NEW YORK -- The Honda CR-V hasn't done it. The Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Tucson also have been unable to boost sales this year over last year's levels.
But the Subaru Forester crossover sport utility vehicle, which debuted months ago as an early 2010 model, is setting sales records. In fact, Forester sales in the United States are up 32 percent over 2008 levels to more than 43,000 this year through July.
The reason for its appeal? The Forester is a practical, rational purchase in a time of economic uncertainty. Shoppers who want value find the five-door, five-passenger SUV is right-sized -- not too big and not too small.
With only four-cylinder engines available -- with 170- to 224-horsepower -- it gets decent fuel mileage of at least 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway.
It has the lowest starting retail price -- $20,990 with standard all-wheel drive -- of any mainstream crossover SUV equipped with all-wheel drive.
It earned five out of five stars in government frontal and side crash testing, and the Forester is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine.
Factor in that the Forester, which was overhauled as a third-generation model for 2009 and given its arguably best styling ever, offers a nice mix of amenities, and you can see why this people- and cargo-carrying SUV is getting a lot of attention.
The $20,990 price is for a base model with manual transmission. The lowest-priced 2010 Forester with automatic is $22,190.
This compares with $23,155 for a base, 2009 Honda CR-V with all-wheel drive and automatic, and the $23,700 starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a 2009 Toyota RAV4 with all-wheel drive and automatic.
Today's Forester is larger than the wagon-like Foresters of the past. In fact, at some angles, it looks on the outside like a Ford Escape, and it's 1.6 inches longer, from bumper to bumper, than the CR-V.
Three adults in the back seat sit close to each other, but they have rear-seat legroom of 38 inches, which is better than what's in the Tucson. It's also enough to allow me to extend my legs comfortably in the back seat, even with front seats pushed back on their tracks.
Cargo space of 30.8 cubic feet is more than the 22.7 cubic feet in the Tucson and the 28.9 cubic feet in the CR-V. And since the cargo floor isn't as high off the ground as it is in some other SUVs, it's relatively comfortable to load items inside.
While the Forester is practical -- with excellent seating positions above the pavement for good views out, fold-down rear seatbacks and a wide rear cargo opening — it's not dowdy.
The new styling, plus the 17-inch alloy wheels on the test model -- gives the vehicle a robust look, and the mostly quiet interior and accommodating seats made the test Forester a welcoming traveler.
The tester was the top-of-the-line XT Limited, so it had the top, 2.5-liter, double overhead cam four-cylinder engine that was turbocharged and intercooled to produce 224 horsepower and 226 foot-pounds of torque at a low 2,800 rpm.
Managed by a four-speed automatic, the power came on smoothly without a noticeable lag or uncontrolled jolt of "oomph." The Forester moved without fuss into and through traffic, and there was a sense that this was a capable, easy driving vehicle.
I did hear the engine at idle at stop lights, but the sound was confident. Even during acceleration, there was little loud buzziness from the engine.
I was surprised to see only an automatic with four speeds in the Forester. Many vehicles today are using five- and six-speed automatics to better manage fuel economy. But the Forester's shift points were well-set to deliver good performance.
I loved the oh-so-large panoramic moonroof that was standard on the XT Limited, because it brought in so much more sunlight than lesser moonroofs. I also appreciated that the metal pillars around the windshield weren't as bulky as in other SUVs, and the air conditioner worked fast in 90-degree temperatures.
I just wished the power windows, at least the one for the driver's window, included one-touch power up function. As it is, in the tester with a nearly $30,000 price tag, I had to hold the button until the window was completely closed.
I also wondered why such a pricey vehicle didn't include height adjustment for the front passenger seat and accessory power, which would allow for the windows and radio to be operated for a short while after the Forester is turned off.
The plastic on the dashboard and doors is hard but has a pleasant-looking texture. Even the matte gray-colored trim accents in the test Forester were plastic, though they didn't look like it.
There was a lot of body lean, even at slower speeds, as I drove through curves and corners. But the suspension soaked up most road bumps and kept roughness away from passengers.
The standard floor mats had a muted striated look and were easy to brush off. But the mats in the back seat were so small they didn't cover the entire foot space.