CATALINA ISLAND, CA – At the Airport In the Sky – which consists of a 3,200-ft. (975-m) strip of asphalt, a stubby terracotta-roofed control tower and a single white-washed, World War II-era hangar – planes don’t land so much as they drop from the sky with a thud and wailing rubber, flaps fully extended in what seems an all-out bid to stop before plunging off the green mountaintop into the Pacific Ocean.

It’s an oddly appropriate start to a day of testing the ’09 Subaru Forester here, where the plucky cross/utility vehicle will negotiate, in no particular order, one impossibly steep grade covered in gravel, football-size rocks and ruts deep enough to knock loose a molar; unimproved mountainside roadways with dangerous shoulders that fall steeply into tangles of scrub oak chaparral; a narrow, 2-track ridgeline along one of the island’s highest points; and the occasional Island Fox or herd of bison, the latter left behind by Western film makers in the 1930s.

There’ll be no errant maneuvers off the closely mapped route, lest drivers face the wrath of fiery environmentalists hell-bent on keeping automobiles off their 22-mile (35-km) slab of paradise. It’s dicey business to be sure, but an assignment the extensively redesigned, all-wheel-drive Forester handles reasonably well.

Right out of the gate, however, the Forester reveals its single greatest weakness – a 4-speed automatic transmission overmatched for the environment. Even utilizing “sport shift” mode, the transmission’s gearing doesn’t allow for a lick of engine braking, which means plenty of foot brake to creep down Catalina’s mountainsides.

An hour or so into the drive, stops to drink in the island’s magnificent views are punctuated by the unmistakable smell of frying brake pads. Clearly, the CUV would benefit from an extra forward gear.

In the civilized world, the 4-speed also should translate into slightly poorer fuel economy. But according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, a naturally aspirated Forester’s combined-cycle 22 mpg (10.6 L/100 km) matches all-wheel-drive versions of the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, both with 5-speed automatics. One of the few holdover components from the previous-generation Forester, the 4-speeder also is a big reason it costs nearly $4,000 less than its key competitors, such as Saturn Vue.

And unlike the CR-V that Subaru brought along for comparison, the Forester conquers a frightfully steep grade that Subaru officials eventually close for safety reasons. The few Foresters to successfully negotiate the mess share a common strategy: a bootful of throttle and spastic wheel-work to keep the nose pointed forward. No ascent was pretty, but off-roading never is.

The Forester’s excellent ground clearance also deserves credit, although the key enabler is full-time AWD. Subaru began offering the technology as standard equipment in 1997 and that’s still the case, although which system a particular model receives depends on the transmission and they vary slightly in sophistication. Both systems put power to the wheels with the best traction and produce amazing results.

Kudos to Forester engineers, as well, who chose not to follow the crowd and boost horsepower and torque output merely for the sake of a next-generation redesign. Instead, they tweaked both naturally aspirated and turbocharged horizontally opposed “Boxer” powerplants to deliver more torque earlier in the power band.

This produces mixed results on base models. But with 226 lb.-ft. (306 Nm) of torque available on turbo models at just 2,800 rpm, Forester is a joy to drive along the meandering 2-tracks of Catalina. Gear down, punch the accelerator and the turbocharged Foresters gobble up grade after grade like a Tibetan Sherpa en route to a ridgeline some 1,500 ft. (457 m) above the Pacific.

Having made the ridgeline, the Forester sprints confidently down the lumpy 2-track, its AWD system working in harmony with a new and highly sophisticated double-wishbone rear suspension to keep contact on all four tires while smoothing out the bumps for a pleasant off-road experience.

’09 Subaru Forester
Vehicle type front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger CUV
Engines 2.5L SOHC horizontally opposed turbocharged 4 cyl.
Power (SAE net) 224 hp @ 5,200 rpm
Torque 226 lb.-ft. (306 Nm) @ 2,800 rpm
Compression ratio 8.4:1
Transmission 4-speed automatic with Sportshift
Wheelbase 103 ins. (262 cm)
Overall length 179.5 ins. (456 cm)
Overall width 70 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height 66.9 ins. (170 cm)
Curb weight 3,460 lbs. (1,569 kg)
Base price $19,995
Fuel economy 19/24 (12.3/9.8 L/100 km)
Competition Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Saturn Vue
Pros Cons
Sherpa-like utility Outdated 4-speed auto
Nimble on blacktop, too NVH needs taming
Sporty exterior design Suspect interior design

The combination proves equally capable on the pavement. The Forester hugs the twisty, hilly Santiago Canyon Road outside Laguna Beach, and those brakes that worked so hard on Catalina provide adequate stopping power around the drive route’s frequent blind corners.

And in a stroke of fate that Subaru’s public relations team only could dream of, our Forester rounds one particularly tight turn to find a late-model GMC Yukon piled into an oak tree, obviously a victim of its own girth, unable to negotiate the curve. No such problems for the Forester, which tips the scale at a relatively sprite 3,300 lbs. (1,497 kg), or more than 2,500 lbs. (1,134 kg) less than the unlucky Yukon.

But at highway speeds, the Forester suffers from excessive wind noise. Naturally aspirated base models with a 5-speed manual transmission feel underpowered and reluctant to “giddyup” in lower gears while jockeying for position during rush-hour traffic.

The Forester, however, scores high on the comfort scale. Seats provide ample support for aggressive driving and enough cushion for a long day of touring. While Subaru made some excellent changes to update the previous generation’s dowdy exterior, the interior lacks design harmony and suffers from off-putting material choices.

A new interior fabric, for instance, features a print that is downright dizzying. Subaru claims the material resists scuffs and stains better, but it appears the goal may have been to hide them better.

Chrome accents on up-level models also contrasts badly against faux brushed nickel-metal trim, and stitching on a passenger’s seat of one car was splitting after just one wave of journalists, which means the auto maker may need to do more work on the quality end.

Overall, though, Subaru proves why it was a pioneer in the CUV segment by offering a thoroughly updated Forester that tackles the blacktop as capably as the trailhead. The vehicle goes on sale April 1.

jamend@wardsauto.com