2009 Subaru Forester review

It has been brought to my attention that there are places in the United States where it snows. I was, at first, incredulous. Well, fine, says I. That may be. But why would anyone live in a place where ordinary water turns to a slick, frozen and uncooperative substance that collapses roofs and makes important body parts turn blue, especially when there are so many nice overpasses to live under here in Southern California? I mean, snow, right? You can ski on it.

And yet -- I have this on good authority -- snow has its advantages. It's pretty. It's fun to build things with, such as a snowman, an igloo and the very popular, um, enormous pile of snow. If the power goes out you can take items out of your refrigerator and stick them in drifts outside your door. Let's say you have a deceased pet but the ground is too hard to dig a grave. Problem solved.

It is in the land of the ice and snow that Subaru has made its name. With the rather embarrassing exception of the Subaru Baja, this is a Snowbelt brand, a brand for literature professors at the University of New Hampshire (shout-out, Durham!); for women's studies majors at Cornell, and their girlfriends; for log cabin-dwelling, geothermal-energy start-up entrepreneurs in eastern Oregon who think that plaid Woolrich jackets are evening wear and that Trader Joe's Two-Buck Chuck is grand cru.

Smart people. Interesting people. People who can see their breath in the air. And Canadians.

And thus the new Subaru Forester's exclusive, distinctive and truly strange "Road Surface Freezing" warning indicator. Back where I'm from, we used to call them "thermometers."

My point is, if you live in sunny SoCal, you may not appreciate the Subaru narrative. You may, in fact, wonder why the company builds cars that look like the box ugly came in. You may not understand why the company has so many devoted owners. Just let it snow, though. You'll come crawling.

The Forester, introduced in 1997, was one of those magical alignments of timing, marketing, product and zeitgeist. Even the name was perfect: Forester, a tree-hugging alternative to SUVs, which were just then feeling the sting of the cultural-political backlash against them. Here was a versatile and practical all-wheel-drive wagon -- the first crossover, really -- that could get the kayaks and mountain bikes where they needed to go and didn't make you feel flatulent with carbon emissions. I don't think a Subaru radio can even pick up Rush Limbaugh's show.

A decade later, and with gas at more than $4 per gallon, not being an SUV is an extremely good business move. What's interesting is that the lefty-greenie-flaky ethic that helped the brand prosper is moving toward the center of American life, while at the same time, the Forester has moved slowly and surely rightward. Which would seem to portend good things for Subaru. But does it?

Let's get current: The third-generation Forester is 3 inches longer, about 2 inches wider, over a wheelbase stretched 3.6 inches from the previous edition.

While the Forester didn't have anywhere to go but grow, the new Forester isn't as lovably compact as before, if indeed you loved it. The payoff is much better legroom, bigger and more convenient rear door openings (better for wrestling child safety seats) and a general upgrade in elbow room. Because the rear suspension has been changed to a fairly compact unequal-length A-arm design, the rear cargo area has opened up and now ranks among the biggest in its class of compact crossovers. Fold down the 60/40 rear seats and it's like Carlsbad Caverns back there.

The interior design goes right to the top of the charts, a sporty and sophisticated double-scoop dash design centered on an integrated LCD screen. Materials and switch gear are crisp and affirmative. The leather in our upscale test vehicle could have come out of an Italian cobbler's shop.

The Forester is also less distinctive looking than past models, with none of the cubistic weirdness of the first one, which seemed to have been cut out with hedge clippers. With its larger dimensions, sloped hood, rising belt line and familiar proportions, the Forester seems to have been conventionalized, very much squeezed through the visual template of the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4 and the Hyundai Santa Fe. Alas.

So it's less of a cult object than before. And yet, the Forester is still unmistakably Subaru. For instance, it's powered by the company's flat-four boxer engine in either naturally aspirated (170 horsepower) or turbocharged (224 hp) trim. The Forester is, natch, all-wheel drive. Subaru has elected to go with a four-speed automatic -- instead of a five-speed, which is increasingly the baseline standard -- and I reckon that hurts highway mileage (20/26 mpg, city/highway, for the non-turbo and 19/24 mpg for the turbo). The turbo is not available with the five-speed manual, for reasons known only to God.

I spent a week in the turbo 2.5XT -- a feisty, wheel-chirping, gun-it-on-the-freeway kind of week, and I came away really impressed.

Of all things, the turbo Forester is actually pretty fun to drive. It has good low-end torque, and the automatic transmission grabs and goes as it should.

The 2009 model has some significant upgrades, including side curtain air bags and a new rollover sensor, as well as lots of refinement to the company's smart stability control system. This is a tautly constructed, quiet, roomy and practical car that happens to have a small apartment in the back. Cool.

Here's the problem for Subaru going forward: With its carefully cultivated audience of progressives and other right-thinking Canadians, Subaru really should have more fuel-efficient technologies on deck. The boxer four, turbo or otherwise, is by no means the most efficient small-displacement engine out there (and emissions are a problem too). Where's the high-efficiency diesel option? Where's the hybrid Forester? Why hasn't this company -- the holding of Fuji Heavy Industries -- capitalized on the green romanticism of the brand?

Without a high-tech, fuel-efficient powertrain, the Forester feels a little bit like a snow job.

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