The new Subaru Forester offers an alternative for people wanting a spacious car with genuine all-weather traction, and the Boxer Diesel engine is capable of impressive real-life miles per gallon if driven carefully.
Subaru is still associated with the World Rally Championship-winning Impreza, but it’s the company’s SUVs that have made up the model range in the UK over recent years. The Forester started life as an estate, and has gradually grown over successive generations into a Land Rover Freelander-size 4×4. So is this latest generation model a significant leap forward?
The basis of Subaru’s SUV blueprint is a symmetrical all-wheel drive system mated to a Boxer engine. Initially the Boxer engine was only available in petrol from, but the Boxer Diesel was introduced in 2008. This combined the low centre of gravity of the Boxer engine with excellent economy. When the Outback Diesel was launched in 2008 it was the most economical 4×4 you could buy, not that anyone knew – motoring media included. The new Forester inherits the latest version of this powertrain, which is capable and well proven.
The first and second generations of the Forester were essentially estates with all-wheel drive and raised ground clearance. The third generation model grew substantially in size to compete with the likes of the Land Rover Freelander and Toyota RAV4. This fourth generation model has grown again, only slightly on the outside, but, helped by its large glass area, it feels much larger on the inside, and it has a large boot. This is good for people who want lots of space, especially headroom. The problem with this is that from the outside, the latest Forester looks like it has a large body, with lots of glass, on relatively small wheels – which goes against the trends in the sector as demonstrated by the Range Rover Evoque, in other words large wheels, rakish body, and narrow glass area. Subaru may point out that not everyone wants a car that looks like the Range Rover, but you can’t argue with the success of the Evoque.
Just as critical is the interior design. Vehicles like the Evoque or Audi Q3 have beautifully crafted interiors, carefully designed with high quality materials, whereas the Forester, despite having better materials than on the previous model, is still behind in the area of interior aesthetics and technology.
The first two generations of Foresters, with an Impreza base and estate rather than SUV bodies, were excellent fun to drive. The third generation grew larger and lost some of its agility. The latest model has grown again, and although by a relatively smaller margin, it seems to have further eroded the car’s agility. Drive the new Forester down a winding A or B road and you can still feel the ‘DNA’ of the boxer engine with its low centre of gravity, but ask it for more severe directional changes and it starts to feel uncomfortable – as though the body is as top heavy as it looks.
One of the main areas where the new Forester does seem to have improved is in its refinement. Motorway cruising is now a quiet and comfortable experience, with a good ride and little intrusion from the outside world. The two-litre Boxer engine is smooth and flexible, however the six-speed manual gearbox isn’t the slickest unit around, and changing from first into second can feel particularly notchy.
Where the Forester generally surprises people is with its off-road ability, and the latest generation doesn’t disappoint. The Forester has 220mm of ground clearance, Subaru’s four-wheel drive system is genuinely very capable in providing traction in poor conditions, and the car is fitted with Yohokama Geolander tyres which offer much more grip in mud and snow than the tyres fitted to most SUVs.
We test all 4x4s off-road and the Forester coped well, but we had one problem – one of the front tyres had a puncture, the result of a stone catching the sidewall at crawling pace. ‘No problem’ we thought, all Subarus have a full size spare wheel. But not this one. Opening the boot floor we were slightly dismayed to find a space-saver spare where we thought we had seen a full-size spare before setting off. We were equipped with all the necessary off-roading equipment including our own heavy-duty jack, and the wheel was successfully changed, but then we had to undertake quite a few miles of very careful off-road driving on a space-saver before we were back on tarmac roads. Out of all the ways to save space and weight, we’re not sure that equipping a car that is supposed to be capable of venturing far into the outdoors with a space-saver spare is a good strategy.
The official fuel economy of the Forester is 49.6mpg, equating to 150g/km CO2. Our average economy over the week with the car was 44.1mpg. This may be short of the official figure, but is excellent compared to most cars that we test, which are on average around 20-25% worse than the official figure.
After 40 miles of driving in the Lake District we achieved 53.4mpg, and over 70 miles from Wales to Cheshire we managed exactly 60.0mpg – in other words, way better than the official quoted figure. This shows that the Boxer Diesel engine is basically very efficient. One significant omission is a stop-start system, which most manufacturers use to lower the emissions for the official NEDC test. Stop-start may make a difference in urban areas, but in the typical places in the countryside where Subarus are bought it doesn’t result in a huge improvement in real life. We believe that the lack of stop-start system is one reason why the Forester’s real-life economy is so close to the official figure.
The model range starts from £24,995 for the 2.0D X. The Forester 2.0D XC, as tested, costs £26,995. Sat nav can be specified for £1000.
The fourth-generation Forester signals the return of the turbo petrol Boxer engine, mated to a Lineartronic CVT transmission. We sampled this 240PS model on a Subaru off-road course at Lowther Park in the Lake District and it was very impressive. Subaru’s CVT system is much better than CVT systems in, for example, Toyota hybrids, and the car comes with X-Mode, which is effectively a hill descent control system, which we also tested, and which was again very effective (this system isn’t available on the diesel).
There’s also a non-turbo petrol engine, which we tested in the previous generation model, which doesn’t have the power and torque needed for an SUV of this size.
There are six trim levels. XE and XE Premium is available on the non-turbo petrol model; X, XC and XC Premium on the diesel model; and XT, the highest specification, is standard on 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol version.
OK, here it comes, cards on the table time. I personally owned a Subaru Forester Turbo for five years – a 2003 model which was essentially an Impreza drivetrain with a jacked-up estate body on top. It was great fun to drive and had excellent capability off road and in the snow. The Forester provided 115,000 miles of completely trouble-free motoring.
When the Outback Diesel was launched it was an obvious purchase after the Forester in the interest of much improved fuel economy. The Outback provided 60,000 miles of faultless running, once towing a Land Rover Defender up an icy hill. It averaged 43.5mpg over four years, and would regularly match its official 48.7mpg on long runs.
So having driven 175,000 miles in Subarus for nine out of the last ten years, with no reliability problems, outstanding capability in snow and ice, and excellent real-life miles per gallon in the case of the Outback, there is an appreciation of the effective engineering that goes into the brand’s cars. However today robust engineering is not enough to sell cars.
The Range Rover Evoque is the perfect example of what needs to be done to sell cars in this sector – like the Forester, the Evoque also has excellent off-road capability but, crucially, with its concept car looks, it also has modern and eye-catching styling, inside and out. Because visual appearance is so important when people buy a car, if Subaru wants to sell more cars in the UK it needs to make a genuine leap forward with the styling of its cars, to get people to take notice of the brand. The new Forester is a competent overall package but there are many competent 4x4s out there. The latest generation model is spacious, has refined on-road manners, good off-road capability and impressive real-life economy, but it doesn’t represent a sufficient leap forward in the key areas in which it needs to in order to keep up with the competition; it scores a Green Car Guide rating of 7 out of 10.