Subaru Forester: Big, Rugged, and Economical

The redesigned 2009 Forester is a hit, thanks to great design, affordable price, all-wheel drive, plenty of room, and good gas mileage

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Roomier than before, with a more stylish interior and lower price

The Bad: Outmoded automatic transmission, sluggish acceleration with standard engine

The Bottom Line: An excellent choice for young couples and small families

Up Front

Early indications are that Subaru's (SBUOF) redesigned five-passenger Forester will be a big hit, with U.S. sales soaring 49% in April, 66% in May, and 41% in June. It's not hard to figure out why. The new Forester is bigger, roomier, and has a nicer interior than the old one, yet its gas mileage is about the same, and its starting price is nearly $1,200 lower than the old model's, even though it comes standard with traction and stability control.

With a five-speed stick shift, the entry level '09 Forester 2.5X starts at just $20,660 (add $1,200 for a four-speed automatic transmission). That's quite a bargain, considering the Forester's standard all-wheel drive. A fancy L.L. Bean Edition Forester starts at $26,660. And, if even more sportiness and luxury are priorities, the top-of-the-line Forester 2.5XT Limited, which has leather upholstery, a navigation system, and a turbocharged version of the model's standard four-cylinder engine, starts at $30,660.

The new Forester has a much different—and more mainstream—look than the previous model. The old Forester was a tall, boxy station wagon and had a much plainer and more functional interior. The new model is three inches longer and nearly two inches wider; both inside and out, it looks like a cross between an SUV and a minivan. The new Forester isn't exactly curvaceous, but it doesn't look all that different from competing crossover vehicles, such as Nissan's (NSANY) Rogue and the Saturn Vue from General Motors (GM).

Turbocharged Ratings

The '09 Forester's standard engine is a 2.5-liter four-banger that delivers 170 horsepower (three horses less than before) and 170 lb.-ft. of torque. In the turbocharged version of the engine, the ratings rise to a hefty 224 horsepower and 226 lb.-ft. of torque. With the regular engine, you have a choice of transmissions, but the turbocharged engine can only be had with the four-speed automatic.

The new Forester is rated to get 20 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway when powered by the smaller of the two engines (in 281 miles of mixed driving, I got 21.4 mpg). That's exactly the same mileage rating as the previous model with an automatic, and 1 mpg less on the highway than the old model with a stick shift. It's also just about exactly the same mileage you'll get in the all-wheel-drive versions of such rivals as Honda's (HMC) CR-V, Toyota's (TM) Rav4, as well as the Vue and the Rogue. (With the turbocharged engine, the Forester's mileage rating drops to a still decent 19 mpg city/24 highway.)

Safety is one of the hallmarks of a Subaru, and the new Forester is no exception. The '09 Forester received the top Five-Star rating for all occupants in front and side collisions from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as a Four-Star rollover rating. It comes with antilock brakes on all four wheels as well as front, side, and head-protecting side curtain airbags.

The new Forester is the main reason for Subaru's relatively strong performance in the sagging U.S. auto market lately. The '09 Forester, which came out in late March, has been registering big gains every month since. Forester sales hit 5,830 in June, accounting for nearly one-third of Subaru's total. Subaru's U.S. sales, which rose 5% in June, would have been down without a big boost from the new Forester.

Behind the Wheel

I think of Subarus as being a little funky inside, with seats like sensible shoes and functional but not especially attractive controls and instruments. The cabin of the '09 Forester is downright stylish by comparison. A brushed aluminum design element swoops across the dash, and there's a nifty cupholder that folds down into the middle of bench-style rear seat. You can even jazz it up with such accessories as custom shift knobs and brushed stainless steel foot pedals with red rubber grips.

Unless you pay more for the turbocharged engine, the Forester is no speed demon. I clocked my test vehicle at about 11 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60. The Forester seems to take forever to get up to 30 miles per hour, but once it's rolling, most drivers will find that the small engine has adequate oomph. With the turbocharged engine, on the other hand, the new Forester is remarkably quick: Motor Trend magazine clocked the 2.5XT at 6.6 seconds in zero-to-60 runs.

The '09 Forester is noticeably roomier than the previous model. Rear-seat legroom is now 38 in., better than 4 in. more than before, and rear-seat headspace has increased about 2 in. Shoulder room is 2 in. greater in back and 2.6 in. greater in front. Luggage space behind the rear seats is nearly 31 cu. ft., about the same as before. With the rear seats folded down, cargo capacity is slightly less than before, but it's still a voluminous 63 cu. ft.

Quiet at High Speed

Like its predecessor, the '09 Forester drives more like a car than an SUV. The ride is soft and comfortable, to the point of being almost boaty. It reminds me a little of the ride in Hyundai's (HYMZY) Santa Fe, which is a good thing. The suspension does an excellent job of smoothing out bumpy back roads. At highway speed, the cabin is noticeably quieter than in most Subarus I've driven.

One of my few complaints about the '09 Forester is its clunky four-speed automatic transmission. In my test car, the transmission shifted into top gear right at 65 mph. As a result, whenever I hit a hill while cruising at the speed limit, the Forester would slow slightly and the transmission would start madly shifting between third and fourth gear, never staying in one or the other for long. I had either to speed up slightly or to slow down slightly to get it to settle into one gear. Why not offer a more sophisticated five- or six-speed gearbox in the Forester, Subaru?

Buy it or Bag It?

The '09 Forester is an excellent choice for couples and young families, especially if all-wheel drive is a priority. Its recent average selling price is just over $24,000, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), which is somewhat less than the average price of the 2008 four-wheel and all-wheel drive versions of most of its competitors, including the Nissan Rogue ($24,220), the Honda CR-V ($24,962), the Toyota Rav4 ($25,547), and the Saturn Vue ($26,600). Only the four-wheel-drive '08 Escape from Ford (F), which has been heavily discounted lately, sells for slightly less ($23,855). (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP))

If you do a lot of heavy-duty carpooling, you may need a third row of seats. But if you're shopping for a five-passenger, family-friendly vehicle, the new Forester is a winner.

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