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In a major update, the 2009 Subaru Forester features a longer wheelbase and a modernized exterior design. And, for the first time, a navigation system is available. Unfortunately, our test vehicle was the low trim 2.5X Premium model, and navigation can only be had in the top trim 2.5XT Limited model. Likewise, the audio system in the 2.5X Premium is pretty lackluster, with only four speakers. Go up to the 2.5XT trim and you get a six speaker system with a six disc changer.
Although unimpressive on the cabin tech front, the car offers a good amount of usable interior space and very impressive fuel economy from its 2.5-liter engine. Handling isn't the best around, but Subaru's standard all-wheel-drive system provides extra grip in slippery conditions.
Test the tech: Road trip to a tree
In coming up with a test for the 2009 Subaru Forester, we were stumped because of the lack of cabin gadgets. So we took inspiration from the model name, and decided to look for one of those famous giant trees that you can drive through. The phenomenon of the drive-through tree started in 1881, when a tunnel was cut through the giant sequoia Wawona tree of Yosemite National Park. That particular tree has since fallen, so we set our course for Drive Thru Tree Park, a tourist attraction about 180 miles north of San Francisco.
We hooked up an MP3 player in the console, as the Forester provides few entertainment options.
A little maneuvering through the streets of San Francisco, aided by the Forester's hill start feature, and we were on the freeway headed north. We quickly found that the 170 horsepower produced by the 2.5-liter four-cylinder Boxer engine wasn't enough to tear up the hills or pass other cars at speed. Dropping the five-speed manual transmission down to third gave us added oomph on the really serious hills, but we were pushing the redline at freeway speeds.
For entertainment, we hooked up an MP3 player to the car's auxiliary jack, in the console. Unfortunately, the four-speaker audio system did little for our music besides making it audible. On 40 mile-per-hour freeway curves, we couldn't push the Forester much above the recommended limit, as it felt a little wobbly.
After a good three hours of driving, we got to our exit. This highway seemed little-used, judging from the lack of traffic and the little rockfalls from the cliff side on our right. And it was one of these rockfalls that was to be our downfall, as we drove over what must have been a particularly pointy little rock. Over the next hundred yards or so of road we could feel the handling go strange, until we noticed the warning light on the speedometer indicating a flat.
Swapping tires went quickly enough, which was good, as the flies were buzzing in the 95-degree heat.
After pulling over, we saw that it was our right front tire. We jacked up the car, installed the temporary spare, and gave up on the tree. It was still some miles distant, and we decided that this was enough adventure for the day. It was time to find a repair shop. Although we didn't make it to the tree, we found one unexpected gem from the trip. Our average fuel economy for a drive spent mostly on the freeway at speeds over 60 mph came in at 28.5 mpg, an impressive figure for a car that could take a family on a road trip.
In the cabin
To get even a glimmer of cabin tech, you have to go up to the 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5XT trim, with its six-disc changer and six-speaker sound system. That car also adds a turbocharger to our 2.5X's naturally aspirated engine. At the top-level Limited trim, a navigation system becomes available, which we surmise is the same unit we previously saw in the 2008 Subaru WRX, a GPS with good resolution but no special features.
The stereo displays only part of a song name, and it doesn't scroll.
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.
The engine, although not particularly powerful, delivers excellent economy.
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.