Motor Trend magazine has picked the 2009 Subaru Forester as its sport utility vehicle of the year, citing its comfort on the road, competency off the pavement and fuel efficiency in a time of high fuel prices.
The award, announced Thursday, came from a field of 13 finalists mostly made up of car-based crossover vehicles, with only three traditional body-on-frame truck-based SUVS.
The Forester won the contest because of its value, roominess, versatile powertrains and fuel efficiency, magazine editor-in-chief Angus MacKenzie said.
"In the context of the times, it's the right SUV," he said in an interview.
The all-wheel-drive Forester with a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with an automatic transmission gets an estimated 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 26 on the highway.
With a base price of just under $20,000 and less than $32,000 fully equipped, the Forester is a good value, MacKenzie said.
Other finalists were the BMW X6, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Journey, Ford Flex, Honda Pilot, Infiniti EX and FX, Kia Borrego, Lexus LX570, Nissan Murano, Toyota Sequoia and Volkswagen Tiguan. Only the Toyota Sequoia, Lexus LX570 and Kia Borrego are body-on-frame truck-based designs that in the past had dominated the finalists.
With high fuel prices here to stay, the car-based crossover vehicle will become the dominant player in the SUV segment, with truck-based SUVs returning to their roots as tougher, off-road vehicles, MacKenzie predicted.
But even though SUV and crossover sales nationally are down for the year, he predicted that Americans will still want to drive them, especially as they become more efficient. SUVs fit the American lifestyle in a big country with a lot of wide-open spaces, MacKenzie said.
"They want a vehicle that can cart themselves and their stuff around. So I think the SUV is here to stay. Will it change? Yes," he said.
Even without high gas prices, the SUV will have to become more fuel-efficient due to carbon dioxide emissions limits in Europe and tougher U.S. fuel economy standards, he said.
MacKenzie predicted more gas-electric hybrid and fuel-efficient diesel powertrains for future SUVs. He also said the traditional truck-based SUV will survive, but won't be used for commuting. Instead, they'll be used on weekends for towing and outdoor activities, he said.
U.S. sales in the SUV/crossover segment are down nearly 19 percent for the first nine months of the year, according to Autodata Corp. The overall U.S. market has seen sales slide 13 percent for the same period.
The 2008-model Mazda CX-9 won the SUV of the year last year.