by Ric Hawthorne
Accepting an invitation to drive the all-new Forester in Southern California the first week of March was a quick and easy decision for someone living in Wisconsin. In this case, though, the lure of finding out what this new vehicle is like to drive overshadowed the promise of respite from winter’s snow and subfreezing temperatures.
Our seat time in preproduction 2009 Forester models started in Laguna Beach, California, with a briefing by Subaru of America, Inc. The presentation team discussed the goals for this new Subaru as well as its design, technology, and utility. My driving partner and I followed a schedule that directed us first on a street drive and then had us flying to Santa Catalina Island for off-roading. During the course of the day, we drove the range of Forester models, with both five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions and both naturally aspirated and turbocharged engines.
This was my first experience with the Forester outside the confines of an auto show. Show lighting and booth setup make any vehicle examination a bit surreal. Now we had the Forester where it should be – on the road and on the trail.
Styling is dramatically different from the previous Forester, with strong design cues reminiscent of other Subaru models. While these are covered in the main article, I wanted to emphasize the family resemblances that Subaru vehicles now carry across the model lineup. The 2009 Forester is closer in design to the other Subaru models than to its predecessor, both inside and out.
The presentation team walked us around the new Forester, pointing out highlights. Having observed that Forester owners thoroughly utilize their vehicles, the team made it clear that utility was a Forester strength and advantage carried over to the new model, especially with its larger cargo area.
We were shown how much camping equipment could fit inside, as well as how many granola bars (4,590) and recycled cans ($400 worth). The telling demonstration was a large wooden box that fit into the Forester with its seatbacks folded forward to make a flat floor. The box did not fit in competitors’ cargo areas, and not even through some of their tailgates.
Under the cargo floor, sectioned storage areas make transporting loose items more convenient. So do the grocery-bag and coat hooks in the cargo area.
For rear-seat passengers, access to the rear seat has been improved significantly. The opening angle of the rear doors is wider, the span between the door post and the seat cushion is larger, and the legroom has been increased.
Other impressive interior features include the available rear-seat retractable tray, which folds forward to make a continuous console with the front center console. It has cupholders and a rectangular open storage area for the second-row passengers. Those passengers also will enjoy the comfort of the reclining seatbacks. The large, panoramic power moonroof lets in plenty of light and air (when open) for everyone.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the 2009 Forester is the visibility from inside. Not only is the moonroof larger than most, the side windows and tailgate glass give the driver and passengers a picture-window-like view of the surroundings all the way around the vehicle.
The Subaru presentation team demonstrated the excellent visibility to the rear with a test dummy that was one meter (3.2 feet) tall. An average-size driver can see the dummy when it is located only one meter behind the vehicle. Not many other vehicles provide such an excellent line of sight.
After the presentation, pairs of journalists took off for a street drive. Switching between driving and navigating, we followed a route that took us on city streets, freeways, and twisting, two-lane canyon roads. The first Forester that we drove had a naturally aspirated engine and a five-speed manual transmission. Later we drove a turbocharged model with a four-speed automatic transmission.
For me, the Forester driver seat (with either manual or power controls) is an easy one to situate for comfort and visibility all around. Even though telescoping columns are available, I was happy with the positioning I could achieve with only the tilt function on columns that had no telescoping function.
Seat cushioning caused both my driving partner and me to comment – it’s comfortable enough for daylong rides (even on primitive trails) with good side support for cornering. The seats were particularly comfortable in the region of the lower back.
As in other Subaru models, driving the Forester gives you the feeling of being connected with the road. Unless it’s pushed far beyond the limits of reason, the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive fights for traction at each wheel, and you can sense that in the confidence you feel behind the wheel. That connection is there with either engine and with either transmission.
We noticed a difference in suspension between the naturally aspirated-engine models and the models with turbocharging. Subjectively, both my driving partner and I prefer the firmer ride and improved handling of the XT models.
The Forester models that we were driving were preproduction units, so they exhibited quirks and some noises that will not be present in the production Foresters. That being said, we were surprised by the quiet interiors when traveling at 65 miles per hour. We held conversations without raising our voices to be heard, reminding me of luxury cars that I’ve driven in the past. Road noises are well buffered by the suspension mountings and rear subframe.
Our morning street ride ended at the Orange County airport, where we boarded a small, two-prop plane and flew to Santa Catalina Island, approximately 20 miles from the California shore.
What a beautiful place! Approaching the island’s airport (Airport in the Sky), we could see the steep cliffs dropping into the ocean at the shoreline and few sandy beaches. The landing strip is a level spot along some of the island's ridges.
Santa Catalina Island is approximately 76 square miles in size. Other than the town of Avalon (approximately one square mile), the land is largely a conservation area.
We were taken to a meeting site some miles from the airport, near a small harbor where major motion pictures have been filmed in the past. Our carriage was an older van that has probably had a long history of bouncing along the rough gravel, stone, and dirt roads. It reminded me of driving old pickup trucks across the furrows in plowed fields around the farm.
The speed limit on the island is 25 miles per hour. That’s if you can reach such a speed, hindered by tightly winding, narrow, trail-like roads that are wide enough for only one-and-a-half vehicles – at the most. Thankfully, we didn’t meet anyone along the ocean-side cliffs. Both driver and passenger had to be alert at all times.
Once in a while we met animals that wanted to share the road. We had to pass through a herd of bison – twice. Bison are a symbol of the island, although the herd that roams there started from animals left behind by a film crew decades ago.
The roads bounced and pitched. We skirted and drove over chunks of the rock that comprised the road surface or had fallen from the stone walls alongside. Every so often, streams from recent rains cut through the road, leaving a gulley to ford. Where those streams passed through dirt, we had oozing mud to plow through – like snowdrifts made of clay.
At one point, a wrong turn took us to a dead end that required turning around while avoiding a freshly cut gulley. The Forester we were driving never missed a beat, even though we had only three wheels on the ground at one point. Its turning circle and AWD got us out of the situation with nothing more than embarrassment about misreading navigational notes.
Then we went from one and a half lanes to a trail that followed the ridges at the “top” of the island. The views of the ocean and hills were spectacular. The Forester models that we drove were so competent and sure-footed that we could pay attention to the scenery, at least while we were in the passenger seat. At times the roads were so steep that our view of the road ahead was nothing but sky.
Our last stop before returning to the airport with the Forester models we drove was called “Hillclimb” on our navigation directions. That seemed ridiculous after the afternoon of twisty, rocky roads and gulley-washed trails. The entire day had been a hillclimb!
Subaru had found an exceptionally steep, rocky trail that looked impossible to drive. In addition to the angle of incline, the trail was loaded with large chunks of rock and loose stones, and it was difficult just to walk up or down it, let alone drive on it. But we watched as several journalists drove their Forester models up that hill.
Was it possible for other vehicles to climb that hill as well? Certainly (although one competitor at the scene could not)! However, the point was that a Forester could do it, too. The vehicle that gave us quiet, sophisticated drives on public roads earlier in the day also were capable of climbing dramatic slopes.
Throughout the day, we saw Forester suspension systems bounced furiously along the roads and trails as we traversed the island. But between the rigid vehicle bodies and the seats, we finished our ride without feeling stiff or beat up. Despite lurches and jolts, the Forester took the radical terrain in stride.
We were just happy not to have to ride the old van back to the Airport in the Sky.
Specifications sheets show that the new Forester is larger than the previous model – but just a little larger, and in all the right places to enhance the capabilities that made it so popular with its owners. Wider stance, longer wheelbase, and slightly longer body add to the comfort inside. It handles better and turns tighter. Plus, it handles cargo better and is quieter inside.
So the award-winning Forester has matured a bit. Still, at its core are the elements that made owners fall in love with the first two generations. In the 2009 Forester, a little bit more is a whole lot better!
For more information about the Catalina Island Conservancy and its work to preserve the island, visit www.catalinaconservancy.org.