Dear Car Talk:
I have a 2014 Subaru Forester that I love more than anything in the world. I look at her the way I imagine some people look at their children. Even though she's built to go off road, I'm super, super careful on dirt roads. But how gingerly do I need to drive my sweet baby car, and how much can a car actually take? -- Laura
I'd avoid tree stumps, Laura.
Not all "off road" vehicles are equal. SUVs like Jeep Wranglers and Range Rovers and the like have big, metal skid plates underneath them to keep the transmission and engine's oil pan from being dented or torn off by boulders and petrified wild boar. Your Forester isn't that heavily armored.
I think it's fair to say that the Forester is designed more to get you through snow or a muddy dirt road when needed. Or to the ski lodge when you're playing hooky from work during a blizzard. It's got more traction than cars with two-wheel drive, and it's got more ground clearance. But it doesn't have the heavy-duty parts that would allow you to retrace Lewis and Clark's expeditionary route, for instance.
Plus -- and this is true for any car -- the more gently you drive it and the less you bang it around, the longer it will last, and the less frequently it'll break. So if you follow that Car Talk dictum, you'd drive it gently all the time -- avoiding jackrabbit starts and hard stops and turns -- and you wouldn't seek out rutted dirt roads. And when you needed to go truly "off road" for any reason, you'd drive slowly and carefully.
It's not that the Forester is particularly delicate; it's a fairly durable car. But if you really love this Forester more than anything in the world, and look at it like you would your children (which, frankly, I find a little disturbing, Laura), then minimizing off-road use and driving gently when you do encounter unpaved roads is going to be your best bet.
And whatever you do, Laura, I hope you two are very happy together ... in sickness and in health, 'til head gasket do you part.