The naturally aspirated Forester is no slouch, either. Rated at 170 for power and torque, the 2.5X takes regular unleaded, returns even better EPA fuel economy (20/26 mpg), and is classified as a partial-zero-emissions vehicle. Not only is the Forester class dominant, it's as green as a you-know-what.

More feats of engineering competence were revealed when we broke out the tape measure. While classmates like the VW Tiguan manage only 56.1/23.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front/rear seats, the Forester yields a whopping 63.0/30.8. Similar spatial advantages are seen in the commodious driver and passenger compartments; in our other small-CUV comparison test ("The Frugal Five," June 2008), the Forester provided the most front/rear headroom and front legroom in a field that included the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Saturn Vue, and Toyota RAV4.

Still not impressed? Then factor in the one metric that puts the S in SUV: ground clearance. With an undercarriage 8.9 inches (8.7 for Forester 2.5X) above ground, the Forester 2.5XT not only beats every one of the CUVs in the two aforementioned comparisons, it equals or betters fellow SUV of the Year contenders Honda Pilot (8.0), Kia Borrego (8.5), and Lexus LX 570 (8.9). Consider those mere soft-roaders? Both Foresters beat or equal the Land Rover LR2 (8.3), Toyota FJ Cruiser 4x2 (8.7), and Ford Expedition 4x4 (8.7). Inside and out, off-road and on, this little Subaru is truly an impressive feat of packaging.

Despite high clearances, the Forester doesn't drive particularly tall. In fact, in a field that includes two bona-fide hot-rods (BMW X6, Infiniti FX) and, let's face it, a car (Infiniti EX35), the Subaru produced more than its fair share of grins on our real-world/off-road loop.

Says Lassa, "It's as much fun as the EX35 with better mileage. The Infiniti seems more planted, but the Subie is light on its feet."

"Ride quality is remarkably nice on Alisos Canyon Road, and it's way big dirty fun on the rally stage," notes Markus.

Truck Trend editor Mark Williams adds, "A few rough shakes when the tarmac is broken, but overall it handles more like a solid crossover. When it gets on dirt, it seems to encourage you to go faster, almost saying, 'It's all right, I've got your back. Let's go.'"