First Drive: 2009 Subaru Forester

Forester

Despite being 6 years old, the outgoing Subaru Forester is still a Cars.com Best Bet. Naturally, we had high hopes for the redesigned model that debuted at January’s Detroit auto show. Subaru invited journalists to Southern California to put the SUV through its paces on- and off-road, and I can attest that the updates keep it as competitive as ever.

The engines — a regular or turbocharged four-cylinder — carry over with few changes. What’s improved is the highway experience: Efforts to quiet the cabin have paid off, and at 65 mph the Forester seems on par with most small SUVs for road and wind noise. That isn’t something I could say about the previous model.

Subaru says the vast majority of Forester buyers will get the non-turbo engine, and I can see why. Its 170 hp moves the SUV to highway speeds with acceptable oomph, especially with the smooth-shifting manual transmission. I actually preferred that engine’s gradual whine to the turbo’s choppy roar. The turbo engine’s extra grunt (224 hp worth) moves the Forester with authority, but its power comes and goes in patches. Prod the gas on the highway enough to prompt the automatic to downshift, and the SUV surges forward. Putter around town with anything short of concerted acceleration, and the extra power never feels apparent.

Foresterint

For the 1-to-2 mpg mileage penalty and premium fuel requirement, I’d pass — especially because you don’t need the turbo to have fun behind the wheel. Like Foresters past, the new model packs adroit moves: Steering is precise, body lean is relatively limited and braking is sure-footed. The redesigned Mitsubishi Outlander springs to mind as a similarly fun-to-drive SUV, and that’s good company to keep. (Unfortunately, the one variant that might have put the Forester over the top — a stick shift paired with the turbo — has been dropped due to lack of sales popularity.)

The exterior takes on a more generic SUV shape than before, but it keeps a lot of the utility that gave earlier Foresters a cult following. The doors now have framed windows, which makes for a heftier feel when you slam them shut. The cargo area boasts a wide opening and light liftgate, and Subaru says the roof rack’s 175-pound capacity beats most major competitors. (Indeed, the Honda CR-V’s rack takes just 75 pounds.)

The dash borrows heavily from the new Impreza, with panels flowing toward the A/C and audio controls. For the uninitiated, the layout might take some getting used to — the miniscule stereo buttons require 20/20 vision, and Subaru has scrapped the intuitive four o’clock cruise-control stalk for less-convenient cruise buttons on the steering wheel. The large rear window and narrow roof pillars make for excellent all-around views, save for a center rear seat belt that’s anchored in the ceiling. It will either dangle annoyingly in your rearview mirror, or you’ll leave it stowed in its ceiling slot where a center passenger is less likely to use it. Competitors like the Outlander and Ford Escape (not to mention most larger SUVs) address this with a seat-anchored belt.

Those are minor gripes, to be sure, especially when you consider the price. Subaru knocked more than $1,000 off, so without the destination charge the new Forester starts at $19,995. That’s with all-wheel drive and a host of new safety features, like side curtain airbags and stability control. Even when you add $1,200 for the automatic transmission, this Subie is a considerable bargain. To see how it stacks up across the board, stay tuned for our full review next week.

By Kelsey Mays | March 7, 2008 | Comments (22)
Tags: Forester, Subaru

Comments 

George

I can NOT believe that a new vehicle, for the 2009 model year, has a 4 speed automatic. Completely unacceptable
VW had a 6 speed automatic in the 2003 New Beetle Convertible (also the Audi TT for '03 model year).

Even a 5 speed automatic would be bad. (cough Honda cough)

6 speeds is the norm (Ford is playing catch up with the '09 Escape)

and JATCO, the people who make the 5 speed automatic in the Legacy and also the transmissions for the Infiniti models, have jumped to 7 forward ratios.

eagle2x

Subaru designers/engineers move very slowly but they've finally made sturdy doors with framed windows for this little SUV. The non-aspirated 4 banger is smart but a what's with the antiquated 4 speed tranny? Subaru continues to improve much slower than its competitors.... very risky approach for continued success.

Trainer

Good review. Subaru has come a long way since the days of being "quirky." Now they've developed into one of the most reliable brands on the market with some truly desirable vehicles. There's a lesson here for Detroit - it's never too late to turn things around, if you want to.

Dan

Eagle2X-
They managed to build a non-aspirated motor!? Holy cow! How does that work!? Man, unlimited space flight here we come! :)

eagle2x

Dan the man, my bust. Obviously I meant non-turbo. Thanks for your wisdom and imagination.

Amuro Ray

I recall seeing Suby's ad on TV saying how the Forrester is NOT an SUV, and the advantage it has over the rest of the SUVs/CUVs, like fuel economy, turn radius, handling, performance, etc.

Isn't this like bitting ur own butt?

TGIF!

J

George,

"Even a 5 speed automatic would be bad. (cough Honda cough)"

Look, the Mustang there has a 5AT. Hey, isn't that Malibu over there comes with a 4AT? Geez! How come they equipped the Avenger with a 4AT.
Cough! Cough!!

George et al., I asked Subaru during the event about the four-speed tranny. A spokesman said the engineers had consider a five-speed unit and decided it would add weight without a sizable gain in performance. All the same, I found the four-speed gearbox leaves something to be desired in kick-down lag, especially with the turbo. More gears doesn't always equal smoother acceleration -- we've driven five- and six-speed units that are absolute dogs -- but I think the Forester's 4AT would benefit from swifter kick-down, and on paper, the shorter ratios in a 5AT might have helped.

And what I've read somewhere is that Subaru simply can't produce enough 5ATs for the entire lineup. So they decided to keep Forester with 4AT at this time and may be for the next year it will be upgraded with the same 5AT tranny utilized on some Legacys. So, Subaru does have the 5ATs in their products.

But I wouldn't buy the Forester if I had a family. Just open the rear door and check out that huge bump on the floor between the seats. Then go to Cr-V, RAV-4, Outlander or Rogue and find a flat floor. Details, Subaru, details.
Also, I've read on Subaru.com that KBB.com named Outback a "Best family car"... I wish to kbb.com editors, employees and so on, to drive Outback as their family car. What kind family car is this if 15 year old kid can't be comfy on the back seat?
Subarus in general are simply cramped cars. And RAV-4 is still better then Forester.

George

Well, technically the Mustang is a 3 speed automatic + overdrive.
1st, 1st + overdrive, 2nd/no overdrive, 3rd, 3rd+overdrive.
Anyway, the next mustang refresh ('09? is getting the ZF 6 speed automatic)

The new Malibu is supposed to have a 6 speed automatic for the LTZ trim on the '08.5 models. and the 6t40 is supposed to be standard for '09.

Yeah, the avenger/sebring models are POS, why no CVT Chrysler?

If you get more ratio spread with more gears, you can keep the overall gearing the same in top gear, for radically improved low speed acceleration. Or, you can use all the extra ratio for enhanced steady state highway mileage.

or if you don't change the ratio spread, and just add more gear(s), you do make the car smoother, and you improve mileage from keeping the torque converer clutch locked up.

Usually, for the sake of marketing, you gain a little mileage & performance, and smoothness.

Daniel

Was also wishing for a 5 speed automatic for better fuel mileage. Maybe I'll wait for the next year model. Anyone know if they can present a PZEV Forester next year?

Dan, Subaru has already announced a PZEV Forester. It should be available nationwide around the same time as the regular '09 for an extra $200 (not available with the turbo). The regular Forester qualifies for LEV II status.

DL

not to be too prejudiced, but up here in Boston the demographic driving Foresters mostly won't know the difference between a 3-speed AT vs a 6-speed AT (whether by how either performs or by the theoretical advantages)

i totally agree with Kelsey M that the Forester has a hugely bad habit of refusing to downshift. if you need to pass, flooring it will get you ... NOTHING for what feels like 30 sec (one one-thousand, two one-thousand ...). too bad the wife refuses to learn manual. :(

Daniel

Why dual exhaust? I agree it gives a great look but I'm not sure it gives anything about power and of course, when it's time to repair it cost twice. Just curious.

J

George,
What I am saying is that, don't single out a particular brand that you have any thing against them.

7X subaru man

I agree with many of the comments - Subaru is way behind the curve when it comes to transmissions. A six speed manual and a five or six speed auto should be available or standard - this is what is needed to break the 30MPG barrier for an AWD Subaru. If you are listening, Subaru - imagine what kind of sales you would get if you had a 30+MPG vehicle like you had in the 80's and 90's??????? I had them, my '03 Outback is lucky if it posts 26 with it's 5 speed manual.

magman117

I bought the 2009 LL Bean Forester and it was a PZEV there was no extra charge for it. On the sticker it said included. PZEV stands for Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle and has no bearing on gas mileage, only the amount of emissions coming from the vehicle. When the vehicle is tested for emissions it either passes and gets the sticker or it doesn't. You aren't getting better gas mileage. I have yet to break 20Mpg with mine ( granted I have only 100 miles on the vehicle).

I bought an '09 Forester on Sat. and have put about 120 miles on it and the fuel mileage monitor showed 17ish when I got it with 8 miles on it and now it's showing 20.4 with a mix of highway and around town driving. My wifes '04 Outback gets about the same around town and about 25 on a highway cruise. Beyond the mileage, the Forester is an Alpine Edition and I find it strange that it doesn't come with heated seats, rear view mirrors, windshield, or even a compass!
Oh, it does have a PZEV sticker on the tailgate though, not that it really means much. I actually went in to buy another Outback and drove an '08 Limited. Very nice car and full of amenities, but strangely not as comfortable as the Forester, which I have dubbed "The Black Box" as it's black with a black interior. I'll grow to like it, I think.

I bought an '09 Forester on Sat. and have put about 120 miles on it and the fuel mileage monitor showed 17ish when I got it with 8 miles on it and now it's showing 20.4 with a mix of highway and around town driving. My wifes '04 Outback gets about the same around town and about 25 on a highway cruise. Beyond the mileage, the Forester is an Alpine Edition and I find it strange that it doesn't come with heated seats, rear view mirrors, windshield, or even a compass!
Oh, it does have a PZEV sticker on the tailgate though, not that it really means much. I actually went in to buy another Outback and drove an '08 Limited. Very nice car and full of amenities, but strangely not as comfortable as the Forester, which I have dubbed "The Black Box" as it's black with a black interior. I'll grow to like it, I think.

H. Phillips

We bought a 2009 Forrester Limited package which is due to arrive in another week or so, it seems they are so popular here in Alberta that the notion of simply driving away in one is near impossible. My wife and I were at a dealership for just over an hour, and I have never seen so many people looking at one model in my life. I would like to address the many comments on the 4AT transmission that seems to be such an isssue with so many of the readers, as it is funny to me how we managed with 3 and 4 speed transmissions for so many years, but with the many auto manufacturers scrambling to be the first to roll out countless new technology tweeks to lure the next buyer into there show rooms it suddenly seems to be an issue. Lets not forget that out of the 27 compact suv's in the study that the Subaru Forrester is still in the top 1/3 of its class in fuel economy. I have read every single article on the compact suv's and have drove nearly every single one of them during our lenghty search for a new vehicle, and how the Subaru came in tied for third instead of first is beyond me.

John Colangelo

I purchased a 2009 Forester last month and so far it's been a very agile and fun to drive vehicle. This is my 5th Subie and I think I am enjoying this model the most. I will say that I am disappointed in the radio and with the quality of the seats but other than that I am impressed with how tightly it corners and how it covers the road. I am also exceeding the MPG, I am getting 29 to 30 on the highway, granted, I am a very chill driver but so far, I have been very happy.

john miller

its the smoothest i ever had.

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