Is it kismet? I suspect so, as over a few short weeks, a couple of themes have begun to emerge in our Jalopnik Reviews. First, Hardigree gets his hands on a Dodge Caliber SRT4 and loses a tire. Not two weeks later, I voyage to sublime Laguna Beach, and then to Catalina Island for some hoontastic off-roadin' in the 2009 Subaru Forester, and I kill not one, but two Yokohamas. Then Siler, too, visits the Golden West and lays down rubber in a Subaru Impreza WRX STI, only to discover that the definitive sport conveyance of reckless youth feels a tad out of place on freeways, as opposed to twisting backroads. Hello! I experience ditto while slinging the new Forester around on rocky, rutted, ill-mannered, road-like pathways, later discovering that the vehicle goes all petulant on regular asphalt byways. Flurry of coincidences? Hope not. I like to think there's a higher power at work.
Remember how I was bitching about the Pontiac G8 GT being too dang heavy? Well, with the '09 Forester, I got my wish—Subie's updated installment of its "small SUV" stalwart weighs in at about 600 lbs. less than
Holden's Pontiac's RWD 4,000-lb. ass-hauler. Match up that solid-yet-still-slingable curb mass with dirt trails on a protected section of Catalina Island, just a quick flight off the coast of Orange County, and you get...well, you get some significant pleasure, in a vehicle so versatile it's just sick.
Subaru has all kinds of weird shit going on with their brand. That's why we love them—because they aren't Toyota or Honda. They're got the aforementioned hoon-mobile, the justly thrilling WRX STI. Then there's the lesbionic Outback, and the completely baffling Tribeca (Is it a Porsche Cayenne for people who aren't buttholes or a VW Touareg for people who hate Germany but just can't swing with Volvo no more?). I won't remark on the Legacy.
Finally, Forester, a rad ride upon its intro in 1997, when SUVs first began to grow to the size of small schoolbuses. Here was a vehicle that had an SUV look, yet wasn't a road-hog (citizens of Burlington rejoiced!) Here was a vehicle that had minivan capacity, yet wasn't a cojones-robbing mother!@#$%ing minivan (the American male rejoiced!). Yes, it was essentially an elevated station wagon that was given the good juice of AWD, but because it resided seductively between the detested SUV and the castrating minivan, it dodged the retro curse. Sweet Jesus! For a particular demo—Park Slope by way of Berkeley by way of Boulder—it was manna from Heaven.
And yet, ten years later, this Third Way ride—so butch, so flexible, so competent—had grown long in the tooth. In response, the great pulsing automotive brains at Subaru of America and Fuji Heavy Industries got together and served up the vehicle that I whipped around the rugged ranges of Catalina and the fairly docile roads surrounding Laguna. Slicked-up, revamped, somewhat re-tooled. The package is a blast. Under all manner of crappy road conditions—bring rockslides and potholes and gawdawful ruts, dirt, and general muddiness—the '09 Forester remained poised, agile, ready to negotiate the next dip, swerve, ditch, or, if called upon, to scale what looked like a 40-plus-degree grade.
Of course, this car wants a crummy road. It's not that it doesn't do more-or-less fine on smooth pavement. But I never felt that the Forester was truly happy in that environment. Regrettably, most of its owners will use it either in snow (test enough, but not the same as genuine offroad conditions) or on docile, domesticated thoroughfares, under benign conditions. The freeway. The urban boulevard. The two-lane jaunt from tract-home to schoolyard. Ho-hum. The Forester, particularly the turbocharged, 224HP 2.5-liter XT, handles the mundane shuffle of the commonplace with aplomb. But it feels...how can I put this? Like a girl who slapped at the bass strings until the bars closed down, then quit the band and got hitched. There's an appetite for the wilderness in this car that one merely glimpses on proper roads, even those with circumlocutions that taunt the Forester's surefoooted handling. Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, plus the car's new DC3 suspension platform, contribute to a sense of serious control, whether you're tucking the Forester into a snug curve, accelerating to freeway cruising speeds, or—more importantly—humming along on rugged terrain.
The wasted tires on out test car are all the evidence you need. This is no namby-mobile. We lost the right front—just shredded it, punching several holes in the sidewalls—somewhere between the hill climb and the bouncy, crumbling negotiation of one of many of Catalina's completely underdeveloped roads. I immediately popped out of the fallen Forester and began to make short work of the tire-change operation until the Subaru tire-change guy was there a few minutes later. He made it clear we were doing his job ( we think maybe they, like any automaker, were concerned mostly about any potential lawsuits coming from me accidentally getting hit by the side of the road) and he took over, throwing on a new full-size replacement. His work wasn't done yet. The left rear developed a slow leak on the rally-esque straight-aways that followed. Tire guy promptly returned (you can't say Subaru wasn't prepared for a certain amount of ugliness).
It's a testament to the Forester's overall positive attitude that both times, we barely noticed. Somehow, we suspect this was part of a master plan. Fate, if you will.
The 2009 Forester is a terrific update, but having said that—and having gushed over its abilities in what I'd have to say is its natural element—I must report that the vehicle ain't perfect. Check back tomorrow for Part Two to find out why.