2009 Subaru Forester XT First Drive

2009 Subaru Forester XT First Drive

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2009 Subaru Forester SUV

(2.5L 4-cyl. Turbo AWD 4-speed Automatic w/VDC)

When the Subaru Forester first appeared in 1997, no one called it a crossover. No one wanted to call it an SUV, either, because this would conjure up images of carbon-spewing, resource-depleting, endangered species-decimating wagons of doom to the eco-conscious crowd that Subaru has always attracted.

So everyone just thought of the Subaru Forester as a tall, funky station wagon with all-wheel drive.

Now comes the 2009 Subaru Forester, the third generation of this versatile, sure-footed pack mule, and Subaru still isn't quite sure what to call it. So far as we can discern the fuzzy corporate description, the 2009 Subaru Forester is a crossover-utility vehicle on a sport-sedan chassis.

Actually Subaru is a lot clearer about what the 2009 Subaru Forester isn't. Apparently it's not a Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander, Saturn Vue or Toyota RAV4. And that's a good thing.

Subie People, We Know Who You Are
There is no confusion on Subaru's part, however, about who buys the Forester, why they buy it and how they use it.

In developing the 2009 model, Subaru conducted consumer clinics as early as 2004 to determine what Forester owners thought. Even more telling, according to Tom Caracciollo, Subaru of America's director of product planning, was what was learned after the clinics. By observing participants as they drove away, Caracciollo and his team learned about the ways people actually equipped the Forester and used it, even simply peering inside to see what kind of items were lying around.

This product-development voyeurism was extended further by searching for Forester owners who posted pictures of their adventures on Flickr.com, a photo sharing site. There were the inevitable dog lovers, cross-country skiers and hikers, but the most prolific poster was a guy who posed his Forester in front of the entrance sign to the many national parks he visited. And then there was the couple who stuffed a calf in the back of their Forester to deliver the animal to a relative's farm.

From all this, Subaru was happy to discover that owners loved and trusted their Foresters, but it also took to heart the areas that needed improvement. For example, Subaru eliminated a major source of wind noise by making the crossbars for the rarely used roof rack an optional item. At the same time, load capacity of the crossbars has been increased to 175 pounds, so if you do use them, you can carry more.

In addition, cupholders have been incorporated into the door panels to stow the ubiquitous oversized water bottles that were observed to be a necessary part of the Forester active lifestyle. Interior colors in easily soiled light beige and ivory have been replaced by a more user-friendly shade of gray. And a retractable "snack tray" holds food and beverages for rear-seat passengers.

Living Room
A more perplexing issue had to do with the need for more interior space in a vehicle that people bought to avoid owning what they described as a "large SUV." The unavoidable answer has been to make the 2009 Subaru Forester slightly longer, wider and taller than its predecessor, and it also features a few engineering tricks to create additional usable space.

As a result, the 2009 Forester rides on a 103.0-inch wheelbase, some 3.6 inches longer than before. At 179.6 inches, it's 3 inches longer overall, yet rear-seat legroom has been stretched by more than 4 inches. Wider-opening rear doors and seat cushions with rounded outside edges make the rear seat more accessible, even if you wear size 12 hiking boots from L.L. Bean. (In fact, there's still an L.L. Bean signature model in the Forester lineup.)

The biggest improvement comes in rear cargo capacity. There are nearly 2 inches more overall width at 70.1 inches, while the replacement of the former strut-type rear suspension with double wishbones opens up 5.2 inches more space between the rear wheelwells. The new rear suspension also opens up additional storage space under the floor.

Subaru demonstrated the Forester's cargo capabilities (not to mention its keen appreciation of its target audience) by showing us a 2009 Forester with 4,590 granola bars stowed in the rear cargo area. The carmaker also displayed a multicolored work of Cubist-style sculpture that depicted the 2,192 squashed soda cans and water bottles (redeemable value about $400 at the recycling center) that could be jammed in the back of the Forester with one rear-seat passenger and the larger section of the 60/40-split rear seat folded flat.

Still the Choice of Medical Professionals
Safety has always been a strong point of the Forester, and this concern is reflected in the new Forester's adoption of curtain side-impact airbags with a rollover sensor, brake assist, stability control, and of course an indicator for "road surface freezing" as part of the outside temperature display.

As before, the Forester has full-time all-wheel drive, and there are two versions. A Forester with a five-speed manual transmission has an AWD system that features a viscous-type center differential that normally distributes power 50 percent front/50 percent rear, and as much as 100 percent of the power can be directed to the wheels with the best traction. A new electronic hill-start assist replaces the former mechanical system.

When the Forester comes with a four-speed automatic transmission, the torque split for the AWD system constantly varies according to acceleration, deceleration and wheel slip, and as much as 100 percent of power can be directed to the wheels with the most grip.

Firing on Four Cylinders
Two different versions of Subaru's horizontally opposed 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine are offered for the 2009 Subaru Forester. The normally aspirated SOHC 2.5-liter version makes 170 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and it's available with either the manual or automatic transmission. Changes in camshaft timing and intake port design have helped increase peak torque to 170 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm and (more important) broadened the torque range for better response.

The turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer-4 has been substantially revised for 2009 and includes a new intake system, intercooler and turbocharger as featured by the Legacy and Outback engines. The result is more low-rpm torque and much better drivability. Although this engine is rated at 224 hp and 226 lb-ft of torque just as before, peak horsepower now arrives 400 rpm sooner at 5,200 rpm, while peak torque is achieved 800 rpm earlier at 2,800 rpm.

Fuel economy is much the same as before, with an EPA-rated 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway for the normally aspirated engine and 19 mpg city/24 mpg highway for the turbo.

No Doom Wagon Here
We haven't said much about the styling, which unless you own a previous Forester, won't do much to tickle your excitement meter. The 2009 Forester looks a bit more upscale and sophisticated than its predecessors and avoids the cute-ute look of the RAV4, so we're OK with it as a cover for a very useful carrying case.

Driving the 2009 Subaru Forester is more exciting than staring at it. Tip the throttle on the turbo model and you get a smooth, lag-free response. The four-speed automatic could use another gear, but it had no problem working with the all-wheel drive to power us up and down steep rocky slopes and muddy, rutted trails around the (pardon the expression) outback of Catalina Island, where we drove the Forester. The 8.9 inches of ground clearance (at the exhaust) was also appreciated, along with 225/55R17 Yokohama M+S tires.

When we hit the pavement, we found the Forester base model with its five-speed manual transmission to be even more to our liking. It has an eager-to-please liveliness in terms of engine response and handling that seem more in character with a compact, go-anywhere utility vehicle.

It doesn't matter what you call the 2009 Subaru Forester. Although it's bulked up a bit and taken on the look of something serious, this is still at heart the same funky station wagon we have grown to love. It was a crossover before crossovers were cool, a utility vehicle that's easy to live with.

Even better, the 2009 Subaru Forester is actually $1,200 cheaper than before, which addresses the only real problem we ever had in understanding it. The pricing of the base model begins at $19,995, while the turbo begins at $26,195. So let's just call it a bargain, which is the only definition that matters.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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