Refined ride, comfortable cabin, all-wheel drive, turbocharged power, now looks like a real SUV.
Disappointing fuel economy, outdated four-speed automatic transmission, as-tested price, now handles like a real SUV.
Neither an SUV nor a station wagon, the previous Subaru Forester gained a loyal following among those who appreciated its rare combination of SUV-like cargo space, wagonlike handling and all-weather versatility. However, it received only lukewarm interest from the average consumer, who wanted fewer quirks and more in the way of traditional compact SUV virtues. Subaru knew that it would have to reinvent the Forester as a genuine crossover SUV in order to give segment leaders a run for their money. Enter the turbocharged 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5XT Limited — to paraphrase R.E.M., it's the end of the Forester as we know it.
And we feel fine. By virtually every measure, the new Forester 2.5XT Limited is not only markedly superior to its predecessor, but also easily on a par with competitors like the Mazda CX-7, Saturn Vue Red Line and Toyota RAV4 V6. Boasting a substantially roomier cabin, attractive styling all around, a segment-leading 8.9 inches of ground clearance and possibly the best combination of power and overall refinement in its class, the Forester 2.5XT Limited has made an exceedingly graceful transition from wagon-on-stilts to SUV.
While this fresh Forester isn't perfect, our criticisms may seem insignificant to compact SUV shoppers. The slow-witted four-speed transmission makes the turbocharged engine feel less powerful than it is, for example, but the 2.5XT Limited is nonetheless quick enough for most tastes. As-tested price is another issue, but if you can do without our tester's navigation system and luxurious appointments, the base Forester 2.5XT stickers for a more palatable $26K. One unequivocal shortcoming is fuel mileage: The aforementioned Toyota is appreciably more efficient while delivering similarly brisk acceleration.
All in all, the 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5XT Limited is an impressive effort. It offers familiar Forester features along with increased comfort and refinement in an endearingly rugged wrapper. Die-hard Forester fans will likely embrace the changes, and Subie newbies will appreciate the 2009 model's considerably broader appeal. The Forester has finally found itself as a class-leading compact crossover SUV.
The all-wheel-drive 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5XT Limited is motivated by a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that cranks out a lag-free 224 horsepower and 226 pound-feet of torque. A four-speed automatic with manual shift control (unavailable on previous Foresters) is the only available transmission. We recorded a 0-60-mph sprint of 6.8 seconds en route to a quarter-mile time of 15.1 seconds at 90.4 mph — excellent numbers for a compact SUV, particularly given the four-speed auto's deliberate shifts and widely spaced ratios.
We paid the price for this plucky performance at the pump, as our Forester managed a decidedly SUV-like 18.1 mpg over 871 miles of mixed driving. The EPA rates the Forester XT at 19 mpg city/24 highway — by comparison, the aforementioned RAV4 V6 is rated at 19/26, and we managed a cumulative 21 mpg with our long-term RAV4. Handling is also SUV-grade, as the Forester rolls and bounces its way through tight corners like a four-wheeled pogo stick. Our best 60-0-mph stopping distance was an indifferent 125 feet, with the brake pedal evincing a consistently spongy feel.
The payoff for the Forester's nautical handling becomes evident while traversing uneven surfaces. We can't think of another compact SUV that soaks up bumps with such aplomb. Throw in those 8.9 inches of ground clearance, and the Forester makes for a compliant and capable soft-roader. Moreover, while light on effort and feel, the Forester's crisp steering makes it feel surprisingly maneuverable in close quarters, aided by a usefully tight turning circle.
Road and wind noise in the 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5XT Limited are about par for the course in this segment — always perceptible, but rarely objectionable. Consumers drawn to the Forester's buff new body should enjoy the commandingly elevated driving position, although the diminutive dead pedal seems to have been designed for feet men's size 8 and under. Otherwise, folks of all sizes will have no trouble getting comfortable behind the wheel, thanks to a nicely shaped height-adjustable driver seat with power lumbar support and a steering column that tilts and telescopes. Controls are easily reached, and well-placed armrests ensure satisfactory long-distance cruising comfort.
The Forester's split-reclining rear seat deserves special mention here. "Throne" would be a better term, as the cushion is so high that rear passengers will feel as though they're looking down on those in front. All but the longest of leg will actually be able to rest their hamstrings flush against the cushion — a rarity in motorized conveyances without wings or bathrooms. Yet headroom somehow remains ample, and legroom is adequate even when sitting behind 6-footers.
Also singled out for praise by our editors was the gargantuan sunroof, which has become something of a Forester tradition. It slides back so far that rear passengers might catch some rays, too. Our only quibble is that two touches are required to close the roof (the first touch leaves it about 25 percent open). A one-touch-open sunroof should be one-touch-close as well.
The 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5XT Limited's abundant glass and high seating position yield excellent visibility in all directions. Gauges are a model of simplicity. So are the three-knob climate controls, which could hardly be more intuitive. Secondary controls are all where you'd expect them to be.
What you might not expect is the cumbersome operation of the 2.5XT Limited's integrated navigation system and stereo. The navigation system itself actually works well enough, but with a mélange of two knobs, 10 identical-looking buttons and various touchscreen inputs, there's nothing simple about getting the Forester to play your favorite tunes. What's more, when you want to tailor the sound beyond presets like "Rock" and "Jazz Club," you'll have to go through a digital version of a vintage 1985 graphic equalizer — no simple bass and treble adjustments here. Adding insult to inconvenience, the sound quality is mediocre at best, regardless of how much you tinker with the settings.
Unsurprisingly, the Forester passed our real-world usability tests with flying colors. A bag of golf clubs fit easily behind the backseat, and there was plenty of room for more. Our two standard suitcases were likewise easily swallowed by the Forester's cargo hold, and it's a cinch to flip the rear seatbacks down and free up the 2.5XT Limited's full 63 cubic feet of space. Child-seat installation proved trouble-free as well, although taller front passengers may have to sacrifice a bit of legroom and/or seatback rake in order to accommodate a rear-facing child seat.
Design/Fit and Finish
From every angle, the 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5XT Limited announces its newfound SUV identity with authority. Some derivative styling elements are present, but we find the overall effect muscularly attractive. Inside, the Forester largely shares the recently redesigned Impreza's interior layout, which is generally a good thing. Faux-aluminum trim pieces on either side of the dashboard flow artfully into the center console. The square-shaped uncovered cupholders, however, are a bit of an aesthetic letdown. Quality construction is evident, with tight panel gaps inside and out.
Who should consider this vehicle
Consumers who want cavernous cargo capacity and extraordinary comfort for four adults in a relatively compact and powerful all-wheel-drive vehicle. If the first two features are negotiable, a more fuel-efficient and better-handling all-wheel-drive station wagon may be worth a look.