2009 Subaru Forester

Redesign gives pioneering crossover SUV more space-and a lower price

Whether Subaru deserves credit for the first "crossover" vehicle may be debatable. When the first-generation Forester debuted as a 1998 model, the term hadn't even entered the public lexicon. Most people considered the first Forester to be a car-like compact sport-utility vehicle. At the time, apart from such newcomers as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, most SUVs were truck-based, built on a separate chassis.

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2009 Redesign

Before redesigning the Forester for its third generation, Subaru listened especially closely to owner concerns, said product planning/development director Tom Caracciolo, through a series of customer clinics. Those customers wanted the Forester to be slightly larger, with better rear packaging (including more leg and foot room). But they didn't want to lose fuel economy. They also said, "Don't build a big SUV."

Dimensions have increased considerably. Wheelbase has grown by 3.6 inches (to 103), and the 2009 Subaru Forester is 1.8 inches wider and 2.9 inches longer overall. That's still shorter than Subaru's Impreza. Rear legroom is 4.3 inches longer this time, making it surprisingly roomy. "Where it's bigger is where it matters," said corporate communications director Michael McHale. Rear occupants also get 2 more inches of shoulder room, while front riders gain 2.6 inches.

Built on a new chassis, the 2009 Subaru Forester gets a fresh appearance, edging away from the prior design. To improve its center of gravity, the engine sits 0.4 inch lower. Track-width dimensions have increased, which may improve stability a bit. Front doors open wider, and pillars have been modified. Back doors now open almost 90 degrees. Rear frame height now matches that of an ordinary sedan. Subaru claims more usable cargo space than its main rivals, though actual volume has not grown.

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Chassis and Suspension

A new double-wishbone rear suspension, mounted on a subframe, increases cargo space as well as potentially improving ride quality. The hood on turbo-engine models has a more integrated, less extreme air-intake hump.

Because wind noise bothered some customers, roof crossbars, which used to be standard, have moved to the options list. Cruise-control buttons are now on the steering wheel. A telescoping steering wheel is now available, and cupholders hold one-liter beverages.

Subaru's 2.5-liter horizontally opposed "boxer" four-cylinder engine comes in regular or turbocharged form. In 2.5X models, the non-turbo engine produces 170 horsepower at 6000 rpm, driving either a five-speed manual or four-speed Sportshift automatic transmission. Only automatic is offered with the 2.5XT, whose dual-overhead-cam turbocharged engine generates 224 horsepower at 5200 rpm. Basic engine output has dropped slightly, but low- to mid-range torque has improved a bit and the turbo edition promises a flat torque curve. Fuel economy is just about the same as before, except that the manual-shift model is 1 mpg less frugal.

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Powertrain and Performance

Every Subaru has all-wheel drive, but the one that mates with the turbo engine is more sophisticated in the way it apportions torque to the wheels. Foresters can tow up to 2,400 pounds. Ground clearance is 8.9 inches with the turbo engine (8.7 in regular form). Most models now ride on 17-inch wheels.

An altogether enjoyable vehicle, the Forester proved its off-the-pavement capabilities during an arduous drive through the wilds of California's Catalina Island. Even in the most challenging spots, the Forester demonstrated its prowess with ease. Though it coped well with severe bumps and holes, some unpleasant sounds occasionally emanated from down below.

Acceleration is modest in 170-hp form, and the turbo model isn't exactly stirring, either. It also suffers some turbo lag when pushed hard. Even so, performance is more than sufficient for a compact crossover/SUV. Automatic-transmission operation is barely discernible, but Subaru's manual gearbox is not the greatest.

Expect excellent ride quality, as the compliant suspension absorbs nearly all commotion. Even on rough dirt roads, the Forester only occasionally penalizes occupants significantly. Foresters are highly maneuverable, too, and mostly quiet-though the rather high-revving non-turbo engine is heard frequently.

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Interior Improvements

Front seats are comfortable, roomy, and inviting. Rear leg and foot room qualify as shockingly spacious, even with front seats pushed fairly far back. A large speedometer is easy enough to read, but a little "busy" looking. Subaru Foresters are "known for superior visibility," McHale said, and the 2009 model demonstrates that trait well. Views all around are undisturbed.

2009 Subaru Forester's starting price, for the base 2.5X model with a manual transmission, is $19,995 (plus $665 destination charge). That's $1,200 lower than the price of the least-costly 2008 Forester. For 2009, too, Subaru has made Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) and curtain-type airbags with rollover sensing standard in every model. VDC is Subaru's version of stability control. Front active head restraints also are standard.

Sales begin in April '08. The non-turbo lineup includes a 2.5X Premium Package and 2.5X L.L. Bean edition (automatic only). Turbocharged 2.5XT Foresters come in regular or Limited trim. Reclining rear seatbacks, a "widescreen" navigation system, and a panoramic sunroof are available.

So, is it a crossover or an SUV? "Crossover SUV" is the latest term, said communications director McHale. "Consumers like to think they're buying SUVs." (www.subaru.com)

About the Author

James M. Flammang is an auto journalist and author, and the editor of Tirekicking Today (www.tirekick.com).

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