The Subaru Forester-the all-new 2009 Subaru Forester, mind you-walks off in first place in this survey because it apes almost everything the others do right and sidesteps nearly all their pratfalls. It rides like a La-Z-Boy (credit the new double A-arm rear suspension's 0.8-inch-longer travel), though it can slightly meander at times. It steers with a sweet buildup of rim forces. And unlike everything else here, affords this rare thing called "great outward vision." (Note to Nissan: That's the sensation of seeing things outside when you look over your shoulder or through the center mirror.)
Its power won't peel your toupee-its 170 horsepower is actually three fewer than last year's engine. But owing to a variety of tweaks (a new intake configuration, altered exhaust cam timing, a switch to dual mufflers), peak torque is up four pound-feet, and the rest of it is spread like thick frosting over the rev range. The most important headline, though, is the Forester's new suit of clothes. Out with REI; in with Urban Outfitters. And up in wardrobe size. The wheelbase is 3.6 inches longer, the length gains 2.9 inches, height, 3.3, width, 1.8. However, two numbers critically matter here: rear legroom, which stretches 4.3 inches, and the cargo floor that bellies 5.2 inches thanks to the new rear suspension. Some in the Forester blog community are aghast at all this, but we're up for the rescaling-as long as it doesn't dilute the Subie's chipper character. Which it doesn't.
You might be surprised to see the Rogue in second spot, but here's our reasoning: If you're hankering for a comfy, competent, and commodious baby 'ute, see above. But the Rogue is a different creature entirely, a barracuda caught in a net filled with groupers. Terrific if you match its audience demographic-and Ed Loh might be its demographic: "It's like a cool Northface backpack," he enthuses. "It's not the most functional, but it has a sporty, 'look at me! I've got a snowboard on the roof' thing going. "Loh is young and single, you understand. LaPalme, young and married, isn't buying: "Is it really 'masculine-enough' looking though?" she questions. The rest of us just think it looks kind of...French. However, there's no debating its razor performance (treacherous ride quality, aside) and value (though its cost-saving interior reflects this). Basically, we like sporty things here. Even if they do look like Renaults.