2009 Subaru Forester (© Subaru of America)Click to enlarge picture

Now more in league with the class standouts, the 2009 Subaru Forester battles the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V with a clean-sheet body, an all-new chassis and suspension, and Symmetrical AWD.

The SUV is not dead — it’s merely evolved to fit the current automotive landscape. Opulent behemoths with V8 power and indulgent interiors have fallen from favor in the face of four-dollar fuel prices. Built on a car chassis and using car-sized engines, “crossover” SUVs are a hot commodity. The Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V are far and away the top dogs in the small-SUV segment. Our third competitor is the all-new 2009 Subaru Forester.

Model Lineup
The RAV4 and CR-V can be ordered in front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD), while all Foresters come standard with Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD. The base Forester X starts at $19,995 and the model line tops out with the XT Limited at $28,195. The Forester has five distinct trims with individual price points.

Honda’s CR-V line-up baselines at $20,700 for the FWD LX and is split into FWD and AWD examples of its three basic trims: LX, EX and EX-L. An AWD EX-L tops the price sheet at with a $26,700 tag. Similarly, the Toyota RAV4 has three trim levels: Base, Sport and Limited. Starting at $21,250, the RAV4 has no less than 12 price points, peaking at $26,820.

Under the Hood
Honda’s CR-V has a “one size fits all” strategy, with its 2.5-liter 4-cylinder as the sole engine choice. This mill, outfitted with i-VTEC variable-valve-timing technology is rated at 166 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 161 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm. The only transmission offered is a 5-speed automatic. The FWD CR-V is EPA-rated at 20/27 mpg (city/hwy); 20/26 mpg for AWD models.

Compare the CR-V, RAV4 and Forester

Subaru also offers only 4-cylinder propulsion, but turbo power can be added to the equation. The X Foresters get a naturally aspirated, horizontally opposed (“boxer”) 2.5-liter while XTs get a turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter.

The all-natural X engine delivers 170 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 170 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm, and can be had with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The non-turbo Boxer features Subaru’s i-Active variable valve lift system, sequential electronic fuel injection and is PZEV certified. Fuel economy is rated at 20/26 mpg.

The Forester’s turbocharged powerplant gets a DOHC valvetrain and Subaru’s more advanced Active Valve Control System (AVCS). The XT pumps out 224 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 226 lb-ft of torque at 2800 rpm. The Forester XT is EPA-rated at 19/24 mpg and is only available with a 4-speed automatic.

Toyota offers either a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or a 3.5-liter V6 in any trim level of its mini SUV. The 4-cylinder is a 16-valve DOHC design with Toyota’s VVT-i variable cam timing system, and is rated at 179 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 172 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. The 2.5-liter generates 22/28 mpg numbers in FWD trim and 21/27 mpg when outfitted with Toyota’s On Demand AWD system. Four-cylinder models feature 4-speed automatic transmissions.

The RAV4’s V6 generates 269 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 246 lb-ft of torque at 4700 rpm, and uses Toyota’s Dual VVT-i that phases both intake and exhaust cams for optimum performance and economy. When it comes to fuel economy, the V6 compromises little, managing 19/27 mpg in FWD trim and 19/26 in AWD guise. RAV4s with V6 engines feature five-speed automatic transmissions.

Inner Space
Clean and Spartan describe Subaru’s treatment of the Forester’s interior. There are few buttons on the dash, and nothing to interfere with the driver’s commanding view of the road. Beyond the outstanding visibility, the Forester has the most cargo capacity of the group and roomy rear seats.

Cozy and comfortable was the target for Honda designers. The CR-V hits the mark with excellent front seats that include captain’s chair armrests, a dash-mounted shifter that opens up floor space and an outstanding gauge cluster that belongs in an upscale luxury sedan.

Does the RAV4's thrust and third-row make it a champ?

The modern and versatile RAV4 interior has an industrial feel, with muted colors and a symmetrical arrangement of controls and vents. There is storage aplenty as the Toyota has dual glove boxes, a deep center console and no less than 10 cupholders in its airy interior. The RAV4’s big advantage over the competition is its available third-row seating, which neither of the others offers. We found rear cargo access in the RAV4 troublesome because the back door swings toward the curb instead of away from it.