2009 Subaru Forester 2.5 X Premium

Subaru was one of the first automakers to market towards active lifestyles: it sponsored the US Ski team in the mid-1970s, Primal Quest, World Rally Cup and numerous other sporting events. Technology has had a similar focus: an aneroid bellows carburetor on early Subarus made them the only small engine cars that ran well at altitude, winning devotees throughout the mountain states. Permanent all-wheel drive on all models appeals to people who need all-weather and all-terrain capability.

In 1996, Subaru introduced the first Forester: a sport-utility wagon with a versatile interior and enough ground clearance to tackle serious off-road trails and deep snow. The third-generation Forester that rolls into dealerships next month takes the original formula and refines it with more interior space, a cold weather model, and available DVD navigation.

Average fuel economy is 22 miles per gallon for combined city and highway driving: about the same as a mid-sized car. An available turbocharged intercooled engine enhances power without eating up extra gas, and maintains that power from sea level up to altitude.

Permanent all-wheel drive and an inherently balanced boxer engine make the Forester exceptionally nimble on challenging trails. Engineers lowered the center of gravity on the new model for better performance, on and off-road. Hill start assist keeps cars equipped with manual transmissions from sliding backwards when starting up on a steep grade. The Forester can climb hills that leave comparably sized crossover vehicles in the dust.

Manual and automatic transmission models have two separate four-wheel drive systems. Our test car with the four-speed automatic transmission had an active torque split system that utilizes a continuously variable transfer clutch to direct power to the wheels with the best traction.

Models with the five-speed manual transmission have a viscous-coupling locking center differential that splits the power between the front and rear wheels fifty/fifty. It can transfer up to a hundred percent of power to the wheels with the best traction if the car starts to slip.

Ground clearance is 8.7 inches: ample for clearing obstacles off-road. Turbocharged models have .2 inches more ground clearance. The lowest part of the car is the exhaust pipe: the easiest under-chassis component to replace if the car hits a bump. Although the new Forester is slightly longer than the car it replaces, its 103-inch wheelbase is short enough to keep the car maneuverable on narrow, twisting roads.

Southern California Paradise

If there ever an ideal car for driving Catalina Island's fire roads, the new Forester is it, due to its all-terrain capability and minimal environmental footprint. The naturally-aspirated 2.5 X is available as a low-polluting PZEV model.

Curb weight for the four speed automatic is 3300 pounds: far less than many full-sized sport utility vehicles on the market. As a result, it can traverse delicate terrain and leave few traces of its visit.

On a warm spring day in early March, Catalina's hills are covered with fresh grass, wild flowers, prickley pear cactus and buffalo. I'm told the buffalo are a vestige from a Hollywood production company that came to Catalina to film a western: a project that was never finished. The buffalo got left behind, and thanks to the island's nature conservancy, continue to flourish.

There are very few cars on Catalina: only island residents qualify to drive. Though I had traversed the fire roads between Two Harbors and Avalon on foot during the Catalina Marathon, I was looking forward to being able to explore them again behind the wheel of the new Subaru.

A turbo prop ferried us from Orange County to the island's small airport, where we picked up the cars. My partner and I drove the 2.5X Premium Package, with a 170 horsepower engine and four-speed automatic transmission. A steep decline down a dirt and gravel road at the start of the drive demonstrated the car's exceptional traction. In first gear, all four wheels maintained directional control.

From the airport, we drove the fire roads along the base of the island through several coves towards Two Harbors. Because they are rarely driven, the roads stay in decent shape, but winter rains had washed out some of the lower sections. The car had no problems clearing raised areas in the roads. It would have been nice to see how well the traction control worked on water crossings or deep mud, but the island was too dry for those conditions.

Since the roads are narrow, I appreciated the car's sixty-inch track: it gave us a margin of error on paths along the canyon walls. A turning radius of 34.4 feet is closer to a mid-sized car than a sport-utility vehicle. We had several opportunities to take advantage of that, turning the car around on narrow pull-outs.

Visibility is good all the way around the car. Being a relatively small person, I prefer the naturally aspirated car to the turbocharged model off-road. The hood scoop on the turbocharged car can be an obstruction on steep uphill grades. Designers had the presence of mind to keep D-pillar width to a minimum. The Forester's large rear window minimizes blind spots to the sides and back of the car. The average driver can see a small child positioned as close as a meter behind the car.

New wipers front and back cover more glass area than on the outgoing models. When the driver shifts into reverse, the rear wiper automatically changes from intermittent to continuous mode to maximize visibility.

After a quick driver change, we turned back towards the airport, this time taking the roads that run along the mountain ridges. It was a good test of the Forester's climbing skills and forward visibility, since there were several sections with steep enough grades to obscure the trail.

Steering feedback from the rack- and-pinion setup is precise at lower speeds. The steering wheel is small enough to feel comfortable in a woman's hands: standard tilt and telescoping functions allow smaller drivers to keep the wheel below the sight line, and maintain a proper distance from the front airbag. I also appreciated redundant audio and cruise control buttons, so I could keep my eyes on the road.

Engineers kept the strut type front suspension from the outgoing model, but changed the rear suspension from a strut-based to double wishbone configuration. With no strut towers sticking out, the cargo floor is flat and unobstructed all the way across, making it easier to load in larger items.

The four-wheel independent suspension is more car-like than vehicles with a live rear axle, something which is especially noticeable at higher speeds on paved roads. Engineers lengthened the suspension stroke so all four wheels stay on the ground on uneven terrain. They also reduced the camber so the wheels are straighter and hence more level on uneven roads.

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