The fourth generation Subaru Forester might veer towards the mainstream a little more than before but it remains a brilliant all-rounder. The latest version gets suspension tweaks and a smarter look. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Wouldn't it be nice to find a properly capable compact SUV? A car that could walk the walk as well as talking the talk? A car like this one, the improved facelifted version of Subaru's fourth generation Forester. Everything about this design seems to be nicely balanced, from the shape and positioning of its unique 'Boxer' engines to the shape and positioning of its intended clientele. People who want something fashionable, but don't need to make a fashion statement. People who want something tough and rugged, but don't need to tackle the Rubicon Trail. So the smarter styling inside and out will go down as well as the Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system and the X-Mode off road technology. It's all been very carefully thought out.
You buy this car for what it does, not for what it says about you. Talk to almost any Forester owner and they'll tell you of times when they cruised past other similar vehicles that came unstuck when the going got tough. They'll tell you that nothing ever fell off. That nothing ever went wrong. And that nothing would persuade them to buy anything else. Which would be great for Subaru's UK importers if there were a lot of these kinds of people. But there aren't. Since the original launch of this model way back in 1997, it's remained a small niche choice amongst rural buyers who often still think of it as the kind of car it was in its first two generations of life - a kind of rough road estate. That appeal was subtly tweaked in third generation form to create something more Freelander or RAV4-like, an approach further refined by this MK4 model, a car launched here in the Summer of 2012 with more space and technology, plus a wider range of engines. The only real issues with that model centred around the rather low rent interior and the lack of an auto gearbox option for the diesel engine. Both those issues have now been rectified, leaving this a model in search of a wider, if still very discerning, audience. Let's try it.
This improved Forester model features a range of suspension tweaks said to improve ride quality and agility, but the key engineering elements this car's buying proposition has always been founded upon haven't changed. So you still get Subaru's trademark Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive and the low centre of gravity offered by a horizontally-opposed, or 'boxer'-style engine. All those on offer are of 2.0-litres in capacity - and all are very different. Most British buyers will want the 147PS diesel, a willing unit with 350Nm of torque capable of rest to sixty two mph in 10.2s on the way to 118mph. To be frank, it's a better choice than the alternative 150PS petrol unit that, though returning an almost identical set of performance figures, must in reality shift a fully-laden Forester with about 40% less pulling power. Still, if your car's likely to enjoy a slightly easier life, it may just be all you need. At the top of the range, there's a version that aims to broaden the customer base a bit, the pokey 240PS XT petrol turbo, capable of rest to sixty two mph in 7.5s on the way to 137mph. It's available only with the Lineartronic CVT gearbox that's optional on the normally aspirated petrol variant and the standard diesel. And it's this auto transmission that you have to have to get all the technology developed for this car. Built in is an 'X-Mode' system that incorporates hill descent control and adjusts the stability control and throttle responsiveness to give maximum control in slippery conditions. Plus there's the 'Subaru Intelligent Drive' system vehicle dynamics system that enables you to adjust the response of your car to the mood you're in and the road you're on. And off roading? Well, you'll be surprised by just how far you can go across poorly surfaced terrain. For a start, the 220mm ground clearance on offer is far better than most of the competition can offer, complemented by useful approach and departure angles of 25 and 26-degrees.
Design and Build
In its latest form, this Forester has had an exterior and interior refresh. At the front of the car, the hexagonal grille has been updated with a 'wing' motif grille mesh, while the front bumper has been reshaped and now features L-shaped chrome trim adding greater visual volume to the lower part of the front end. The wraparound headlamps - retaining Subaru's signature 'hawk-eye' shape - feature a black base paint finish and there are smarter LED combination lamps at the rear. Inside the cabin, higher quality materials and technologies have been introduced to further modernise the interior. Buyers get higher-resolution TFT displays and fresh cloth and leather upholstery options. These improvements build upon a previous model update that saw the addition of a factory-fit 7-inch touchscreen infotainment and navigation system in all but entry-level models. As before, particular attention has been given to the controls and areas most regularly touched by the driver like the steering wheel, the handbrake and the gearshift. There's still nothing here to give Audi designers any sleepless nights but it's a big step forward for a Forester. Otherwise, things are much as they were, so there's the familiar long, wide design featuring a high bonnet leading into a muscular shoulder line running the length of the vehicle. There's quite a sleek feel too, thanks to a roofline that curves downwards towards the rear into tail lamps positioned to emphasise the body width. Plus this remains the practical AWD estate it always has been, with a 505-litre cargo area out back.
Market and Model
Forester pricing sits in the £27,000 to £31,000 bracket. Unusually, it's the diesel rather than the petrol version that represents the most affordable way into this car, though that's only because the base diesel variant forgoes some of the equipment you'll find on all petrol models. The CVT Lineartronic automatic transmission is a £1,500 option on both petrol and diesel variants and is standard on the XT petrol turbo model. Unlike its competitors, Subaru doesn't offer a 2WD option, so all models get the Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system that's better engineered than almost anything you'll find on the soft roading competition. If, having considered all of this, you conclude that is is a Forester you really want, then whichever of the All-Wheel-Drive 2.0-litre Boxer-engined models you choose - base petrol, diesel or petrol XT turbo - you should find your car to be decently equipped. All models get automatic air conditioning, 17" alloy wheels, roof rails, front foglamps, heated electric mirrors, a four-speaker stereo system with USB and auxiliary audio input jack, Bluetooth 'phone connectivity and Hill Start Assist to stop you from drifting backwards on uphill junctions.
Cost of Ownership
Normally, a more capable car is a more expensive one to run. You'd certainly expect that the permanent Symmetical 4WD system of this Forester would exact more of a fuel and emissions penalty than would be found on most other rivals, cars that trundle around in two wheel drive most of the time, with all-wheel traction only being introduced when needed. Thanks to enhancements like an Active Valve Control System for the exhaust, electric power steering and low rolling resistance tyres, the figures suggest otherwise. Take the 49.6mpg combined cycle fuel figure and 148g/km CO2 reading you'll get from a diesel Forester. It's pretty close to the returns posted by direct rivals like Volkswagen's Tiguan 2.0 TDI 4MOTION, Toyota's RAV4 2.0 D-4D AWD and Honda's CR-V DTEC. Also competitive are the returns posted by petrol Forester models, with the base 150PS version using an Auto Start-Stop system to deliver 40.9mpg on the combined cycle and 160g/km of CO2, whilst for the XT petrol turbo, the figures are 33.2mpg and 197g/km. A useful rotating fuel economy gauge keeps you in touch with how close to your current average consumption figure you're getting. That only leaves insurance groupings - set between groups 23 and 34 - and the peace of mind of a five year / 100,000 mile warranty.
Subaru, you sense, has come full circle, established here as an SUV brand and now uncompromisingly proud of it. The company's earliest models were sold alongside farm machinery and beneath the plush polish you get in today's Forester, a bit of that same rugged appeal still remains, creating in this car a much tougher, more solid-feeling product than you'll find in compact 4x4 competitors. It's certainly a refreshing alternative to the lifestyle legacy of soft-roadingness that has clogged up our cities and school runs with models about as suited to the Serengeti as a celebrity in the jungle. Yet crucially, it's now one you could consider as a realistic alternative to more compromised competitors. This Forester is fashionable without being trendy. And built to last while never feeling utilitarian. In short, it's the kind of car it really ought to be, a vehicle in which four wheel drive is fundamental, rather than simply an optional extra and as a result, one of the best cars in its class to buy if you really plan on using it to its full potential. True, the result may not be as smoothly cultured as less capable rivals, but when conditions worsen, you won't care about that. And you'll probably be glad that you chose one of these.