CATALINA ISLAND, Calif. -- In the outback hills on Santa Catalina, one of the wild Channel Islands off the California coast, a two-track path loaded with sand and gravel runs straight up a steep slope.
Several yards to the left, the terrain drops a thousand feet down to a scenic valley dotted with patches of tall grasses and prickly pear cacti. Past our tailgate, a bumpy trace over lumpy boulders, silting chutes and slick grades led us to this dicey spot high on a bare hillside with Pacific winds whipping sand against the windshield.
One driver has no choice but to tackle the steep trail.
It's a daunting incline, several stories high and way too wicked for a two-wheel-drive (2WD) vehicle, so steep in fact that anyone on foot would be challenged to scale it without ropes or walking sticks.
Yet it's not too steep for a Forester.
With two hands griping a sporty steering wheel and the transmission stick racked to the bottom gear, a new rendition for the Forester crossover utility vehicle (CUV) by Subaru of Japan applies big torque from a gutsy turbo-charged four-cylinder engine to all four wheels through a four-wheel-drive (4WD) mechanism which operates automatically.
Then the engine's muscle rotates four nubby Yokohama Geolander G95 M+S all-season tires, which claw through the loose dirt and stone and propel Forester up that hill.
Forester actually makes a driver's job easy because all mechanical aspects are direct and simple and efficient.
The easy-to-operate simplicity of Forester has been a primary factor driving sales since the wagon first appeared in Subaru's line as a 1998 model.
Subaru developed Forester as a different kind of sport-utility which eliminates the harsh ride and ungainly handling of a truck-based SUV by borrowing the chassis of a passenger car, namely Subaru's compact-class Impreza coupe.
And many of Forester's mechanical systems -- such as the four-wheel independent suspension system, the four-cylinder horizontally-opposed engine and Subaru's direct all-wheel-drive (AWD) system -- show up on other vehicles in the line.
Subaru's engines, with four cylinders opposed horizontally and set perpendicular to the drive line, employ equal-length drive shafts and function like boxers jabbing directly at one another so there's little vibration or residual torque steer.
Power from the engine moves directly through an intelligent transfer case for distribution to all of the wheels, with scant loss of energy in the process.
Because Subaru's AWD system is so efficient, there's only a modest sacrifice in fuel economy figures to use it.
Thus, Subaru's AWD design bursts the bubble of typical 4WD systems, which can cost a bundle initially, guzzle fuel and make as much noise as a truck.
With the Subaru system, you end up with sure-footed, confidence-building traction hardware designed to keep the vehicle safely rooted on any type of road surface and for a price that's highly competitive with vehicles rigged for only 2WD systems.
Forester was rebuilt in 2003 and earned optional turbo-charged power in 2004, with the 2006 models showing revised exterior designs, more equipment aboard and power boosts to the turbo-charged and naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder engines.
But for 2009 Subaru recasts Forester for a third generation and the result is a bigger and better and stronger wagon than any previous version.
The new 3.0 edition of Forester scores a new platform with 3.6 inches added to the wheelbase length of 103.0 inches, a wider wheel track of 60.2 inches and a lower center of gravity.
The independent suspension system employs front MacPherson-type struts with internal rebound springs and lower L-arms, and at the rear a new double wishbone arrangement with subframe for crisper handling and a smoother ride quality.
Also, the rack and pinion steering system has a quicker steering ratio with more rigidity for the steering mounting.
And the chassis ground clearance increases by a full inch on the turbo version -- it rises to 8.9 inches.
Extensive safety gear shows up in the 2009 Forester, including frontal and seat-mounted side air bags for the front row and curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above outboard seats on first and second rows.
The four-wheel disc brakes tie to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (EBA) plus a stability system under Subaru's label of Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) with a four-wheel traction control system (TCS).
Forester's entry-level engine -- a four-cylinder boxer-style plant with aluminum block and cylinder heads plus a cam on top -- displaces 2.5 liters and features the i-Active valve lift system.
It produces 170 hp at 6000 rpm with torque reaching to 170 lb-ft at 4400 rpm.
This plant tied to a five-speed manual transmission or optional electronic direct-control four-speed automatic fits in Forester 2.5X, up-level Forester 2.5 X Premium Package or the leather-trimmed Forester 2.5X L. L. Bean.
Subaru borrows from its sporty WRX STi performance car a turbo-charged and inter-cooled boxer four-pack to create two souped-up Foresters, the 2.5 XT and 2.5 XT Limited.
Each shows a functional scoop on the hood to draw more air into the turbo-charger.
The plant, with twin cams and 2.5-liter displacement, comes with STi's active valve control system (AVCS) variable valve timing to optimize engine efficiency.
Output climbs to 224 hp at 5200 rpm and the torque zips up to 226 lb-ft at 2800 rpm.
All the energy for XT models channels through a manual five-speed or optional four-speed automatic with Subaru's SportShift mode.
Forester's full-time AWD system has different versions for manual and automatic transmissions. For the manual, a viscous-coupling device locks the center differential, while an electronically managed continuously variable transfer clutch works with the automatic transmission -- Subaru labels this system Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive.
MSRP figures for the new and improved Forester of 2009 actually dip by $1,200 below 2008 models, with entry issue Forester 2.5X listing for $19,995.