has lasted. Our mechanic actually bought one after he had been working on ours for a while. Also, it just looks rugged. But Mercedes marketing put 19″ rims on it. And it will likely take time before enthusiasts modify it for adventure.

What I’ve discovered is that these things do eventually happen. It wasn’t that long ago when the 1st and 2nd generation Nissan Pathfinders were passed over. Today they’re in demand as all terrain vehicles.

Like the Subaru Forester, the Mercedes GLK350 would benefit from a low-range transfer case and locking diffs, and if that were to come available I’d be the first in line. It is just so reliable. And that’s the most important thing for an adventure vehicle. In Europe they have an off-road spec. Which includes hill decent control and lower gearing. It has a 3500lb towing capacity (4400lb in Europe) and the wheel base is short and perfect for navigating rolling terrain. It’s the sleeper in the crossover segment.

But… incredibly the Subaru already has these options available. (In another post I’m going to go into more depth on the build considerations).

On paper the Subaru Forester and Mercedes GLK 350 are very similar. They are both unibody frames with coilover suspension. Which is the direction the modern SUV is going. Think modern Land Rover Defender, Rivian, and even Hummer EV. The European towing capacity of the 2009 manual Subaru Forester is also 4400lb. Both of these frames can handle a fair amount of torsional stress relative to their weight.

The turning circle of the Mercedes is 37.7 feet and the Subaru is 34.4 feet. Those are both amazing. It makes a world of difference trying to get out of a sticky situation on a tight turn. Whereas a Land Rover Discovery has a turning circle of 40.7 feet. And a 2 door Wrangler is also about 34.6 feet with the 4 door getting a 40.7 feet turning diameter.

The Subaru has a torque of 226 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm and the Mercedes has 258 lb-ft @ 2400 rpm.

The gas mileage (important for long trips between fuel stations) is 18 mpg for the Mercedes GLK350. I’ve noticed it’s a bit better than that. And for the Subaru Forester it’s 21 mpg.

The GLKs wheelbase is 108.5 in and has a width of 74.3 in. The Foresters is 103.0 in and has a width of 70.1 in.

The stock ground clearance on the GLK is 7.9 inches and on the Forester it is 8.9 inches.

The approach and departure angles for the Subaru Forester are 24.8/24.8 deg. And for the Mercedes GLK350 they are 23/25 deg with a 19 degree break-over angle.

Modifications for the Subaru Forester, like suspension upgrades and spacers, are more readily available than for the Mercedes GLK. And when it comes to maintenance the Subaru is going to be more cost effective and budget friendly. Which is what you want for an adventure vehicle – especially if you’re just starting out.

So while I was looking elsewhere for an adventure vehicle, it turned out that a very capable, easy to modify, and reliable stead was sitting right in my own backyard.

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