Forester grows up and out

LAGUNA BEACH, CA

Subarus have always tended to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary in their design changes. Okay, there was that business with the first Tribeca, but generally quantum leaps are not part of the corporate thinking.

Luckily for fans of the marque—and I should ‘fess right up that I personally own a Forester—the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ philosophy is alive and well. But there’s a maturing process afoot.

A Subaru exec, talking at the launch of this third-generation Forester, likened the 2009 version to the high-school prom girl who suddenly becomes a woman.

I was not alone in wondering where we were headed with the analogy, but it quickly became clear that after a decade of being viewed as a tough, reliable-but-maybe-slightly-unglamorous workhorse that perhaps lacked a persona, it was felt the Forester needed to become more defined.

Actually, ‘more SUV’, so that shoppers would view it as a clearer alternative to, say, a Honda CR-V or a Toyota RAV4 when looking at a functional AWD purchase.

Thus we now have a Forester that is longer, wider and taller, with needed extra rear legroom, along with a more refined ride and improved bad road (even off-road) capability, wrapped in a far more distinctive body (are you still with us on the prom thing?)

My eyes caught reflections of the Hyundai Santa Fe and some GM SUVs in the styling, but still with that Subaru DNA.

The rear suspension, following the lead of the Impreza on which the Forester has always been based, is now a double-wishbone setup instead of struts, increasing floor space in the cargo bay and enhancing wheel travel for a quieter, more controlled ride.

The rear hatch is wider, so that very large square items can be hauled.

Seats front and back are improved, especially the rear, and there is an innovative centre console arrangement and sexy new dash.

What have not changed are the revered, full-time symmetrical all-wheel drive system, 2.5-litre ‘boxer’ engine, tight (now even tighter) turning radius, exceptional towing capacity and decent fuel economy. And you can still get that monster sunroof on all but the entry model.

The details: wheelbase is 90 mm (3.6 inches) longer at 2615 mm (103.1 in), and the body is 75 mm (2.9 in) longer and almost all the added length has gone into rear legroom. Track is about 1.3 in wider front and back.

All models now get four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and brake assist, and Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) with electronic traction control via the ABS system in place of the old viscous unit, which is simpler and saves weight.

Side curtain airbags with rollover sensors are standard and door windows are now fully-framed. An already very safe vehicle now has a stronger, stiffer body.

The 2.5 four-cylinder engine still puts out 170 hp but now has 170 lb.-ft. of torque, up four pounds, and reworked for better response. You’d have to be very familiar with the current Forester to see the subtle difference but it’s there. The low sales volume XT (turbo) Forester still has 224 hp and 226 lb.-ft., but both are available sooner.

Behind the wheel of normally-aspirated Foresters on the freeways of lovely Orange County, I found this new packaging to be definitely quieter, smoother and more satisfying. Turbos were not made available for driving on the highway but, as before, they’d be noticeably quicker (and understandably thirstier.)

Then Subaru did something deserving accolades: they turned journalists loose on the rugged unpaved tracks of Catalina Island, in terrain more normally driven at a serious 4×4 event, and the new kid ate it up.

Full marks to the traction and suspension upgrades. I kept wishing I had my 2007 manual Forester along for comparison.

Other regrets? I have a few. I have never felt that five-speed manual (non turbo) Foresters were much in need of more power. But the four-speed automatic version could certainly use five gears to get the best out of the engine and this golden opportunity was not taken.

A senior Subaru engineer said that the car “would likely get a CVT (continuously variable transmission) at some future time before it would get a five-speed auto”. Competitors in this segment now offer five-speed autos.

The range-topping Forester Limited, and the XT, will not be available in Canada with a navigation system, but U.S. versions will. Pity.

And if any Subaru would suit the clean diesel engine being launched in Europe this year, the Forester is IT. But there is no current thinking on that engine for Canada.

Again, a pity, because while fuel consumption on this larger, heavier and impressively-improved Forester stays at pretty much identical levels to the current vehicle, today’s marketplace loves fuel gains as much as anything.

The new Forester will come to Canada in X and Touring Package models with either five-speed manual or four-speed auto and as a Limited or a turbo’d XT with automatic.

Pricing, also a hot item in today’s dollar parity marketplace, will be announced in April 2008.

Final Verdict

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