My friend Ralph used to be the ice cream maker at a famous North Shore candy house and ice cream parlor.

Every time I'd tell him about a new favorite dairy bar - for example, the one on the UConn campus in Storrs, Conn. - he'd ignore my ravings about the Jonathan Supreme and Husky Tracks.

"Tell me about the vanilla," he'd say.

"The vanilla? They've got all these great flavors."

"I always try the vanilla first," was his answer. "That's the most important and the hardest to get right."

Those words often come back to me.

We were looking at this week's test car - a 2009 Subaru Forester. It's the base X model equipped with the premium and all-weather packages. Those bumped the $19,995 base price to $24,590.

That's well-equipped, though you can opt for more, starting with the entire XT line which adds a turbocharger, boosting the basic 4-cylinder boxer engine's horsepower from 170 to 224. Ours had Subaru's tried-and-true four-speed automatic, a bit of an anachronism when others are going to five- and six-speed units but one that's been a workhorse. A five-speed may have improved fuel economy, though that's traditionally been a weak point of the boxer engine and AWD system.

It's rated at 20 miles per gallon city and 26 highway. The on-board computer, which included previous drivers' information, read that it'd been averaging 24.5.

Still, Mrs. G said, "It's really comfortable, but it looks bland."

"Vanilla?" I asked.


"Well, you know what Ralph always said about vanilla."

New Englanders always have embraced the all-wheel-drive Subarus. We've all heard the jokes about the Subaru being the State Car of Vermont.

The new version is longer and higher than its predecessors (aren't all new models?). The goal was aimed at going more SUV mainstream. It appears that was a good move, especially given the downturn for large SUV sales and the all-around capability of the Subaru from the full-time AWD and carrying ability. In addition, sales people could note the increased ground clearance - up to 8.7 inches.

Early returns indicate that's happening. March Forester sales were up 47 percent over 2008 and first-quarter sales are up 80 percent over the same period a year ago.

Subaru's niche, to me, remains more "raised wagon" than full SUV. That gives drivers a raised seating position, something I've never heard anyone complain about. The seats were comfortable on longer stretches but maintain one of Subaru's quirky characteristics: an odd pattern in the cloth fabric. A positive was that Subaru offers a heated option with the cloth seats, not forcing you to opt for leather to have butt warmers.

Ride was middle-of-the-road comfortable, a trade-off for the ground clearance and high driving position. The handling is far from stiff but predictable enough with a reworked double wishbone rear suspension. The added length (three inches) helps with rear legroom and cargo space. The cargo area can be expanded by lowering the 60/40 rear seats.

We found our obligatory auxiliary plug for an MP3 player and also three 12-volt outlets (one in the dash, one in the console, the third in the cargo area) for necessary charging.

All controls were intuitive. Yes. You can sit in the driver's seat for the first time and not have to turn to the salesman or owner's manual to find out "how to."

Overhead, the premium package doesn't merely add a sunroof. Instead, it's a massive (Subaru calls it panoramic) sunroof. Hit the switch and it opens fully -- unless you've left a coffee cup on it, then it somehow stops just before dumping it on the rear seats. (Speaking of coffee cups, the cup holders in the center console were a pair of square boxes that didn't secure my coffee mug.)

During shopping trips, the rear tailgate was easy to lift, opened high enough so a six-footer didn't whack his head, and was easy to close. That's an engineering tripleheader - and another reason why Subaru's vanilla is a "good vanilla."