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2009 Subaru Forester X: Vanilla served up right

Posted by Bill Griffith  May 7, 2009 11:11 AM

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2009 Subaru Forester XThe 2009 Forester is bigger and higher than ever. (All photos: Bill Griffith/

My friend Ralph used to be the ice cream maker at a famous North Shore candy house and ice cream parlor.

Every time I’d tell him about a new favorite dairy bar – for example, the one on the UConn campus in Storrs, Conn. – he’d ignore my ravings about the Jonathan Supreme and Husky Tracks.

“Tell me about the vanilla,” he’d say.

“The vanilla? They’ve got all these great flavors.”

“I always try the vanilla first,” was his answer. “That’s the most important and the hardest to get right.”

Those words often come back to me.

We were looking at this week’s test car – a 2009 Subaru Forester. It’s the base X model equipped with the premium and all-weather packages. Those bumped the $19,995 base price to $24,590.

That’s well-equipped, though you can opt for more, starting with the entire XT line which adds a turbocharger, boosting the basic 4-cylinder boxer engine’s horsepower from 170 to 224. Ours had Subaru’s tried-and-true four-speed automatic, a bit of an anachronism when others are going to five- and six-speed units but one that’s been a workhorse. A five-speed may have improved fuel economy, though that’s traditionally been a weak point of the boxer engine and AWD system.

It’s rated at 20 miles per gallon city and 26 highway. The on-board computer, which included previous drivers’ information, read that it’d been averaging 24.5.

Still, Mrs. G said, “It’s really comfortable, but it looks bland.”

“Vanilla?” I asked.


“Well, you know what Ralph always said about vanilla.”

New Englanders always have embraced the all-wheel-drive Subarus. We’ve all heard the jokes about the Subaru being the State Car of Vermont.

The new version is longer and higher than its predecessors (aren’t all new models?). The goal was aimed at going more SUV mainstream. It appears that was a good move, especially given the downturn for large SUV sales and the all-around capability of the Subaru from the full-time AWD and carrying ability. In addition, sales people could note the increased ground clearance – up to 8.7 inches.

Early returns indicate that’s happening. March Forester sales were up 47 percent over 2008 and first-quarter sales are up 80 percent over the same period a year ago.

2009 Subaru Forester X cloth

The Forester's odd cloth seat pattern.

Subaru’s niche, to me, remains more “raised wagon” than full SUV. That gives drivers a raised seating position, something I’ve never heard anyone complain about. The seats were comfortable on longer stretches but maintain one of Subaru’s quirky characteristics: an odd pattern in the cloth fabric. A positive was that Subaru offers a heated option with the cloth seats, not forcing you to opt for leather to have butt warmers.

Ride was middle-of-the-road comfortable, a trade-off for the ground clearance and high driving position. The handling is far from stiff but predictable enough with a reworked double wishbone rear suspension. The added length (three inches) helps with rear legroom and cargo space. The cargo area can be expanded by lowering the 60/40 rear seats.

We found our obligatory auxiliary plug for an MP3 player and also three 12-volt outlets (one in the dash, one in the console, the third in the cargo area) for necessary charging.

All controls were intuitive. Yes. You can sit in the driver’s seat for the first time and not have to turn to the salesman or owner’s manual to find out “how to.”

2009 Subaru Forester X sunroof

Overhead, the premium package doesn’t merely add a sunroof. Instead, it’s a massive (Subaru calls it panoramic) sunroof. Hit the switch and it opens fully -- unless you’ve left a coffee cup on it, then it somehow stops just before dumping it on the rear seats. (Speaking of coffee cups, the cup holders in the center console were a pair of square boxes that didn’t secure my coffee mug.)

During shopping trips, the rear tailgate was easy to lift, opened high enough so a six-footer didn’t whack his head, and was easy to close. That’s an engineering tripleheader – and another reason why Subaru’s vanilla is a “good vanilla.”

2009 Subaru Forester X hatch

2009 Subaru Forester X gauges

2009 Subaru Forester X interior

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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37 comments so far...
  1. these autos are great in the I've ever driven.

    Posted by Rick259g May 7, 09 11:54 AM
  1. I just bought a 2009, my second Forester. I love this car, but the cup holders still suck.

    Posted by Anonymous May 7, 09 12:32 PM
  1. You wrote that the rear tailgate was easy to lift, "opened high enough so a six-footer didn’t whack his head " ..... but that's not high enough for my 6'4" teenager son.
    We spent Christmas Eve in the emergency room after he whacked his head loading up the Xmas presents. It took 10 stitches to close the cut; 2-1/2 hours in the emergency room, and we missed midnight Mass.

    This is our first Subaru and we are very pleased with it. The ride is comfortable and my son can drive it with his long legs.

    Posted by Marion May 7, 09 12:33 PM
  1. I just purchased the new Forester a month ago and couldn't be more happy. I'm coming out of a full size Chevy Suburban and except for a few feet of cargo room and a 3rd row I like the Subaru better. I'm averaging 25.5 mpg with a combination of city and highway - great numbers for this much room and AWD. Speaking of AWD, haven't used it yet but Subaru is reported to have some of the best technology in the industry that is "tried and true". Signed, ECO-friendly.

    Posted by steve May 7, 09 01:59 PM
  1. Great car/SUV!

    Posted by beth May 7, 09 02:00 PM
  1. Bring back the SVX sports coupe. All the rest look the same.

    Your current choices:
    -Forrester regular or large(Tribecca)
    -Impreza regular or luxury trim(Legacy)

    boring. And I like Vanilla.

    Posted by Andy May 7, 09 02:21 PM
  1. The new Forester reminds me of the Honda CR-V (1998-the most recent redesign) before it went upmarket and shrunk, and the Toyota RAV4 that grew. A solid small SUV with decent gas mileage and a surprising amount of room.

    The only lacking feature here is a manual transmission, but for the target market that's likely not a big deal, and truth be told, Subaru needs to either just start using the wonderful 6-speed from the WRX STi, or spend the money and update the ancient 5-speed that pales in comparison to other modern gearboxes. They also do need to invest some money in a 5-speed automatic, as well -- their upmarket rivals like Audi are going on 6 speeds, it's time to have that in a "regular car"

    Posted by K May 7, 09 03:23 PM
  1. So how does it accelerate and merge on the highway? How much lean in the high speed sweepers? How much dive and squat when starting and stopping? How noisy/buzzy is the engine at 70 mph given it only has a 4-sp tranny? How does it compare to a CRV/RAV-4/Rondo/Rogue?? What safety equipment is standard? Has it been crash tested yet? Does the steering have good feedback or is it one of those numb electric boost systems? How's the braking distances?? Fade?? Will 3 adults fit across the backseat?

    Come on Mr G. People don't just sit in their cars and open and close the sunroof and hatchback while enjoying the heated seats and square cupholders.... they DRIVE their cars.

    Posted by WVW in West Newton May 7, 09 03:34 PM
  1. We bought out first Subaru (Forrester) 3-years ago and then got a second car (another subaru, a used one 9-year old, but still in GREATshape) 2-years ago. Subaru's are fantastic vehicles. I have driven my parents CR-V, for comparison purposes to our Forrester, and I have to say the Forrester is a MUCH better ride. Acceleration from a stopped position is much quicker with the Forrester (think pulling into traffic). Even my mother (who has been a loyal Honda owner for some 20 odd years), after she drove our Forrester, said that she would get a Forrester as her next car, and that she preferred it over the CR-V. Subaru's are expensive to fix, but it is well worth it, especially living in this snowy climate. I get better gas milage than other AWD vehicles and I can make it up m very steep hill when it is winter and the road is covered in snow and the town hasn't even plowed it once.

    Posted by Subaru Fan May 7, 09 04:26 PM
  1. I used to own a 2000 Forester. It was bulletproof reliable, practicle, and easy to live with but I did not love it. It was rather slow on the highway when merging or passing, quite noisy and leaned in corners a lot. Its AWD abilities came in handy a few times, but not enough to make a major difference in my life. My wife now owns a '09 CR-V. It is a much nicer car overall, although feels underpowered and slow, as well.

    Posted by Alex May 7, 09 06:07 PM
  1. Best car I've owned. Dependable and predictable. Have 180,000 mi. on my '03 and looking forward to another Forester after this baby reaches at least 250,000 miles- at which time it will become a spare car in Maine.

    Posted by conserve May 7, 09 08:13 PM
  1. I don't have a Forester, but own a 2008 outback. One snowy winter morn this year I waved and laughed at the driver of a Lexus QX4 after he had to back into the driveway of a business and head back down the snow covered hill he couldn't negotiate for the life of him. He didn't take it well, so I just continued sure-footedly up the hill without problem. I'm sure the studded Hakka 5s helped, but it could have been done with the stock tires, too.

    Posted by Texter May 7, 09 08:58 PM
  1. As someone who is 5'1" and owns a subaru, I find that the high tailgate is a bit of a problem...I would like it if they'd install a strap so I didn't have to jump to close the trunk

    Posted by lucritia May 7, 09 10:09 PM
  1. I bought a new forrester last year and opted for the 08 not the new 09. The 09 was like a CRV and was missing some of the great features that my 2000 forrester had. this time I bought an automatic - great pick up on the highway, comfortable and great gas mileage. I refer to it as my sports car because there isn't a door frame around the windows.

    Posted by loyal forrester owner May 7, 09 10:36 PM
  1. We picked up our Outback XT this past fall and we absolutely love it! The AWD system is pretty much unstoppable. The boxer engine has plenty of torque and a great rumble. I recommend the brand to anyone who's looking for a fun, dependable vehicle. You will not be disappointed.

    Posted by BrnHrnt May 7, 09 10:59 PM
  1. I love my subaru Forester as does my daughter love her's. As a matter of fact my wife loves her Suabru sedan as does my other daughter love her sedan. We have been Subaru owners since 1986 and wouldn't change for anything. It's about time Subaru is getting some recognition it truely deserves.
    Loyal Subaru family

    Posted by Peter Rufo May 8, 09 05:53 AM
  1. I was really enjoying this review. What's up with the abrupt ending? I'm reading about the tailgate being awesome (good to know!), and then...what?

    Posted by Dan May 8, 09 08:18 AM
  1. i can attest that the XT's engine goes like a tazmanian devil when you put your foot down. so fun (but kills my mpgs)!!!!

    Posted by mikeybigboy May 8, 09 08:39 AM
  1. Subaru's are the worst handling cars in the world and have gian blind spots. It's the only way to explain why Subaru owner's drive so horribly.

    Posted by Hoss75 May 8, 09 09:43 AM
  1. Now if we could just get people to drive them over 20 mph..

    Posted by sulldoggy May 8, 09 12:23 PM
  1. We just got one last year. My wife got it without my permission. I couldn't get mad at her because it met all the criteria I had laid down (which is the law in my house).

    It gets much better mileage than almost all SUV's (even many hybrids). It is very spacious and rides nice. My favorite part is the visibility, you really can enjoy the environment you're driving around in.

    You're not going to be towing around a boat with the thing, but if you're not towing around anything you really don't want the horsepower because you really want to go slow anyway on curves. It gets out on to the highway reasonably so there isn't so much of a sacrifice.

    Posted by John P. May 8, 09 02:28 PM
  1. I have a 2002 Forester. Except for the lack of adult-capacity seating in the back seat, it's a wonderful car. It handles beautifully in snow and ice and is a lot of fun to drive in all weather. (I don't understand the comment about bad and/or slow Subaru driving, although maybe that's because some of us are more conscious of driving under 70 mph in order to reduce fuel consumption.....)

    All in all, I would happily have bought another Forester when it came time to replace my car....except that now Subaru has succumbed to the "bigger is better" trend and created a bloated oversized version of the darned thing. It started life as a taller station wagon, not *really* an SUV. I'd rather Subaru had kept it that way. Instead, they created a fat monster. I'm going to be shopping for a different make next time. Sigh. First Toyota ruined the Camry and then Subaru ruined the Forester. Can auto companies not leave well alone when something works???

    Posted by cammy May 8, 09 05:40 PM
  1. Did they fix the crappy headgaskets on the 2.5l NA boxer? The Subie forums seem to be littered with mechanical issues related to this.

    Nice update over the outgoing model though. However 4-speed auto is a joke. 5-speed manual is an option on the base model but not the turbo.

    Posted by carguy May 8, 09 06:04 PM
  1. I wonder if John P. has a hitch to tow his wife around? What a clown.

    Posted by Joe S May 8, 09 06:43 PM
  1. My 1999 Forester 5-speed just turned 152K miles. No internal engine parts failed yet, except for the (common) front crank seal and camshaft O-rings. Totally satisfactory vehicle, great visibility all around (no blind spots). Simple utilitarian hauler, no blinking LEDs, beeping things, no menus. Pete

    Posted by nhhiker May 9, 09 06:59 AM
  1. My daughter and 3 high school friends were in a serious accident early one Sunday morning which totalled her 2004 Subaru Forester. They were hit by a speeding driver who came out of nowhere. There were no injuries, the airbags deployed as expected - this car saved the girls' lives. We replaced the car with the latest Subaru Forester,- and will never consider any other vehicle. We love the new version even more than the original.

    Posted by ropertsmom May 9, 09 07:10 AM
  1. I'm on my second Subaru Forester after the first one was totaled in a car accident. My two sons and I walked away with a few bumps, and it's performance in the accident only reinforced my love for this car. The "vanilla" look doesn't bother me, I'd rather have a car that can haul my kids and my stuff and handle whatever a New England winter can dish out. I would buy another one in a heartbeat.

    Posted by Sue K. May 9, 09 11:38 AM
  1. If the car ahead of you is drifting aimlessly and being passed by bicycles, odds are it's a Subaru, or if not, a Honda.

    Posted by James May 9, 09 11:47 PM
  1. We have a 2000 that has been great. Nothing beats a Subaru with some patina.

    Posted by jb May 10, 09 12:02 AM
  1. I'm trying very hard to feel the love other Subaru owners have for their cars, but after four months with my 2009 Forester, I only dislike it more. The seats in the 2.5 X model are really uncomfortable after about 20 minutes - I've never gotten a backache in a car before, but I do in this one. Seating adjustments are very limited and there's no lumbar support. The interior quality is uneven - it looks nice, but the fabric on my driver's door is unravelling and I'll have to take it in to the dealer to have it replaced. I've never had anything like that happen in previous cars. Other complaints: the iPod adapter is not particularly useful or user-friendly (definitely don't try to operate it while driving - you'll crash), the 4-speaker stereo is underwhelming, and there aren't any air vents in the back seat, which I assumed was standard, especially in a larger vehicle - but no, if you want to heat or cool the rear passengers, you have to blast it in the front until it makes its way to them. The manual transmission is sluggish, especially in lower gears, and the fuel economy is on the low-end of the estimates. Any one of those things I could have lived with, but the combination of little things make the car seem really boring and overpriced. Missing features like adjustable seats with lumbar support, rear air vents, and at least 6 speaker stereos, can be found in much cheaper cars. The positive thing I will say is I feel safe in it, and that was the primary reason I bought it. But that said, I would probably still unload it if I could get anywhere near what I paid for it.

    Posted by Emma's Mom May 10, 09 12:48 AM
  1. "and have giant blind spots"
    There are no blind spots if you understand and know how to use/adjust side view and rear view mirrors.

    Posted by conserve May 10, 09 09:13 AM
  1. Love that sunroof.

    Posted by David May 10, 09 06:37 PM
  1. This is my third Subaru I had 2 Impreza's before getting the Forester. I used to keep my car 2-3 year this I have had 6.5 years and not ready to give it up yet. I really wish they left the height and lenth the same. When it comes time for a new Subaru it just might have to be the Outback...

    Posted by Nadine May 10, 09 08:03 PM
  1. This car is plain but can climb over snow easily. We have a 2003 and have only needed scheduled work, no surprises. The 2009 looks better and the interior is much nicer. The 2003 handles great and has very good visibility due to all the windows. For performance buy a WRX. The 2003 came with a full size spare and roof racks with cross bars. The winter package, leather and moon roof will raise the price quickly. Also test drove the CRV, Rav4 and Escape.

    Posted by Pat May 11, 09 10:00 AM
  1. 18: that's just lauaghably not true...

    Posted by scouty May 11, 09 05:11 PM
  1. I recently purchased a new Forester Premium. I love this car. This car handles well has absolutely no blind spots and has very nice lines and feature. I can't say enough good things about this car.

    Posted by Subemarine May 13, 09 02:17 AM
  1. I lease a 2007 Subaru B9 Tribeca, the first year this line was released, great car overall, has enough pickup, handles great on snow. Had a few problems here and there however the subaru franchise service in California is not that great.
    Shops don't try to fix your car when they find out you have extended warranty and wait for the warranty to run out before they tell you that this problem needs to be fixed. So far i found two dealerships in my area who have managed to damage the car while it was in service yet Subaru of America does not stand behind their franchises or try to make it right for the customer. This probably be the last Subaru i will ever own.
    Did anyone experience any of that in Boston area?

    Posted by michael July 1, 09 07:03 PM

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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