Our test car's stereo had a simple single CD slot and an auxiliary jack in the console. The system can read MP3 CDs and will show ID3 track information on its fairly large monochrome display. That display is limited to 12 characters and it doesn't scroll, so you only get to read the first part of track and artist names. The interface only lets you go through MP3 folders one at a time, rather than letting you browse from an entire list. Subaru lists satellite radio and an iPod interface as dealer-installed accessories, but we are skeptical as to the level of integration of these options.
The sound quality is about what you would expect from a four-speaker system: dismal. The audio comes through muddy, with little separation between instruments. Highs can be painfully shrill, while bass lacks crispness.
The only aspect of the interior that we really liked was the panoramic sunroof, which goes from the front to about half-coverage over the rear seats. It offers some refreshing openness for a car designed for backroads.
Under the hood
Subaru outfits the 2009 Forester with a relatively small engine for the large car, but it pays off in fuel economy, as we noted above. In Subaru's signature style, the engine uses four horizontally opposed cylinders set low in the engine compartment. This design lowers the center of gravity, which should add stability to the tallish Forester. But 170 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 170 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm doesn't exactly blast the Forester forward. A full load of four passengers and their luggage will only bog it down further. By contrast, the XT's turbocharged engine produces 224 horsepower.
Our car's five-speed manual transmission was basic, not really standing out in any way. A four-speed automatic is available. Although Subaru now makes its Si drive system available on its sedan and hatchback models, such as the Outback, it isn't on the Forester. Similar to the transmission, the steering response is suburban, not particularly tight or loose. We quickly found that the Forester isn't designed for cornering, although its stability and traction control help keep it upright.
But the Forester benefits from Subaru's all-wheel-drive system, which has a locking center differential. It also boasts 8.7 inches of clearance to add to its back country qualifications.
For our road-going testing, we were very happy with that 28.5 mpg freeway average. The EPA only gives it 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, so we blew way over those numbers. Finally, 2009 Foresters outfitted with smog controls designed for California qualify as PZEVs, or partial zero emissions vehicles, because their polluting emissions are extremely low.
Our 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5X Premium came in at a base price of $22,495. The only options offered are dealer accessories, so what you see is what you get--from the factory, anyway. With its $665 destination charge, our total was $23,160. The top trim, with a navigation system and six-speaker audio, would go for $30,660. As a competitor, the Mitsubishi Outlander offers better tech for about the same price as the Forester. In this class of cars, the Saturn Vue is also one to consider, offering more configuration options from the outset.
Although we like the general build quality of Subarus, we can't rate the Forester 2.5X Premium very highly as a tech car. Its cabin tech is virtually nonexistent, and only becomes passable when you get into the top trim. Performance tech is better, though. We like Subaru's all-wheel-drive system and were impressed by the economy of this engine. It doesn't pull impressively, but it got us around. It also gets points for its low emissions.