Soon after the highly revised 2009 Subaru Forester arrived in 2008, it took top honors in our Frugal Five comparison. A few months later, we crowned it our 2009 Sport/Utility of the Year.

Last year, however, its luster began to wane. We again compared the Forester against other cute-utes, and it finished dead last. Why? In a nutshell, we were disappointed with its less-than-frugal powertrain, composed of a languid 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter flat-four and archaic four-speed automatic.

Fast-forward two years, and a new, naturally aspirated flat-four cylinder motivates our top-tier 2.5X Touring, though it still has a four-speed auto. At 2498 cc (versus the older 2457 cc), the boxer is truer to its 2.5-liter-displacement designation. Bore shrinks and stroke grows, while compression increases to 10.5:1 (from 10.2:1) and an overhead camshaft is added. (Both cams are driven by chains rather than belts.)

The result is a 170-horse engine with 174 pound-feet of torque (available at 4100 rpm rather than 4400 rpm) that returns an EPA-rated 21 mpg city/27 mpg highway for automatic and manual gearboxes; up 1 mpg city/highway.

Around town, the non-turbo mill offers plenty of smooth pull, yet needs significant spurring to reach highway speeds. Staffers also noted a tinny exhaust note (especially at wide-open throttle), but hardly noticed the extra mid-range grunt, and praised the transmission's shifting smoothness and suspension's comfortable ride.

With 4 more pound-feet and 5 pounds shed from its curb weight, straight line performance marginally improves. Hold your right foot down, and you'll see 60 mph tick by in 9.2 seconds (a tenth quicker than the 2010 model). A quarter mile passes in 17.0 seconds at 80.2 mph-nearly identical to last year's model (17.1 seconds at 80.0 mph). Interestingly, its numbers on our figure eight (28.5 seconds at 0.59 g versus 28.4 seconds at 0.58) and skidpad (0.79 g versus 0.81) fell only slightly.

While we may not adore the new heart matched to its old-school four-speed, the Forester continues to be one of the most useful entry-level 'utes around, boasting a 2400-pound towing capacity, 8.7-inch ground clearance, and modern interior that affords unobstructed visibility and loads of space. During our test, we liked the extended sunroof, HID headlamps, backup camera, and uncomplicated multimedia system.

It is too early to tell if the new engine is enough to elevate the Forester's game to its previous distinguished levels. We'll decide once we compare it to the segment's best. But so far, its character remains the same.


2011 Subaru Forester 2.5x Touring
Base/as tested price $28,720/$29,068
Drivetrain Front engine, AWD
Engine 2.5L/170-hp/174-lb-ft DOHC flat-4
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Curb weight (f/r dist) 3306 lb (55/45%)
Length x Width x Height 179.5 x 70.1 x 66.9 in
0-60 mph 9.2 sec
Quarter Mile 17.0 sec @ 80.2 mph
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 21/27 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.83 lb/mile