CATALINA ISLAND, California - When the first-generation Subaru Forester debuted as a 1998 model, it qualified as one of the first "crossover SUVs." Trouble is, that term was not yet in general use, so many people called Forester a sport-utility vehicle, despite its carlike driving qualities.
"Consumers like to think they're buying SUVs," said communications manager Michael McHale. So, marketers call the Forester an SUV. "Crossover SUV" may be the latest term, McHale added.
Product planning director Tom Caracciolo says Subaru customers wanted the next Forester to be slighlty larger, with better rear "packaging." More backseat leg and foot room would be needed, but no one wanted fuel economy to suffer.
Now in its third generation for 2009, the Forester gets an all-new platform and rides a wheelbase 3.6 inches longer than before. Overall length has gained 2.9 inches, and the 2009 Forester is 1.8 inches wider. Rear legroom has grown by 4.3 inches, and shoulder space by 2 inches. Front shoulder space has increased by 2.6 inches. The horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine sits 0.4 inch lower this time, and track width (distance betweeen left and right wheels) has increased. Front-door opening angles have widened, and rear doors now open almost 90 degrees. "Where it's bigger is where it matters," Mc Hale noted.
Engine horsepower has dropped slightly, but Subaru claims better low- to mid-range torque output. As before, two versions of the 2.5-liter engine are available. A single-cam edition produces 170 horsepower at 6000 rpm. In the Forester 2.5 XT model, the turbocharged dual-overhead-cam version generates 224 horsepower. Fuel economy, according to EPA estimates, is almost the same as before, but manual-shift models have dropped 1 mpg.
Like all Subarus, the Forester has all-wheel drive. Subaru has reduced the base price of the non-turbocharged Forester X model by $1,200, but made Vehicle Dynamic Control standard across the board. Because wind noise was an issue, roof crossbars moved from standard equipment to option status.
Brake Assist provides full assistance under emergency conditions. Rear frame height now matches that of an ordinary sedan, for better protection in a minor collision. Side curtain airbags with rollover sensing are standard. So are seat-mounted side-impact airbags and active front headrests.
An altogether enjoyable vehicle, the 2009 Forester delivers excellent ride quality in urban environments. The revised suspension is effectively compliant, absorbing nearly all surface commotion. Foresters are highly maneuverable, too.
With the non-turbo engine a Forester X accelerates rather modestly. Actually, the turbo isn't exactly stirring either, and "turbo lag" is noticeable - though not necessarily troubling.
Generally quiet, the Forester does suffer some engine noise, partly because the non-turbo four-cylinder revs to rather high speeds - especially noticeable with manual shift. That gearbox isn't the greatest, but Subaru's automatic transmission behaves well.
Even in the most challenging spots, the all-wheel-drive Forester is totally capable off-road. On unpaved roads, it coped well with severe bumps - though an occasional nasty sound could be heard from down below, in seriously harsh areas.
Visibility is superior, as promised. The large speedometer is easy enough to read, if a little "busy" in appearance. Front seats are comfortable, roomy, and inviting. Back seats have shockingly large leg and foot room, even with the front seat pushed fairly far rearward.
Placed on sale in April, the 2009 Forester X starts at $19,995 (plus a $665 destination charge). An oversize panoramic sunroof is available. So is a navigation system with a widescreen video monitor. Reclining rear seatbacks also are optional.
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