It would be easy to say that this year's winner is a knee-jerk reaction, that the editors of Motor Trend responded to the skyrocketing cost of gasoline like the rest of the driving public by abruptly abandoning the traditional SUV formula for something smaller, more fuel-efficient, greener, more, well, forest-y. It would be easy to categorize our selection of the Subaru Forester as Motor Trend's 2009 Sport/Utility of the Year as a choice made solely at the pump, but it wouldn't be true.
Sure, our Subaru Forester 2.5XT contender posted the best observed fuel-economy numbers (16.0 mpg) for an all-wheel-drive SUV in this year's competition, but that's not the whole story.
So how does a small, quirky, former airplane manufacturer from the Gunma prefecture of Japan finish first among surprise offerings from established players and bold moves by newcomers? How does it beat a chest-thumping, head-turning macho mobile known as the BMW X6? How, when Ford wraps stylish sheetmetal around a Gulfstream V interior and calls it Flex? How can it win, when Kia serves notice to the entire category with its own body-on-frame, V-8-powered Borrego, and Infiniti conjures up seven-speed transmissions and jaw-dropping bird's-eye-view monitoring systems?
Just how does the Subaru Forester do it?
Let's start with the humble powertrain. On paper, it's nothing new or particularly special; all Forester models receive a version of the 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder found in the Impreza sedan. Transmission options are even less stunning: a carried-over five-speed manual or four-speed automatic for entry-level 2.5X models; auto only if you opt for the turbocharged 2.5XT variant.
At the track, that four-speed, 224-horsepower Forester 2.5XT zips to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds and to the quarter mile in just 15.5. Not as impressive as the 6.6 and 15.1-second runs a similarly equipped Forester 2.5XT managed in our previous comparison ("Turbo Chargers," September 2008), but still as fast or faster than all but the BMW X6, Lexus LX 570, Toyota Sequioa, and Infiniti FX and EX. It's not just fast, but fuel friendly, too. In that comparison, the Forester 2.5XT logged the best observed and EPA-certified city/highway fuel economy (19.6 mpg, 19/24 mpg) against the turbo fours and six-speeds of Mazda CX-7 and VW Tiguan.
Says St. Antoine, "I'm amazed at how well the powertrain works with only a four-speed. The turbo four is torquey enough not to feel like it needs more ratios, and at cruising speed it's not revving overly hard."