"I like it," he yelled from across the parking lot.
"It's a 2009 Subaru Forester," we shouted back.
"I know," he said. "Looks good."
Typically we'd rate this quick exchange right up there with catcalls from construction workers, but when these few words of light praise come from the biggest BMW snob ever to rub a Roundel, "like" and "good" take on a whole new meaning.
Pulling away, we sat up a little taller in the Forester's driver seat, tossing a saucy flip of hair to the indifferent gate attendant.
When Bigger Means Better
Bimmer boy is right. There's plenty to admire about the 2009 Subaru Forester. The new Forester is bigger, better-looking and offers more features than the current version, a Subaru staple since 2003. And with its transformation into a sport-utility from a wagon, the Forester is finally ready to compete with the likes of the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
The new Forester's wheelbase has been stretched 3.5 inches, and the body is 3 inches longer than before, 1.8 inches wider and 4.3 inches taller. This puts it smack between the smaller CR-V and the larger RAV4. The additional dimensions come from some clever engineering, as the Subaru engineers have taken the basic body structure of the Japanese-spec Impreza wagon and joined it with the rear of the U.S.-spec Impreza sedan.
While the increased length makes the Forester drive a bit more like an SUV and less like a car, it does translate into a more spacious cabin for both front and rear passengers. Up front, the Forester offers 43 inches of legroom, more than either the CR-V or RAV4, yet the real difference lies in the rear seating area.
During our test we squashed three Girl Scout moms in the backseat for a quick pizza run, and although they were smashed shoulder to shoulder like a chain of paper dolls, neither Lydia, Danielle nor Susan complained about the Forester's rear legroom, now comparable to Susan's roomy RAV4.
The Value Proposition
The Forester started out as a sub-$20,000 station wagon, but things have changed as a category of compact sport-utilities has emerged and a more sophisticated mix of standard equipment has been required. Priced at $29,995 for the turbocharged all-wheel-drive Forester 2.5XT Limited, the Subaru costs $1,500 more than the 2008 CR-V and $3,000 more than the V6-equipped 2008 RAV4. Of course, the XT Limited does include a touchscreen GPS navigation system with standard Sirius Satellite Radio.
Unlike the seven-passenger RAV4, the Forester does not offer a third-row seat, but this hardly reduces the utility of Subaru's small SUV. Third rows in crossovers this size can barely accommodate 7-year-old Brownie scouts, never mind their matronly mothers.
You also get a little more performance for your money with the new Forester. Besides all-wheel drive, stability control is standard.
Turbocharged if You Care
The Forester's turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer-4 has been substantially revised for 2009, and it includes a new intake system, intercooler and a turbocharger as featured by the Outback and Legacy engines.
With 224 horsepower and 226 pound-feet of torque, the new engine carries over the same horsepower and torque ratings as the outgoing model, but the engine is able to achieve both numbers at lower rpm. Peak horsepower now arrives 400 rpm sooner at 5,200 rpm, while peak torque is achieved 800 rpm earlier at 2,800 rpm, and the result is much improved drivability. In comparison, the CR-V's inline-4 makes just 166 hp.
The 2009 Forester's ample power is immediately noticeable, but its turbo benefit isn't as readily apparent. There's no throaty exhaust note and no heightened rush of acceleration. Instead you notice just a slight lag in response as the power spools up. Some of us also noted a slight flat spot midway through the power band, but others said they could push through just by laying on the throttle pedal.
At the test track, the Forester 2.5XT Limited runs to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds (6.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), and takes 15.1 seconds to close the quarter-mile gap at 90.4 mph. The last time we ran numbers on a CR-V, it took 9.8 seconds to hit 60 mph and eventually completed the quarter-mile in 17.5 seconds.
Times have changed, and a four-speed automatic transmission no longer seems to offer the speed or fuel economy we expect. So we weren't surprised when several staff members complained about the Forester's four-speed, as its widely spaced ratios compromise the drivability of the engine. This unfortunate hand-me-down from the Impreza sedan has only a 15 percent efficiency loss compared to the five-speed manual transmission, but it affects your impression of the Forester every day. Subaru builds a good five-speed automatic that's seen in the Legacy, and we're hoping to see it adapted to a face-lifted Forester in 2010.
With an EPA rating of 19 mpg city/24 mpg highway, Subaru has improved the Forester's average fuel consumption, but the RAV4's 269-hp V6 still beats the Forester's highway rating.
Mushy Brakes, Solid Steering
This 3,427-pound Forester comes to a halt from 60 mph in 125 feet, an impressive performance that beats the Honda CR-V by 6 feet. Unfortunately the brake pedal action doesn't give you confidence, as our drivers describe it variously as soft, mushy and squishy. Our impressions were also affected by the brake dive from the body and audible protests from the 225/55R17 Yokohama Geolander all-season tires.
In the slalom, the Forester makes its run at 60.3 mph, and while there's a noticeable delay as the chassis responds to the steering and cuts to the next cone, the conventional power-assisted steering does its job. In fact the Forester is pretty maneuverable, as its 34.4-foot turning circle is a foot less than the old Forester's despite the 3-inch wheelbase stretch. It's also tighter than the CR-V and RAV4, making it easy to navigate those parking lots in front of elementary schools, which are the natural habitats of the compact sport-utility.
We had our doubts about the overall impact of the sport-utility dimensions of the 2009 Subaru Forester, but the weight difference is only about 80 pounds over the former wagon-style Forester, and there seems to be enough power and maneuverability to handle it. The Forester is still more than a hundred pounds lighter than a comparable CR-V, and feels far more playful than the staid Honda.
More Room for More Stuff
Increased passenger space combines nicely with expanded cargo room to make the Subaru Forester feel less like a quirky runabout and more like a grown-up SUV. The capacity of the rear cargo hold has grown 4.5 cubic feet, even with the 60/40-split-folding rear seats still upright. Nevertheless, maximum hauling space with the seats folded down tops out at 68.3 cubes, nearly 5 cubic feet less than the Honda and Toyota.
Subaru has also made the new Forester look like something more than a simple runabout, particularly with the presentation of the interior. Apparent quality has improved with double-stitched fabrics and sporty shades of blue light to illuminate the intuitive controls of the climate control system. A 100-watt AM/FM six-disc in-dash CD changer system pumps music through the Forester's six-speaker setup.
Meanwhile a 10-way power seat and tilt-and-telescoping adjustable steering column help drivers get comfortable behind the wheel.
Grown Up, Growing on Us
Some might argue that the 2009 Subaru Forester has lost its unique Subaru personality, its combination of quirky wagon-style bodywork and its breathless powertrain. It's large and powerful and even attractive, attributes we're not accustomed to associating with the products of Subaru City.
But while the Forester has enjoyed some success with its quirky, fun package, there's a reason that the CR-V and RAV4 are so popular among the crossover crowd. The Honda and Toyota already offer the right package at a reasonable price, and now the Subaru does, too. Really, it was time for the Subaru Forester to grow up, and now it has.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Senior Copy Editor Doug Lloyd says:
With the odd exception of the WRX STI, Subarus always seem somewhat anomalous in Southern California. They are ubiquitous in the Northeast and quite common in Colorado and other cold-weather climes. My cousin had one during business school in Chicago and used to brag proudly that it would start in any weather. But after several years living in SoCal, an all-weather Subaru hasn't exactly made my radar.
So it is with that essentially blank slate that I stepped into the Forester, the first Subaru I've driven for any length of time. I couldn't quite figure out what it was, but then every Subaru has always been kind of nonspecific to me. Is it a wagon? A crossover? A small SUV? Does it compete with the Kia Rondo, the Toyota RAV4 or the Audi A4 wagon?
The 2009 Subaru Forester has a low step-in height and capacious headroom (I'm 6-foot-1). The instrument gauges are among the most beautiful I've ever seen, with two shades of blue. Everything within the cabin is well-placed and clearly marked, and outward visibility is great. It's got plenty of cargo room as well. The Forester has real, usable power, and corners relatively flat in spite of its tall stature. Despite some complaints made by others, the four-speed automatic delivers the power just when you need it, and it's actually pretty smooth in the manual shift mode.
I'm still not sure what it is. Homer Simpson once proudly boasted that he had created a meal between breakfast and brunch, and maybe that's what we have here. It's another step away from the SUV, but it's not some wimpy crossover. Maybe the Forester is a station wagon for people who think they want an SUV, a crossover with some off-road cred. Whatever it is, I like where it's going.
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