DETROIT – Which auto maker introduced the first cross/utility vehicle?

Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s Subaru of America Inc. lays claim to that title with its Forester, introduced 11 years ago but not called a CUV back then.

“It wasn’t a truck, and it wasn’t a car. People had a hard time defining it,” says Tom Doll, Subaru’s executive vice president. “We called it a hybrid (not to be confused with today’s hybrid-electric vehicles). It’s now called a CUV.”

The Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V were introduced at about the same time, but Subaru’s sales chief Tim Colbeck says, although they currently are car-based, originally they were truck-based.

“We like to think we had the first CUV,” Colbeck tells Ward’s at the North American International Auto Show here, where Subaru introduces an all-new, third-generation ’09 Forester.

Doll touts the new model as bigger and safer, with interior improvements that include more rear-seat legroom. The vehicle comes with a standard 2.5L 170-hp engine, or an optional turbo version producing 224 hp.

“The new Forester totally outperforms the previous generation in every category,” Doll says. “It’s not easy improving on an icon.”

The ’09 model will be in showrooms by early April. A pricing announcement is pending. However, the outgoing model starts at $21,000. The Forester’s U.S. sales totaled 44,600 in 2007.

Doll says the goal of the redo is to put the Forester “back in front of the CUV pack,” which has become crowded of late as the segment now is the fastest growing in the U.S.

Subaru of America sold 187,000 vehicles in 2007, a slight decrease in what Fuji Heavy’s President and CEO Ikuo Mori describes as “a transition year.”

The auto maker expects deliveries to reach 200,000 units this year, despite industry predictions that 2008, overall, will be an even softer sales year.

The Forester will play a key role in Subaru America’s planned increase in deliveries this year, but so will two recently redone vehicles, the Tribeca and Impreza, Colbeck says.

Meanwhile, Subaru this year in Europe will introduce the first horizontally opposed diesel engine. Mori says global sales were 587,000 units last year. Athough U.S. sales were slightly off, “we expanded in Russia and China.”

This is a milestone year for Fuji Heavy, marking the 50th anniversary of light-vehicle production and the 40th year of selling cars in the U.S.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com