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Friday, August 1, 2008

First Drive: 2009 Subaru Forester

Sized right for many, Subie's small SUV gets sleeker and refined.
By Evan Griffey of MSN autos

Small SUVs often ferry people and run errands around town during the week, then hunker down and bounce around the countryside on weekends. With its newly developed DC3 chassis, all-new double wishbone rear suspension and Subaru's famous Symmetrical all-wheel-drive (AWD) system, the Forester rises to this challenge without hesitation. Far from a brute, the Forester provides a quiet, comfortable and refined atmosphere with thoughtful amenities and loads of cargo space.

Trim Choices
More of a wagon when it hit the scene in 1997, the third-generation Forester is all SUV. For 2009 the five-door hatch gets a clean-sheet restyle and an all-new chassis and suspension. The nip-tuck job creates a more truck-like appearance, and slimmer front and rear fascias might reduce the drama of any soft-road adventures.

The Forester is available in five trims: 2.5X, 2.5X Premium, 2.5X L.L. Bean, 2.5XT, and 2.5XT Limited. The big difference is X trims rely on a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder "boxer" (horizontally opposed) engine, while XTs get a turbocharged version of this same mill.

Under the Hood
The base engine is rated at 170 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 170 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. The 2.5-liter four features Subaru's i-Active variable valve lift system, sequential electronic fuel injection and is PZEV emission certified. Fuel economy is rated at 20 mpg city, 26 mpg highway.

The turbocharged powerplant gets a heartier engine block and Subaru's more advanced Active Valve Control System (AVCS). The turbo XT pumps out 224 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 226 lb-ft of torque at 2800 rpm, and checks in with a 19/24 city/highway mpg rating.

Transmission choice affects the type of AWD system offered in the Forester. Vehicles with five-speed manual gearboxes get a continuous AWD system with a viscous-coupling center differential. Foresters with a four-speed auto are outfitted with an active version of Subaru's all-wheel drive, which features an electronically managed, continuously variable hydraulic transfer clutch to send power fore or aft.

Inner Space
The Forester cabin with its clean lines, secure seats, Spartan use of control knobs, and a first-rate gauge cluster is welcoming and comfortable. The Forester driving experience is all about vision. Forward, rearward and to the sides, Subaru has ensured maximum visibility, which translates into a safer, more confident commute.

Among the creature comforts, we were keen on the center console storage bin that features a clever removable section allowing the storage of oversize items. The design of the rear seats, which are rounded at their ends to induce easy entry and exit, also get a thumb's up. Further, the 60/40 split-folding rear seats can be reclined for maximum comfort.

Cargo space is a bone of contention with carmakers, because the SAE measurements don't take the shape of the area into account, meaning the usefulness of vehicle is not reflected in the numbers. Subaru has artfully tucked the '09 Forester's inner-fender wells to enhance capacity, and a back-to-back 'load-off' with its main rivals highlighted the functional shape of the Forester's cargo space.

With an effective driveline and stout underpinnings, the Forester easily conquers washed-out fire roads. The suspension pitches enthusiastically to absorb ruts but transfers comparatively little harshness into the cabin.

On the street — where it will spend a vast majority of its time — the Forester proves an excellent dance partner. The Subaru tracks corners well but possesses a bit too much initial sway in the chassis. A slightly soft suspension is often the compromise between off-road and on-road dynamics.

The 170-horsepower engine propels the X trims admirably in most situations. But when asked for immediate passing power, the base engine seems to reach out of its comfort zone. The turbocharged XT is an entirely different story, providing a much more responsive driving experience and an authoritative demeanor with instantly available torque.

Right for You?
Surefooted in dirt and snow and steady-handed for the daily grind, the Forester is a well-rounded vehicle endowed with Subaru's two star attractions — its Symmetrical AWD system and its turbocharged boxer engine. The base X starts at $19,995, and the model line tops out with the XT Limited at $28,195. This wide spread of prices should put the Forester in play for a large range of buyers.

Evan Griffey served as an editor of Turbo & High Tech Performance, a pioneering publication about sport-compact tuning. Today Griffey freelances for Import Tuner, Sport Compact Car, Car Audio and Siphon.