First Drive: 2009 Subaru Forester

The something-for-nothing Forester

Kim Reynolds
May 17, 2008
Among its peers, Subaru's Forester has always been the "character" among its compact sport/ute fellows. You know, funny and erudite and all that, but a bit eccentric in a suspiciously self-conscious sort of way. Styling? Frumpy. Make that, proudly frumpy. And forget about suggesting it should have a more refined engine note. In Subaruville, roarty is music to the ears. Had Hollywood ever made a movie of the Forester's life, bow-tied George Plimpton would've been perfect for the part.
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And, of course, those other, less characterful little 'utes the Forester competes with have easily outsold it year after year.
But maybe for not much longer. The actor playing the role of the 2009 Forester could be George Clooney instead of George Plimpton. Trust me, you're going to give it a double take: It's bigger. It's better mannered. It's cloaked in an okay suit of sheetmetal. Thank heavens, it's still amusing and playful, but now it'll even catch the eye of the opposite sex in the room. Here's a Forester that's less Forest and a lot more Forest Hills.
The latest, third generation of Subaru's cult 'ute has dramatically pulled out its earplugs to its naysayers and made the changes that had to be made. Number one: It's bigger. More than enough to placate the knees of all those second-row tagalongs who've been complaining in the past (imagine -- a yawning 4.3 inches in added rear kneeroom). The wheelbase has been stretched too, but less so -- 3.6 inches -- while the overall length has been upped even less proportionately, gaining 3.0 inches. Here is the critical, numero uno talking point about the 2009 Forester -- its size.
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Without a doubt, the majority of Forester shoppers are going to do a little jig when they see the greater capacity. But, oh boy, will there be dissenters among the traditional Foresteristas (I already know one) who are going to wail at the growth spurt. Subaru can happy-talk all it likes about better departure angles, greater ground clearance (now 8.7 inches for the normally aspirated version, 8.9 for the turbo), and even a five-inch-tighter turning circle. But some fraction of the hard-nut die hards are going to cross their arms and say no, no, no. In addition to its gained length and width (1.8 inches fatter), it's taller by a whopping 4.3 inches. Why? Many of the Forester forum-types are asking the same thing. Probably to keep its visual proportions 'ute-like instead of going all wagonish; inside, there's so much empty air above your head the FAA might have jurisdiction. Even with the gigantic (optional) retracting moonroof in the closed position, there's space for a nice aviary overhead. The downside of this could be a higher center of gravity despite the drivetrain's fractional lowering. Of note, all Foresters now have stability control, brake assist, and tip sensing to trigger the curtain bags, in addition the all the usual tricks like hill-hold for the manual-transmission cars and electronic brake force sensing.
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On our test drive, I found myself appreciating all of these viewpoints: The greater length, stretched wheelbase, and new double A-arm rear suspension (rubber isolated) give the Forester an absolutely splendid (as well as quieter) ride. Even off road, the darn thing wafts you along like a glass of expensive champagne on butler-carried tray. But you do become aware of its puffed dimensions when you turn it. Its rotational inertia, or resistance to changing direction, is greater, if only by a hairsbreadth. True, the proverbial 99 out of 100 savvy drivers probably won't notice any difference at all. And the good news is that the Forester's always delightful steering feel is still a tiny rim-tug away.
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The plus side to the Forester's inflation is that its extra capacity is tremendous -- 14.9 cubic feet of extra passenger room and 7.6 additional cargo cubes with the second row folded. And that tall roofline we were talking about? It'll be your best friend when Aunt Bessie offloads that armoire you always had your eye on. Personally, I think this is a very sweet spot in the titanic trade-off between dimensional hulk and useability. Inside, there are also plenty of nifty details, expected and unexpected, such as reclining rear seatbacks and a fold-forward portion of the rear seat bench that offers-up twin cupholders and a stow tray, standard on all but the base model.
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Both the normally aspirated and turbo Foresters are propelled by evolutions or their current engines. The base-engined 2.5X, 2.5X Premium, and 2.5X L.L. Bean versions get a better-breathing intake tract, revised intake ports, modified cam timing, and twin mufflers -- all of which combine to broaden the torque band while bumping its peak by 4 lb-ft to 170. There's comparable tweaking under the gracefully scooped hoods of the 2.5XT and 2.5XT Limited turbo versions too, aimed at similar torque and efficiency broadening goals (a twin-scroll turbo design and extra intake air tumble at the intake port). The updates are even more subtle in the transmission department, little stuff like slightly better shift action for the manual, improved sport-shift reaction from the automatic, and a new-spec ATF to help cold-start fuel economy.
On the road, the broad-shoulder torque curves of both engines nicely balance the Forester's roughly 100 pound weight gain (which, by the way, is not a bad increase considering the dimensional upscaling). The four-speed automatic is an obvious anachronism -- and wouldn't it be nice if the turbo version could break its dependence on premium fuel (as Subaru has accomplished with its naturally-aspirated 3.6-liter H-6 engine)? Oh, yes. Still, in the face of quickly escalating fuel prices, Subaru is probably wise to avoid the ever-more-horsepower mania; in fact, in normally aspirated, automatic transmission form, mileage is unchanged, while only a single solitary mpg is sacrificed on the highway if you opt for the auto. Also unchanged are turbo version's numbers, though -- note to all you manual cog swappers out there -- the turbo/manual tranny pairing has been discontinued with this engine.
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In a way, the 2009 version of Subaru's little rut crawler is the something-for-nothing-Forester. Bigger, but with equivalent mileage and performance. Significant new safety features at base prices lowered from $700 to $1200, depending on powertrain and trim. And perhaps best of all, smart new looks while retaining its unusual commitment to clear-headed functionality (note how the new side windowsill's flip up into the rear pillar is restrained to maintain outward vision). Good stuff. Smart stuff. And good reason indeed that we should finally cast off our Plimpton-esque image of the car. Welcome, Mr. Clooney.
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2009 SUBARU FORESTER
Base price $20,645-$28,840
Vehicle layout Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door, SUV
Engines 2.5L/170-hp/170-lb-ft, SOHC, 16-valve, F-4; 2.5L/224-hp/226 lb-ft, turbocharged DOHC, 16-valve, F-4
Transmissions 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic
Curb weight 3250 lb - 3460 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 103.0 in
Length x width x height 179.5 x 70.1 x 65.9 in
0-60 mph 7.0-9.0 sec (MT est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 19-20 / 24-26 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.87-0.93 lb/mile
On sale in U.S. Spring 2008

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Subaru Forester

Fair Market Price
$21,101
Editors' Overall Rating
Basic Specifications
MSRP: $22,195
Mileage: 22 / 29
Engine: 2.5L H4
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