Road Test: 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5XT Limited
By John Phillips of Car and Driver
Subaru's Forester has always resembled the shipping carton for a side-by-side Frigidaire, a barb that has become less pointed during this wagon's 11-year lifespan. During that spell, even boxier boxes have appeared — think of the Honda Element and the Scion xB. No matter. The Forester's practical, unpretentious countenance personifies Subaru's ethos, and the model has done much to fatten the pay packets of more than a few Fuji Heavy Industries executives.
Every body panel is new. Just to look at the thing, you'd swear the '09 Forester is 50-percent larger than its forebear. Not true, but it is 2.9 inches longer and 1.8 inches wider, and it rides atop a wheelbase stretched 3.6 inches. EPA passenger volume has swollen by 11 cubic feet. The back seat is now something of an amphitheater — legroom is vast, and egress will brighten the faces of octogenarians. The rear center rider, unfortunately, must perch on a rock-hard hump. As has always been true of Foresters, there's headroom sufficient to support the odd cumulus cloud or two. Flatten the rear seats, and a mountain bike slides in, no sweat.
The base Forester is powered by the same 170-horse flat-four you'll find in the nose of an Impreza. Mated to the heavier Forester, however, it rates about a 4.5 on the C/D passion meter. Bolt a turbocharger to that little barking boxer, however, and what once was Velveeta becomes Pont L'Évêque — witness blown Foresters winning our 5Best Trucks Small SUV award in 2004, 2005, and 2006.
For 2009, the 2.5XT and top-of-the-line 2.5XT Limited benefit from a revised turbo, bigger valves, and a meatier intercooler to produce — hey, wait a sec — the same 224 hp and 226 pound-feet of torque as before. How come? Subaru's aim was to flatten the power curve and reduce the turbo's on/off-ishness, goals they've absolutely achieved. Max horsepower now manifests 400 revs sooner, max torque 800 revs sooner. Behind the wheel, the first thing you notice about this third-gen Forester is that, apart from a tiny bump in power at 3000 rpm, there's little clue that this is a forced-induction engine. Idle quality could be better, and 42 dBA is a titch noisy for a vehicle freshly returned from the NVH lab. Step-off is a little abrupt, too. On the other hand, full-throttle launches evince almost zero torque steer.
Sixty mph is yours in 6.7 seconds, which makes the turboed Forester way quicker than anything in our nine-ute "$25,000 Soft-Roaders" comparo in February. Still, it's 0.8 second behind a Forester 2.5XT Limited we tested three years ago. Why? Well, the previous car was a five-speed manual and was 112 pounds lighter. The 2009 Forester XT, in contrast, is offered with an automatic only, and it's a four-speed at that. Given this car's price, a fifth gear should have been included. In truth, though, the ratios are nicely spaced, kickdowns are rapid and smooth, and you mostly notice the lack of fifth only at 80 mph and beyond. What's more, the standard manumatic is quick to lead you to big revs and all the boost you'll need.
Handling and Observations
Like the new Impreza, the Forester's rear suspension eschews struts in favor of several links, which intrude less dramatically on cargo space. In fact, the distance between rear wheel wells has grown 5.2 inches, which is huge. In part because you can't completely turn off the stability control, skidpad grip hovers at a mediocre 0.78 g, a figure that is reflected in the hills, where the XT acquiesces to early understeer and feels as if it has the center of gravity of a condominium. Which it might, now that the car is 4.5 inches taller than its predecessor.
The ride is firm without being harsh, although we wish less road noise was transmitted up through the platform. Subaru's ubiquitous all-wheel drive is standard, of course. Junior Woodsmen take note: This Forester now offers 8.9 inches of ground clearance, greater than all but one of the nine mini-utes in our February comparo. Despite the lack of low-range gearing, the 2.5XT Limited is capable of wandering far enough off-road that your friends won't be able to see your Forester for the trees.
We drove a base version for two weeks before our turbo arrived, and its black, shiny fabric upholstery looked like the seat of Hubert Humphrey's pants. The leather seats on our Limited did much to brighten the cockpit, and they felt more all-day supportive, too. In either case, you sit tall in the saddle, looking SUV drivers square in the eye. All four corners of the Forester are visible to the driver, and the storefront-style glass lends a horizon-to-horizon view surpassed by few cars, save a 21-window VW Microbus. The updated Impreza-style dash is handsome and simple, with three large rotary HVAC controls, and the radio is up high, in your line of sight. Overall, ergonomics are superb.
Our beefs were few. The center console wiggles side to side, as if someone forgot a screw. The red, white, and blue gauge faces are gaudy. The key fob clacks annoyingly against the hard steering column. Premium unleaded is specified. The tiny pressure-sensitive liftgate switch is hard to find. And in both 2009 Foresters we drove, the platform felt rock solid, although there were a few too many interior rattles.
A base Forester 2.5XT starts at $26,860, which would have made it the most expensive cute ute in our February comparo. The Toyota RAV4 4x4 that won that shootout, in fact, carried a base price $3675 less dear. On the other hand, you'd have to move up to a $25,620 six-cylinder RAV4 to surpass the XT's accelerative prowess. The 2.5XT Limited opens at a pricey $28,860, but amenities are many: stability control, 17-inch alloys, leather, heated front seats, heated mirrors, a wiper de-icer, power front seats, a tilting wheel, and a sunroof that retracts 21 inches, leaving another nine inches of glass in place.
If the turbo Forester remains shy on stylishness, it compensates with forward thrust and cargo capacity, yet it remains an agile little logger around town. This is a thoughtful, nicely rendered update of a vehicle we've always loved. Whether you call it a wagon, a cute ute, a crossover, or a truck, the Forester remains highly recommended.