BY STEVE WALKER
Evolution is everywhere in the motor industry with technology advancing and as patterns of customer demand change, cars adapt to stay relevant and desirable. It's usually a gradual process but occasionally a more dramatic leap is called for and in 2008, Subaru thought its Forester needed just such a metamorphosis. The Subaru Forester had always been an unusual proposition but it was closer to a four-wheel-drive estate car than anything else. The third generation model which showed up in April 2008 wasn't. The Forester had unmistakably been transformed into a compact SUV.
Models Covered: 5-door SUV: 2.0 petrol, 2.0D diesel [X, XS, XC, XSn])
Fans of the Forester's mix of no-nonsense ruggedness and turbocharged performance may have been slightly flummoxed by its 2008 incarnation but it gained Subaru admission to the compact 4x4 market sector which was firmly on the up at the time. The previous two Forester generations had been spacious estates with Subaru's all-wheel-drive mechanicals and range-topping versions powered by the turbocharged petrol engines that made Subaru's Impreza the budget performance star it was. There wasn't much else for the price that could give that mix of on-road performance, practicality and off-road ability, so the Forester always had a small but profitable niche in the UK market. The third generation Forester arrived in 2008 and was obviously very different to the cars that had carried the Forester name before it. Here was a taller vehicle with the classic SUV shape and high driving position. It arrived in April 2008 with a 2.0-litre petrol engine but the crucial diesel model showed up in September of that year. Previous Foresters had always been handicapped by their lack of a diesel option and it was obvious that the Forester would need one now that it was a smaller fish in the large and growing compact SUV pond. X and XS trim levels were offered and the Forester continued to campaign on the basis that it was the driver's choice amongst its compact 4x4 rivals. The mid-range XC trim level arrived later and was offered with the diesel engine while XSn is basically the XS with satellite navigation.
What You Get
The very first thing that's apparent when clocking this Forester is that the rising waistline and broader front end have given it more of a generic compact 4x4 stance. In fact it's fully 110mm taller than the second generation model, 45mm wider and has another 90mm grafted into the wheelbase. This significant enlargement increased interior space and practicality. Rear passenger space is very generous and there's a 450-litre boot that can be extended by folding down the 60/40 spilt rear bench. The styling is neat, albeit with a rather bland front end. Perhaps this was deliberate after the mixed response to the B9 Tribeca, Subaru's previous foray into the SUV arena. Interior design has never been a Subaru strongpoint and the Forester was never going to challenge for class honours in this area. The cabin is neat and reasonably well finished with a brushed aluminium-look centre console and a big driver information system near the top of the dashboard. The materials used aren't on a par with the best compact SUVs, however. Apart from the expected symmetrical all-wheel drive system, all versions get Subaru Vehicle Dynamics Control, self-levelling rear suspension, fuel-saving electric power steering and 16" alloy wheels. You can also expect to find all-round electric windows, 60/40-split rear seats with reclining back-rests, climate-control air-conditioning, a decent CD stereo, front fog lamps, a vehicle information display, a leather-covered height and reach-adjustment steering wheel, heated front seats, mirrors and windscreen wipers plus cruise-control. In the XC, you get bigger alloys, a better stereo and a full-length sunroof, while the pricey XSn adds leather seats and satellite navigation. For the price, all Foresters were very well equipped.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
One of the main attractions of the Subaru Forester has always been its reliability and despite the extra bells and whistles, little changed with this third generation car. Unusually for a compact 4x4, it's very accomplished off-road and that will have attracted buyers with that kind of usage in mind. It's therefore wise to look out for damaged alloy wheels and scrapes to the underside of the vehicle which might indicate heavy off-road use.
(Based on a 2008 2.0-litre XS approx.) Subaru parts have a deserved reputation for being expensive. A clutch assembly is around £250. Front brake pads are around £100, and a new alternator is over £450 new. A headlamp is £250 while a cam belt is just over £100.
On the Road
Previous Foresters offered powerful engines and engaging on-road handling but this model takes a rather different approach. It rides far better (thanks to a sophisticated multi-link, double wishbone rear suspension that's compact enough to increase luggage space) and rolls a bit less in corners but some of the fun factor has gone. There's a clever fuel-saving electric power steering system, a rear anti-roll bar for better stability on the road but the engines in this Forester can't spirit it along with the same verve as the best units in the older cars and don't ask as much of the sophisticated 4x4 system. The experience on the road is altogether more subdued but that may well have been what Subaru was looking for to help it compete with other compact SUVs. All Forester models feature four-wheel drive but the automatic and manual versions have different systems. The manual cars come with a more conventional centre differential system with a viscous limited slip differential whereas the automatic models get an Active Torque Split AWD system. VDC stability control is standard on all models, coordinating the engine, transmission and brakes in order to recover the vehicle's position should extreme manoeuvres or slippery conditions push the Forester into a skid. There are very few compact 4x4s that will out-perform this Forester off-road. Entry-level Forester customers get a 150bhp version of Subaru's 2.0-litre 'boxer' petrol engine but the 145bhp 2.0-litre diesel is a superior option. By going for less dramatic performance than previous Foresters, Subaru kept running costs down in this model. The Forester 2.0D was amongst the best around when it comes to emissions with a 170g/km figure and fuel economy of 45mpg is a similarly strong showing. The petrol engine manages 33.6 mpg with a CO2 emissions rating of 198g/km.
The third incarnation of Subaru's Forester turned out to be a very different car to the ones that came before. Out went the estate car shape and the fiery turbocharged performance: in came a conventional SUV body and economical diesel power. Less exciting on the road but more practical and with even greater capability in the rough, this Forester is a strong product. It competed for sales directly against the big name compact 4x4s and is a relatively rare sight on the used market as a result. If you're after a roomy, off-road capable 4x4 and you can find one of these, it's an unusual but appealing choice.