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Originally published June 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 27, 2008 at 4:07 PM

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Second-growth Forester: A Northwest favorite

The Forester is such a Seattle granola kind of car, it should come with Subaru-logo socks and sandals. Its very name says it's a car for...

Motoring editor

2009 Subaru Forester 2.5X Premium

Base price: $22,495, excluding destination fee.

Price, as tested: $24,727 (est).

Powertrain: 2.5-liter, 16-valve flat-four engine, variable valve timing; four-speed automatic; all-wheel drive.

Power: 170 horsepower at 6,000 rpm; 170 pound-feet torque at 4,400 rpm.

Weight: 3,300 pounds.

Wheelbase: 103 inches.

Overall length: 179.5 inches.

EPA fuel economy: 20/26 mpg, city/highway (regular).

Fuel economy as tested: 21.9 mpg in mixed driving.

Safety: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick (iihs.org). Five-star crash ratings in government tests. Four stars for rollover (safercar.gov). Standard equipment: traction and stability control; rollover sensor; antilock brakes with brake-force distribution; front, side and side-curtain airbags.

Review |

The Forester is such a Seattle granola kind of car, it should come with Subaru-logo socks and sandals. Its very name says it's a car for here, even if these days our traffic outnumbers our trees.

Marketed in 1997 as a sensible alternative to SUVs, the Forester was boxy and basic. But Northwesterners saw its inner beauty: SUV-like traction and cargo utility, and carlike gas mileage and handling. It was dependable, safe and an easy size to park.

Today, crossovers are cool. The Forester was a crossover before the term was invented.

Mechanically, it remained pretty much the same for a decade. Cosmetically, it went from plain to plug-ugly to presentable. It changed grilles every year or two but mercifully avoided Subaru's short-lived B9 Tribeca anteater look.

Now, the Subaru Forester has gotten its first total redesign for 2009, and it's actually ... quite handsome.

Well-rounded

It's a bit bigger (does any redesign ever get smaller?): 3 inches longer, 2 inches wider, 2 inches taller and with a wheelbase that's 3 ½ inches longer. Befitting its middle age, it has gained a few pounds.

The 2009 Forester is more rounded and curvaceous than its predecessor. The boxy corners have been chamfered, though thankfully the roofline is still square enough to swallow that optional panoramic sunroof — almost as deep as it is wide, with a tall deflector that minimizes wind noise.

It has a tasteful interior, with brushed-metal accents and a dual sweep of the dashboard that borrows from the Tribeca. The base cloth upholstery is not bad, and upper trim levels get leather. The sound system has MP3 capability (with jack hidden in the center cubby) and can be upgraded with an iPod interface, tweeter and woofer kits and satellite radio. Forester radios used to receive weather bands, but that nifty feature has been abandoned.

Driver legroom is enough (just) for a 6-footer, and is an inch or two better than in the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4. Rear legroom was the leading complaint about the previous model — it's much improved, by a whopping 4.3 inches. The rear seats even recline. Headroom is great.

The car's new double-wishbone rear suspension eliminates the intrusion of struts. The result is increased cargo space that seems like plenty, though the Honda and Toyota claim more.

The Forester still drives more like a car than an SUV. As modestly priced wagons go, the cabin is quiet. The horizontally opposed engine and all that all-wheel-drive hardware keep the center of gravity low. Steering feel is excellent. It handles nimbly in traffic, and the now-standard electronic stability control keeps it steady in avoidance maneuvers.

It comes in five trim levels — 2.5X, 2.5X Premium, 2.5X L.L. Bean Edition, 2.5XT and 2.5XT Limited ("XT" designates the 224-horse turbocharged version of the same engine).

The non-turbo X's 170 horsepower is adequate, particularly if you use the four-speed automatic's autostick feature for onramps and lane changes.

In that situation, it would be nice if the tachometer were as prominent as the speedometer, especially since the gas gauge is needlessly large. The gauges and interior have a pleasant blue-and-red lighting scheme.

Top safety pick

The Forester has always had excellent safety ratings, and the 2009 earned top crash-test scores. In addition to the stability control, it gets standard side-curtain airbags.

Considering the car's safety tradition, it's odd that the redesign compromised a fundamental piece of safety gear: the sideview mirrors.

A nagging sense that something was odd about the mirrors prompted a tape-measure survey of sideview mirrors throughout the Seattle Times parking lot. All were 7 inches wide, including those on the previous Forester body style. But the 2009's mirrors are squarish, taller than most — and narrower by an inch.

An inch doesn't sound like much, but it's sorely missed in city and highway lane changes. Not that a driver should rely on mirrors alone, but you need all the information you can get.

The big question: mileage

EPA ratings are 20 city, 26 highway. (The turbo is lower, of course, at 19/24.)

The non-turbo test car got 21.9 mpg. That's passable — it still beats bigger SUVs and crossovers and is competitive in its class.

But it raises a few questions:

The typical Forester buyer is female, between 35 and 45, and has a college and likely a postgraduate education. Such a smart crowd is undoubtedly also keen for higher-mileage, greener cars.

So, where's the hybrid Subaru? Years away, from the sound of things. On a faster track is clean turbodiesel, probably for the Legacy and Outback and not until 2010 at the earliest.

You even have to wonder: All-wheel drive comes standard on every Subaru. This is heresy, but: What if it didn't?

Subaru says AWD offers better bad-weather traction and also "delivers intensified performance" in handling.

Suppose a buyer didn't need all that. Suppose she didn't traverse mountain passes or drive a car at its handling margins — she simply wanted a dependable, comfortable, safe wagon with excellent fuel economy. Front-wheel drive would be fine, thank you very much.

AWD usually hurts fuel economy a little. If you don't really need it, you can opt out of it on competitors' vehicles. Would a front-wheel-drive Subaru get better mileage? There's no such beast, so there's no way to know.

What we know too well, however, is that the price of gasoline has consumers scrambling for fuel-efficient cars.

Right now, the Ford Escape hybrid and its Mazda and Mercury variants get 34 mpg city/30 highway. The Saturn Vue Green Line gets 25/32 and is about to be upgraded to full hybrid. Some versions of the Mazda3, Toyota Matrix or Chevy HHR crack 30 mpg. Volkswagen's clean-diesel Jetta wagon debuts this summer — at 40-plus mpg.

In other words, there are higher-mpg options, with more on the way. Mileage in the low 20s likely won't cut it for consumers much longer.

The 2009 Forester is a sophisticated update of a safe, dependable, utilitarian car. It's popular for good reasons. A clean-diesel or hybrid version — at twice the mileage — would make it irresistible.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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