A few years ago, my brother Bill called me from his home in Virginia. He and his wife, Debbie, were looking for a new car. They wanted good fuel economy, enough room for a couple of friends or some cargo on occasion, a reasonable price, and rock solid reliability. Oh and they requested safety in the occasional light snowstorm. It all pointed to one car, the Subaru Forester. They've been very happy with their 2005 model.
When we visited them two years ago we found the Forester's one weak spot, rear seat room for three. Well, the all-new 2009 third generation Forester has solved that problem. With its 3.6-inch longer wheelbase, the new model offers 4.3 inches of additional legroom, 2 more inches of shoulder room, and even .6 inch of bonus headroom, although that spec was never an issue.
The original Forester was really just a tall, all-wheel-drive wagon based on the Impreza model, but that put it at the forefront of a major trend today, the "crossover." Today's all-new '09 looks slightly more like an SUV, standing a full four inches taller. At 3,300 pounds, it also weighs 200 pounds more than the previous version. Despite this, it drives as nimbly as before, and can be had with a manual transmission in some versions.
Models include the 2.5X, 2.5X with Premium Package, and 2.5X Limited. You can also order up the turbo version as the 2.5XT and 2.5XT Limited. Standard models get Subaru's horizontally-opposed 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, upgraded from 165 to 170 horsepower and an equal torque rating. The turbo model bumps those numbers to 224 horsepower and 226 lb.-ft. of torque.
Every Forester comes well stocked with features and equipment, including four-wheel disc brakes and fully independent suspension. It also flaunts a vast array of safety features, from antilock brakes to plenty of airbags, active headrests for whiplash protection and even five-mile-per-hour bumpers. Inside, you get air conditioning with filtration, three 12-volt power points, power windows and locks, cruise control, and things like an in-glass antenna and grocery bag hooks in the back.
My tester was a 2.5X with the Premium Package. Upgrades with this package include 17-inch alloy wheels, a power moonroof, stylish and practical roof rails, reclining rear seat backs, tinted privacy glass and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.
Stepping up to he Limited model nets you automatic four-speed electronic transmission, 10-way power driver's seat, upgraded audio system, full climate control, leather upholstery, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.
Fuel economy numbers are down a little between my brother's '05 and the '09, but that is probably more a factor of the changed EPA rating system that came in for the 2008 model year. Non-turbo models are rated at 20 mpg City, 26 Highway, with turbo models slipping slightly to 19/24. The '05 ratings for non-turbo vehicles were 23/30. I averaged 23.7 mpg during my weeklong test.
As far as the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide numbers, I found two sets. Both had a Greenhouse Gas score of 6, just past midpoint, but the Air Pollution scores were either 9.5 (excellent) or 6. If you're in California, you should be able to claim the 9.5. Be sure to ask the dealer about it.
Something about Foresters hasn't changed in 11 years. They are fun to drive without being sports cars. The flat four makes a sound that's slight sporty. Remember, the iconic Porsche 911 has the same layout. The shift knob feels like it's moving gears, not cables. The tall proportions and expansive glass give a great view of your surroundings, and the supportive seats hold you in place.
A welcome change is the new interior design. There was nothing really wrong with the old accommodations, but the new layout is more dramatic, with arching silvery dash accents that sweep into the doors, and the plastic trim is higher grade. The light colored cabin in my tester felt open and airy. The huge sunroof, which sits over front and rear passengers, added to that feeling too.
Foresters are reasonably priced, starting at just $19,995 for the 2.5X. My 2.5X with Premium Package was $22,495. The turbo models start at $26,195, with the premium turbo model $2,000 over that. These prices do not include shipping charges, which could vary, but were $665 at the time of this writing.
As a cherry on the sundae, Consumer Reports just named the new Forester its top rated small sport-utility vehicle. It scored "Excellent" in the magazine's battery of more than 50 tests. They noted the comfortable ride combined with agility, generous safety equipment and good crash test scores. And, they made a point of the car's above average reliability. But Bill and Deb already know all that.