Subaru Forester — a grown up CUV without a critter in sight

By Ted Biederman and Jim Meachen

Our first stop in the 2009 Subaru Forester was the liquor store.

No, we didn’t need a pint of gin to whip up a martini.

We needed boxes. And through the years we’ve found that the liquor store is a grand place to find boxes just the right size for moving books, clothes and other small objects.

Liquor boxes are big enough to hold a dozen books, but not so big that you can’t pick them up, sore back and all. We were on a box scouting mission for Jim’s number two son and his family who would be moving in a week to cut their workday round-trip commute from more than 120 miles a day to a gas-saving 15 miles. We also had direct orders from Jim’s wife.

We discovered that even though it was a weekend, the store was over run with empty cardboard and we were invited to take as much as we wanted.

Enter the all-new Forester.

One of our favorite small sport utilities — now more commonly known as crossovers — for more than a decade, the new Forester has grown slightly in size and sophistication — with exterior styling that is handsome and contemporary.

What makes the smaller crossover choices so attractive in this new era of high gas prices is their utility combined with decent gas mileage. In the case of the new Forester, cargo capacity behind the front seats is nearly 69 cubic feet and the standard four-cylinder boxer engine will take that cargo from point A to point B for the frugal price of 26 miles to the gallon.

We were lucky in our case to be behind the wheel of the Subaru when we drove to the liquor store because we came away with around three dozen boxes. The moving family was very appreciative of the gift when we arrived at their house some 30 minutes later.

Fortunately there wasn’t as much drama this time as 10 years ago when we were using the first of three Forester iterations in another move, transporting small items from one old house to a new brand new one Jim was building. (Why is it that the other partner in this driving tandem always seems to be around to help do the schlepping?).

Jim had been plagued by an opossum in the garage that apparently enjoyed cat food.
What we hadn’t counted on was the toothy varmint climbing at some point into the Forester as it was being loaded. We just barely avoided running into a ditch when, after about five miles, we turned to see the critter staring at us, teeth barred, from between the seats. We arrived at our destination about 10 minutes later, sprang out of the vehicle and started prodding the opossum to exit using a broom stick. Perhaps he thought there was cat food hidden in one of the bins.

The Forester was unique back in those days, one of the early examples of the small station-wagon-like small SUV hatchback. Over the years the Forester has been a favorite of a lot of people because of its relatively good fuel efficiency, easy-to-drive nature, standard all-wheel drive, useable cargo hold and excellent reliability.

Subaru has made evolutionary changes over the years and the Forester remains true to its original concept.

Probably the biggest different between this Forester and the others is styling. The boxy wagon look has been replaced with a more rounded contemporary style with a character line flowing downward under the windows from the back to the front fender bulge. This is a good thing as the Forester look was growing old among the new curvaceous generation of vehicles.

Thankfully, Subaru has not turned the Forester into something it was never meant to be — a larger three-row vehicle. 
It still has two rows of seats and Subaru engineers have found space to increase second-row legroom by 4.3 inches creating a surprisingly comfortable living area for two adults or even three across for short treks. Adding to the rear-seat comfort are doors that open nearly 90 degrees for easier entry and exit.

The driving experience is pleasant with a compliant ride. And we found handling to be more car-like and less SUV-like than in most vehicles.

The dashboard layout is pleasing to the eye, but Subaru did not let form trump function. The switchgear is very intuitive and easy to use.

Subaru decided to leave the engine choices pretty much unchanged. The two 4-cylinder boxer-type powerplants, one turbocharged for excellent performance, still match up well against the competition. And perhaps the decision to keep the status quo figured into Subaru’s ability to hold the line and in fact decrease prices — about $1,200 in base trim — over 2008 models.

Our loaded L.L. Bean Edition was outfitted with the naturally aspired four producing 170 horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque. We found it adequate even with four adults on board to handle all chores including merging and passing.

The turbocharged version makes 224 horsepower and 226 foot-pounds of torque and rivals most other crossovers in the segment for get-there-quick speed capable of 0-to-60 in 6.6 seconds. For comparison, the smaller engine has been measured at 9.9 seconds. Unfortunately, the manual transmission option has been dropped from the turbocharged edition, and the only automatic transmission choice across the lineup is the carryover four-speed.

Two cases can be made for buying the smaller engine. There is nearly a $5,000 premium for the turbo in comparably equipped vehicles, and gas mileage suffers about two miles to the gallon. Additionally, the turbo calls for premium fuel while the standard engine runs at peak performance on regular. Both performance and mileage would improve for both versions if a more modern transmission were available. 

Safety is a big issue for families and the Forester has earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s, “2008 Top Safety Pick” award. To win this honor, a vehicle must offer superior overall crash protection among the vehicles in their class. We expect this 2009 model to be just as good if not better when tested. The 2009 model has already received the top five-star rating in the Federal NCAP test ratings.

Our L.L. Bean Edition test vehicle came with navigation, the first-ever for Forester, as well as other goodies including power driver’s seat, automatic climate control, heated front seats and power moonroof. The bottom line price was $28,445 including destination charge. 

The Forester starts at $20,660 and rises to $30,655 for the turbocharged Limited edition with navigation.

The Forester has always been one of our favorite small SUVs. We like it just as much now with its new styling, larger passenger compartment and excellent drivability.

And we were happy we didn’t drive this one with an opossum grinning at us from between the seats.


Base price, $20,660; as driven, $28,455
Engine: 2.5-liter boxer four
Horsepower: 170 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 170 @ 4,400 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103 inches
Length: 179.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,300 pounds
Turning circle: 34.4 feet
Towing capacity: 2,400 pounds
Luggage capacity: 33.5 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 68.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16.9 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 26 highway, 20 city
0-60: 9.9 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV-4, Ford Escape

The Good
• Spacious cabin
• All-wheel drive standard across lineup
• Energetic engines

The Bad
• City gas mileage is a bit of a letdown

The Ugly
• May be the only small SUV remaining with a four-speed automatic