By Alex Kramer
- Boxer engine provides plenty of torque
- All-wheel drive traction
- Lots of interior room
- Huge panoramic sunroof
- Dated 4 speed transmission
- Suspension is a bit soft
- Bland interior/exterior design
- Too many rattles and buzzes
Step into some cars these days and you think you’ve entered some high tech penthouse, with LCD screens everywhere, more buttons and knobs than a recording studio, and leather upholstery as far as the eye can see. With all this technology and creature comfort it is easy to forget that a car is still fundamentally a tool. We use them to do a job, whether it be driving to and from work every day, or hauling a bunch of gear to the game, or navigating safely through a nasty storm. Preferably they do these jobs efficiently and reliably, with little fuss or muss.
Subaru has long made cars that are meant to be more practical than posh. With lots of interior room, all-wheel drive standard on every model, and gutsy boxer engines, Subarus are the go-to choice for hikers, mountain bikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. One of Subaru’s best selling and most practical models is the Forester, a car that can’t quite figure out if it is a station wagon or an SUV. Revised for 2009, we took the new Forester out for a week of bike hauling, back roading, and even grocery getting to see if this practical car would be the right tool for the job.
Like every Subaru, the Forester comes standard with symmetrical all-wheel drive, which is fully active and provides power from the engine to all four wheels simultaneously. Due to a week of sunny skies and record warm temperatures, we weren’t able to drive the Forester in conditions that would put the system to the test, but a few hard launches in a dirt lot did demonstrate its ability to distribute thrust to all four wheels without even a hint of wheelspin. Although the Forester still drives more like a car than most small SUVs, the new model rides taller than before and provides outstanding ground clearance, a plus for those who plan to take it off-road.
Like previous model years, the Forester comes with 2 engine options: base X models come with a 2.5 L boxer 4 cylinder that produces 170 hp and 170 lb-ft torque, while XT models feature a turbocharged version of the same engine that ups the power to 224 hp and 226 lb-ft torque. Our tester came with the regular engine, which although not a powerhouse, still provides plenty of thrust for driving around town. The torque curve is also nice and flat, so much of the power is available at low RPMs. The engine does come up a bit short when accelerating hard (0-60 takes over 10 seconds) or driving in the mountains, so speed freaks should definitely order the turbo.
Unfortunately, Subaru decided to also carryover the 4 speed automatic transmission from last year. Although this is a functionally competent slushbox, the dated design definitely limits the potential of the engine. Driving in the mountains means lots of lurching between 2nd and 3rd gear, as the engine tries in vane to respond to the inputs from the gas pedal. Even on flatland the lack of available gear ratios means that at certain speeds the engine will be caught flatfooted if you need to accelerate suddenly, such as when merging onto the freeway. The transmission does feature a sport mode that allows for manual shifting, but this does little to make up for the lack of gears.
Take the Forester out for a spin and it’s immediately apparent that the suspension has been tuned more for ride quality than handling. The rear shocks are especially soft and almost wallow in their travel, causing the car to pitch back and forth a bit after hitting larger bumps. Once you get used to the soft suspension, the Forrester will reveal itself to be a fairly capable car in the twisties. Grip from the 17” all-season tires is quite good and braking is solid, but steering response is vague, which makes it hard to precisely position the car through a corner. Although the Forester is not as top-heavy as most SUV’s and is definitely more agile, those looking to tear up the backroads would probably be better off in a WRX.
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