2009 Subaru Forester 2.5X Premium Review
By Chris Haak
Since its introduction, the Subaru Forester has attracted a loyal following among folks who appreciated its efficient packaging, poor-weather capabilities (thanks to standard all wheel drive) and good fuel efficiency. Things that people like me didn’t care for in the 1998-2008 model years of the Forester included awkward looks (too-tall windows and a too-short beltline), a cramped rear seat, and limited cargo space. I’m happy to report that all three criticisms have been addressed in the all-new 2009 model.
I spent a week with a Topaz Gold Metallic 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5X Premium, courtesy of Subaru, and appreciated the little crossover (it’s no longer marketed as – or has the appearance of – a tall station wagon, as Subaru has finally caved into convention and allowed it to embrace its “truck-ness.”) for its small-on-the-outside, large-on-the-inside dimensions, fuel efficient operation, and non-humiliating looks.
Outside, the Forester looks like a cousin to its predecessors, and is certainly a more attractive package, but has also lost some of the individuality and charm that the older Foresters had. What used to be basically a tall-roofed car has been transformed for the 2009 model year into a so-called “cute ute.” It still keeps most of the original Forester’s styling cues, but by raising the cowl and the beltline, the Forester no longer has the vehicle’s traditional proportions. I greatly prefer the new look, but without paying attention, the Forester could just as well be a Toyota or Honda. How dare Subaru stop making ugly cars, because in the transformation, they lost their uniqueness. Chrome door handles, body color mirrors, Altezza-style taillights (the 1990s called and they want their taillights back), a chrome grille, and aggressive fender bulges spruce up the exterior, while a very deep horizontal character line across the bottom of the doors really works well.
Upon opening the door, the first impression is that the door doesn’t seem to weigh very much. It has a hollow sound, which made me question the car’s safety credentials. However, a quick peek at the stats shows that I needn’t worry – the Forester aces the NHTSA’s tests with five stars in frontal and side impact crash tests, and four stars in rollover (it’s not a sports car, after all). There is a lot more hard plastic (most of it black, too) than I’d typically like to see in a $24,000 vehicle, but at least it’s of a fairly consistent texture and sheen. Still, I couldn’t find any soft surfaces in the interior unless they were covered by cloth, and the dashboard had a hollow echo whenever I tapped on it.
Controls were intuitive and easy to reach, and it was fairly straightforward to find a comfortable driving position with the manually adjustable driver’s seat (which goes both fore-aft and up-down, along with recline, of course). Subaru sort of cheaped out on the instrumentation, using a dual idiot light setup in lieu of a temperature gauge (a blue light turns on when the engine is cold, while a red light would indicate an overheat condition), so the only gauges provided were speedometer, tachometer, and fuel gauge. One obvious Subaru cap-tip to its core New England/Rocky Mountain buyers is heated cloth seats, which are unusual to see. Since I drove the car in August, I didn’t have a chance or inclination to test them, however.
The steering wheel was a three-spoke affair with no leather wrap (forcing me to deduct “points” from the interior), but the metallic-looking plastic trim that goes from the doors across the face of the dash was sufficiently attractive to spruce up the interior. Moving to the second row, the seats had plenty of legroom even with the driver’s seat adjusted to accommodate my 6’4″ frame (I could “sit behind myself” in the Forester), and also had the ability to recline and fold flat to increase maximum cargo volume. I found it easy to install child seats in the back seat, and that there was more room for them (particularly a rear-facing convertible seat) in the Forester than there are in most other cars I’ve tested. Finally, I was particularly fond of the panoramic sunroof, which is standard in the 2.5X Premium model (which is only one step above the base model in the hierarchy). Its glass area goes all the way to the back seat, and it further enhances one’s perception that the Forester has nearly endless headroom. The downside is that whenever I had children in the car with me, I’d have to close the shade because it let way too much sunlight into the car.
I usually check the window stickers of the vehicles I’m scheduled to test in advance of receiving them so I know what to expect in terms of options, colors, and so forth, so I’m usually not very surprised when they arrive at the office. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised that my test Forester was equipped with a five-speed manual rather than the optional four-speed automatic. I spent half a decade driving stickshift cars, and it’s always a treat to go back to it for a few days. Plus, although the manual is rated at the same 20 miles per gallon city/26 miles per gallon highway as the automatic (incidentally, I averaged 23.6 miles per gallon in mixed driving), the extra ratio helps performance somewhat and provides a more engaging driving experience. That being said, I wouldn’t call the Forester anything close to fun-to-drive. With 170 horsepower on tap from its 2.5 liter four cylinder boxer engine, the drag of a full-time all wheel drive system, it wasn’t anything close to swift. The 17 inch Yokohama tires also had a great treadwear rating (320), but didn’t like to hold on in corners or braking. It was pretty easy to get the wheels to begin to lock up during moderately hard braking (though the Forester has ABS) and easy to make the Yokos howl during any attempt at cornering. Compounding the issue with the tires is that the 2.5X is fairly softly sprung; the result is a vehicle that’s taller than cars, doesn’t have a lot of grip from its tires, and wallows somewhat on uneven road surfaces. I’d prefer stiffer suspension and grippier tires; supposedly the 2.5XT models with the turbocharged engine have stiffer suspension as well as larger tires, so that might solve both problems, but the Forester 2.5XT requires premium fuel, and burns more of it, and is only available with a four-speed automatic.
At least the clutch was easy to modulate; the engagement point was right where you’d expect to find it, meaning that an old hat like me can get the hang of it in two minutes (despite spending only a week driving a manual transmission car over the past two years), and a new three-pedal driver could get the hang of it pretty quickly. My only critique of the manual transmission was that the linkage felt somewhat imprecise and had long throws; I found it difficult to find third gear when shifting quickly – it seemed to be much further to the right than expected.
Subaru Forester pricing starts at $20,660 for the 2.5X. The 2.5X Premium model that I tested starts at $23,160 and includes the panoramic sunroof, 17 inch aluminum wheels, privacy glass, chrome door handles inside and out, steering wheel audio controls, and more. My tester also had the $400 all weather package (heated outside mirrors, windshield wiper de-icer (basically a super-strength defogger beneath the wipers’ resting points) and heated front seats) and the $451 popular equipment package (luggage compartment cover, cargo tray, splash guards, and rear bumper cover). Other models include the 2.5X Limited ($26,660), 2.5XT ($26,860), and 2.5XT Limited ($28,860). The XT models include the turbocharged engine, and the Limited models include power leather seats, automatic climate control, and are available with a factory navigation system. According to TrueDelta, the 2009 Forester’s pricing is right on par with an all wheel drive Honda CR-V, against which it’s likely being cross-shopped.
Being used to driving a larger vehicle, it’s sometimes difficult to get accustomed to driving a smaller family vehicle. Really, aside from needing more cargo space to haul strollers, suitcases, high chairs, toys, and diaper bags, the Forester has enough passenger space to hold our family of four, even in relative comfort. (As parents of young children know, the smaller they are, the more stuff that you have to take along for them.) It really is an impressive vehicle in terms of packaging and efficiency, with a few stumbles in handling that are probably caused by hard compound tires and comfort-tuned suspension. That being said, I probably wouldn’t buy a Forester for myself, but wouldn’t hesitate to give it a thumbs-up to friends or family who might have different priorities or needs than I do.
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