DETROIT — When Russell Levine's lease on his 2006 Subaru Forester was coming to an end, his car hunt was quick.

DETROIT — When Russell Levine's lease on his 2006 Subaru Forester was coming to an end, his car hunt was quick.

Levine bought another Forester SUV, his fourth.

Levine, 48, of Huntington Woods, never was tempted to try another brand.

"The data speaks for itself. It's highly rated by independent agencies. The mileage is good," said Levine, an information technology architect who recently started commuting to a new job.

Subaru's message of high safety ratings, fuel economy and resale values is resonating with more drivers, especially the highly educated ones that automakers like to capture.

Last year, Subaru's sales rose 15.4 percent, even as U.S. auto industry sales fell 21 percent — the best performance of any automaker. That helped the Japanese automaker's U.S. market share grow from 1.4 percent to 2.1 percent.

While small, that market-share gain is a huge jump for a niche automotive brand.

Subaru is seen as a quirky company that appeals as much to drivers who need their cars to haul skis as to engineer and professor types looking for a practical vehicle.

"We always like to refer to ourselves as the best-kept secret in the auto industry," said Tom Doll, chief operating officer of Subaru of America.

James Bell, executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book, called Subaru one of the most "well-placed companies" in the industry.

"They seem to be limber enough and flexible enough to find a way to make themselves successful no matter what the rest of the market tends to do," Bell said.

Falling auto sales and the credit crisis that spun Chrysler and General Motors into bankruptcy didn't touch one automaker.

"The stars kind of aligned for us," Doll said.

Since mid-2008 — as U.S. auto sales started to dive — Subaru updated its lineup. It received high marks for safety and praise from Consumer Reports as well as Motor Trend magazine.

Subaru's sales took off with the government's Cash for Clunkers program. The automaker's U.S. sales growth went from just 6 percent before the program to 15 percent by the end of 2009.

Subaru's momentum didn't stop last year. The company's sales are up 33 percent through February. Doll said he expects sales to be even higher in 2010 as Subaru hangs onto its 2 percent market share in the U.S.

George Glassman, owner of Glassman Subaru in Southfield, Mich., said he has seen former Jeep, Saab, Lexus and BMW owners switch to Subarus.

"Subaru today appeals to everyone, whereas years ago it really did have a limited audience," Glassman said.