Adequate dynamics, very capable, super handy. That about sums up the last ten years of the Subaru Forester. And yet – once the sportier turbocharged version put rally-bred heat under the skinny pedal, the Forester was no longer just the squishy, squeezy Official Car of Vermont. It was suddenly possible to haul the family Newfoundland to the groomer and scorch the doors off more prestigious iron by flattening that Birkenstock. Eat our dust, punctuated by a "Be Green" sticker. More luxurious appointments were also put on offer, there was once even a Nardi edition. For all that, the Foresters were still little funk machines. For 2009, Subaru's Forester retains and expands what has historically been great about this Fuji Heavy crossover, but the rough edges have been hammered flat. Click past the jump to see if that's impacted the Subie's appeal.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.
A crossover before the term existed, the Forester began life as Subaru's stab at the still-burgeoning SUV market of the late 1990s. Grabbing the handiest platform, the little truck wound up riding on Impreza hardware. Basing its compact SUV on a car continues to be one of the Forester's biggest assets. The personality stays driver-friendly, and the lower center of gravity and modest weight make the Forester responsive instead of lumbering.
Now noticeably larger, the Forester will still please Goldilocks with its just-right dimensions. A giant moonroof on our tester acted like a skylight, making the Forester's cabin feel airy and open, and light colors inside enhanced the cheerful feel at the helm. One common complaint about the Forester has been interior cheapness, and for 2009 materials are improved. Better, but still not Lexus grade, those that molest the dashboard's contours with finger prods and knuckle rapping may be disappointed.
The Tribeca's silvery swoop motif is echoed handsomely by the Forester, bringing a welcome dash of style to a cockpit that previously lacked design whimsy. Seat fabrics no longer look like leftover stock from the 1970s. Squishy padded and devoid of much bolstering, the seats will not be mistaken for anything sporty. Long trips might make some drivers fidgety, too, necessitating stops to walk around and uncramp lumbar regions.
The ergonomics inside are faultless. Rather than go silly with jog dials and digital control schemes, simplicity wins the day. Subaru's done such a good job inside that the Forester just works. No need to crack open the manual, nothing to gripe about, just easy, logical functionality. Temperature controls are a knob each for temperature, fan, and airflow – does it get more intuitive? At the top of the clean center stack is an eyebrow that houses an inconspicuous LCD showing time, trip computer data, and outside temperature. Directly below that little telltale, which manages to hide in plain sight, is the radio.
Packing a lot of functionality into a clean interface, the audio system follows the same easy-to-operate theme that runs through the entirety of the Forester. Satellite radio capable, with an auxiliary input, the ability to speak .mp3/.wma, and the expected radio bands augmented by RDS, there's not much to beg for in the head unit. It's not like you'd expect to find iDrive in a Forester, and Subaru itself offers audio upgrades, not to mention the vast array of aftermarket choices for dB drag racing.
The dashboard's top pad is rendered in a nicer material than past versions, and the silver metallic trim around the center console sets the interior off tastefully. The gray plastic that comprises the balance of surfaces in the Forester's cabin carries a slight sheen of cheapness, but that's not out of the ordinary among the Forester's competition, either. While not the best interior in its class, Subaru has expended noticeable effort improving the environment inside the Forester, making it a place that doesn't alarm with chintz. The silverized plastic does make us think twice about how long it's going to take to scuff and wear thin, however.
Thanks to its size increase, the back seats are now easier to take, too. The 2009 Forester's wheelbase has been treated to nearly four inches of stretch, leaving space in the second row for a megalomaniac and his ego. Normal invitees will find that entry to any seating position in the Forester is stoop-free and visibility out of the glassy cabin is as clear as anyone could wish for. The 2.5X Premium we tried had limo-tinted glass from the rear doors back to manage glare and heat buildup.
The cargo area, always a compelling aspect of the Forester, has a bigger gut now. Stuffing things down the gullet of the 2009 Forester will still surprise you. The big cargo/small footprint strength is further augmented by the three-inch taffy pull the Forester's overall length has undergone for 2009. Our tester also had a handy vertical cargo net to keep loads secured and a retractable cargo cover handily kept greedy eyes off our bric-a-brac.
You can dress it up in fancy new clothes, but there's no way to disguise the familiar boxer-engine powertrain once the key is twisted. Subaru touts the horizontally-opposed layout's inherent balance and low profile, but it still speaks with a gravel throat and jiggles slightly at idle. Growling out 170 horsepower in naturally aspirated form, the engine's forte is torque, also 170 ft-lbs. XT trim level Foresters spice it up with a more lively turbocharged engine good for 224 hp.
A four-speed automatic isn't unknown among the Forester's peers, but it still feels behind the curve when there are some boxes out there offering double that (admittedly not in this class). We didn't mind our 2.5X's auto, but the five-speed manual is the way we'd go. There's even a short-shift kit to tighten up the standard linkage, and the extra cog should serve to keep the engine boiling more gracefully than the bigger ratio gaps in the auto. Fuel economy of 20/26 isn't horrid for a vehicle spinning a transfer case and differentials at each axle, but we'd snap up Subaru's diesel version of this engine in an instant if we could for its torque and efficiency.
Dynamically, the Forester is more mature. The chassis is newly buttoned down and pleasantly well behaved. Torque feels strong off the line, though with only four ratios and a tuning eye turned away from high RPM screaming, the 2.5X runs out of lung capacity before anything satisfying happens. The turbocharger would do a lot to offset the syrup in the automatic, but saddling the blown powerplant with anything other than a manual would be a shame.
Surefootedness is the mainstay of the Forester, and that capability has been augmented by for 2009. Structural rigidity is up, allowing suspension engineers to dial in more discipline and make the Forester's responses less sloppy, though there's still a healthy amount of body roll telling you to cool it if you corner too hot. The soft seats don't help keep you in place, either, so the driver ends up gripping the wheel extra hard and bracing him or herself. Vehicle Dynamic Control is a welcome safety net, and airbags have proliferated to the front, side, and seat positions. Smooth, confident security in any weather is to be expected from Subaru's Symmetrical All Wheel Drive system, a big factor to the Forester's long popularity in regions that see winter. Brakes are four wheel discs, and feel strong and sure, unlike our experience with Foresters past, where using the binders was akin to stepping into a bucket of custard.
Starting at $20,295, the Forester 2.5X offers much of the goodness that made our one-step-up 2.5X Premium pleasing at around $26,000. Five star crash ratings and a passel of accolades make ownership a comforting proposition, especially with top resale values. The superlative loyalty of Forester owners means that lovers of this Labrador puppy of a car tend to hold on to them, and Subaru offers a healthy list of options and add-ons to build a near-custom Forester.
This latest iteration has been scrubbed behind the ears and emerges less esoteric than before. Styling that's clean might be uncharitably described as boring, but we'll go with classy. Too much frippery would only harm the design's timelessness, and the new Forester looks like it should cost more, a happy circumstance. The Forester puts up solid numbers and has got the goods where it counts. Legions of fans speak to the success of the recipe, and for 2009, there's new sweetening added with more size, better performance, and slicker looks.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.