2009 Subaru Forester Expert Reviews

Expert Reviews

2009 Subaru Forester

Sam Moses
© 2009 NewCarTestDrive.com

The redesigned 2009 Subaru Forester is the third generation of the popular crossover utility vehicle. The Forester competes with the Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4 among others. Its style used to be distinctive, but it's now less so, as its shape has morphed toward the others, while theirs has morphed toward the Forester's.

There are two engines, both horizontally opposed four-cylinders displacing 2.5 liters; but the 170-horsepower base engine is single overhead cam, while the 224-horsepower turbocharged XT model has twin cams.

The base model offers more standard equipment than ever, in particular electronic stability control and airbag curtains, yet its price has been cut by $1200. That's with a manual transmission; a four-speed automatic costs, coincidentally or not, $1200 extra.

Other improvements include a new chassis with safety structure, wider track and longer wheelbase (by 3.6 inches), new double wishbone rear suspension that yields tons of cargo space, 4.3 inches more legroom in the rear seat, 4 inches more headroom all over, 1 inch more ground clearance for the XT, a super tight steering radius with quicker turning ratio, rear doors that swing open nearly 75 degrees, and more torque for the base 2.5-liter engine. Visibility is exceptional.

Overall, the 2009 Forester is 3 inches longer, 2 inches wider, and about 100 pounds heavier than last year's model. Despite the increase in size and power, the base Forester gets improved fuel mileage, achieving 20/26 mpg on the EPA's new City/Highway cycle, the same as the CRV and RAV4. The turbocharged Forester XT gets 19/24 mpg and requires premium fuel. The 16.9-gallon fuel tank can last about 400 miles on the highway.

So much downshifting by the four-speed automatic transmission intrudes upon the otherwise smooth acceleration of the normally aspirated 2.5X, making it seem underpowered although 170 horsepower should do the job. The turbocharged XT is more desirable because of its torque, although it's more expensive to operate because of its premium fuel requirement.

Model Lineup

Subaru Forester 2.5X ($19,995); 2.5X Performance Package ($22,495); L.L. Bean Edition ($25,995); XT ($26,195); XT Limited ($28,195)

Walk Around

The new dashboard for 2009, taken from the Impreza, has a nice gullwing sweep from the center stack off to the passenger side, in brushed-aluminum-looking plastic material, interrupted only by a single climate vent. Underneath is a big glovebox. The center stack has a bit more of that nice aluminum-look trim, which others have called cheap but it looks fine to us, and just forward of the shift lever is a good-sized cubby. Climate and audio controls on the center stack are simple to operate.

The background light to the gauges is a funky blue, just for effect, some will like it some won't. There's a slit over the center stack with digital display for time and temperature. The center console is deep, and slides forward four inches to make an armrest.

The cloth seats are comfortable, with a new cushion and spring in front. They come in gray or black, and are on the conservative rather than sporty side. The material and design is very conservative, like a gray suit, a missed opportunity to appeal to younger buyers. The really nice perforated leather is a whole new ball game, erasing the almost-frumpy feeling sent by the cloth.

The front doors have a nice elbow rest and large pockets each with a recess for 24-ounce bottles. The aluminum pedals on the XT are cool.

The air conditioning cools well, fast and quiet.

Following Subaru's design goals, the new 2009 Forester most needed rear-seat legroom and cargo space. The rear 60/40 seats fold flat to make a nice cargo area, widened by 5.2 inches between the wheelhouses thanks to a new double-wishbone rear suspension. The relatively gigantic cargo area will definitely appeal to active outdoors enthusiasts with lost of stuff. The specs are 33.5 cubic feet with the rear seat up, 68.3 with the seats flat.

Driver visibility is excellent in all directions, thanks to careful pillar design. Subaru staged a demonstration for us, placing a cutout of a kid behind the Forester and a Toyota RAV4. The Forester driver could see the kid in his rearview mirror at seven feet, but in the RAV4 the kid was lost in a low blind spot for 23 feet.

The rear seat reclines in all but the 2.5X base model, and includes a retractable center tray with fixed drink holders. Legroom is excellent, increased by 4.3 inches, on a wheelbase increase of 3.6 inches; and there's a couple inches more shoulder room, as well. The front door is wider than before, and the rear doors now swing open 75 degrees, making it easy to get in and out.

There's a lot of headroom, a whopping four inches more on the 2009 model over 2008; there's a bit less with the panoramic moonroof, but it feels like more because it's the sky that's over your head. There's headroom even when you jack the height-adjustable driver's seat to the top.

The new rear suspension is quieter, and other noise/vibration areas were refined.

We didn't get along with the navigation system, which comes in a unit with a single-disc CD replacing the standard six-disc CD (it's a space issue). In the daytime it's hard to read with sunglasses, because there's a lack of contrast; once, we even had to remove our sunglasses and close the sunroof, to read the map. It made at least one wild error on Southern California freeways. An awful male British voice seems to tell you to do everything three times, but usually not at the right time. It's impatient at stop lights, insisting you turn while you're waiting for the green arrow. It might take you a while to figure out what “Way Point” means, if you haven't been to London or can't remember even if you have. (Hint: you sometimes stop at a Way Point on your Way Out.)

Interior

The new dashboard for 2009, taken from the Impreza, has a nice gullwing sweep from the center stack off to the passenger side, in brushed-aluminum-looking plastic material, interrupted only by a single climate vent. Underneath is a big glovebox. The center stack has a bit more of that nice aluminum-look trim, which others have called cheap but it looks fine to us, and just forward of the shift lever is a good-sized cubby. Climate and audio controls on the center stack are simple to operate.

The background light to the gauges is a funky blue, just for effect, some will like it some won't. There's a slit over the center stack with digital display for time and temperature. The center console is deep, and slides forward four inches to make an armrest.

The cloth seats are comfortable, with a new cushion and spring in front. They come in gray or black, and are on the conservative rather than sporty side. The material and design is very conservative, like a gray suit, a missed opportunity to appeal to younger buyers. The really nice perforated leather is a whole new ball game, erasing the almost-frumpy feeling sent by the cloth.

The front doors have a nice elbow rest and large pockets each with a recess for 24-ounce bottles. The aluminum pedals on the XT are cool.

The air conditioning cools well, fast and quiet.

Following Subaru's design goals, the new 2009 Forester most needed rear-seat legroom and cargo space. The rear 60/40 seats fold flat to make a nice cargo area, widened by 5.2 inches between the wheelhouses thanks to a new double-wishbone rear suspension. The relatively gigantic cargo area will definitely appeal to active outdoors enthusiasts with lost of stuff. The specs are 33.5 cubic feet with the rear seat up, 68.3 with the seats flat.

Driver visibility is excellent in all directions, thanks to careful pillar design. Subaru staged a demonstration for us, placing a cutout of a kid behind the Forester and a Toyota RAV4. The Forester driver could see the kid in his rearview mirror at seven feet, but in the RAV4 the kid was lost in a low blind spot for 23 feet.

The rear seat reclines in all but the 2.5X base model, and includes a retractable center tray with fixed drink holders. Legroom is excellent, increased by 4.3 inches, on a wheelbase increase of 3.6 inches; and there's a couple inches more shoulder room, as well. The front door is wider than before, and the rear doors now swing open 75 degrees, making it easy to get in and out.

There's a lot of headroom, a whopping four inches more on the 2009 model over 2008; there's a bit less with the panoramic moonroof, but it feels like more because it's the sky that's over your head. There's headroom even when you jack the height-adjustable driver's seat to the top.

The new rear suspension is quieter, and other noise/vibration areas were refined.

We didn't get along with the navigation system, which comes in a unit with a single-disc CD replacing the standard six-disc CD (it's a space issue). In the daytime it's hard to read with sunglasses, because there's a lack of contrast; once, we even had to remove our sunglasses and close the sunroof, to read the map. It made at least one wild error on Southern California freeways. An awful male British voice seems to tell you to do everything three times, but usually not at the right time. It's impatient at stop lights, insisting you turn while you're waiting for the green arrow. It might take you a while to figure out what “Way Point” means, if you haven't been to London or can't remember even if you have. (Hint: you sometimes stop at a Way Point on your Way Out.)

Driving Impressions

If you're thinking of entering the Baja 1000 in the unmodified crossover class, a Subaru Forester would be the way to go (but don't stop at any Way Points). We spent half a day driving over steep and rutted dirt roads on Catalina Island, and the Forester was dazzling in its sure-footedness and comfortable ride, never once whimpering in the face of abuse. It's a good combination: the new suspension that isn't exactly firm but includes more travel to the shocks, 8.7 inches of ground clearance, and good all-season Yokohama tires with the 17-inch wheels. We had a similar drive in the Volvo XC70 Cross Country last year, and the Forester wins, if only on account of the tires.

The stability control is programmed to allow the tires to spin a bit, under acceleration, so the throttle won't cut out on dirt roads. We tackled an awe-inspiring steep rutty hill, foot to the floor to climb the final 100 yards, and the Forester made it. A Honda CRV was there for comparison, and it couldn't come close.

There's a huge difference in torque between the two available engines, especially felt on the freeway, where the 2.5X works to keep up, despite the fact that the normally aspirated SOHC engine has been refined to deliver more low and mid-range torque than before. Now it's 170 pound-feet at 4400 rpm. The four-speed automatic transmission and the 170-horsepower 2.5X is a weak combination; running with the flow of traffic into LA on an extremely slight upgrade, ours needed to frequently kick down. It kicked down a lot in other places, too, including offroad on Catalina. A five-speed automatic transmission seems called for. Or a five-speed manual.

The turbo delivers 226 pound-feet at 2800 rpm and 224 horsepower.

The five-speed manual shifter feels soft, has a longish throw, and raises the NVH level in the cabin, but we'd still choose it over the automatic with the non-turbocharged engine. A nice touch on models with the standard five-speed manual transmission is Incline Start Assist, an upgrade for 2009 over what was previously called Hill Holder. If the car is stopped on a hill, when you pull out in first gear, the brake stays applied for one second after you take your foot off the pedal, allowing time to accelerate smoothly.

The Forester is rated to tow 2400 pounds. Maybe so, but it will struggle without the boost of the turbo, whose torque comes lower and lasts longer.

The Forester engine is mounted 0.4 inch lower for 2009, and every fraction counts toward lowering the center of gravity. Because the engine is designed for safety to be pushed back under the car in a head-on crash, this four-tenths of an inch counts more.

The new rear suspension does a good job. It allows a rear frame height to be the same as a sedan, but ground clearance is unaffected. Driving behind a Forester, you can see it working away under there, like the knees of a mogul skier. The highway ride is comfortable, with no harsh spots.

The rack-and-pinion steering in the XT has been upgraded to provide an even tighter steering radius, always good for parking and maneuvering. But the Forester isn't about cornering; here, the suspension feels its softness, and compromises for comfort. But, curiously, not offroad.

The double wishbone with subframe design was taken from the WRX, and the basic engine too, but if you want a sporty WRX influence in your Subaru CUV, you have to look at the Outback or Legacy. That's because the XT uses the four-speed automatic too. It's not saddled with the kickdowns of the 2.5X, and the shifts are sharp and smooth, but the SportShift mode that allegedly allows manual shifts only allows some of them.

Redesigned, the 2009 Subaru Forester offers more than ever before, for less money. It's slightly longer and wider, and has a good bit more rear seat legroom and cargo space. Its 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine is handicapped by a four-speed automatic transmission, more so in the base engine than the turbocharged version (which requires premium fuel). It's stable and rugged off road, using its proven all-wheel drive and a new rear suspension to good advantage, while there are no harsh spots to the highway ride. Overall, the new Forester compares favorably to its main competitors, the Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4.

Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Catalina Island near Los Angeles.

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