Over the years the Subaru Forester’s lost some of its eccentric, anti-establishment charm and become increasingly more mainstream.
It’s no longer the original station wagon with a raised ride height; it’s become a full-blown SUV with a rock-straddling 220mm ground clearance and the look-imperiously-over-other-cars driving position that a large contingent of South Africans enjoy.
The new, fourth-generation Forester also has semi-respectable off-roading ability (although it’s still a soft-roader) thanks to an X Mode that changes the throttle, transmission and stability control to more off-road-focused settings and activates a hill descent control.
But is it still a Subaru at heart? Yes, because the heart of the beast is still a flat-four power unit that lies low in the engine bay and lowers the centre of gravity.
This, as all petrolheads know, improves handling feel by reducing the dreaded body roll that afflicts tall vehicles in corners. It also has Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive for good all-weather grip.
Basically, it works. Though this is a Subaru on stilts and it’s obviously no WRX in terms of agility, the Forester feels more or less car-like in its cornering capabilities, without feeling overly soggy. The steering’s very light and could be criticised for having little feel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a family SUV, where easy manoeuvrability overrides any boy-racer aspirations – yes, even in a Subaru.
THE MAIN TRUMP CARD...
Ride quality is the Forester’s main trump card, however. The independent layout with a double wishbone at the rear ensures the big Subaru glides in supreme comfort over dirt roads and imperfect tar.
In the top-of-the-range XT model on test here, the turbocharged engine has been reduced from a 2.5 to a 2-litre unit from the last-generation Forester, with a resultant muzzling of its velocity. The kilowatts have plummeted from 193 to 177, and although torque is slightly improved from 347 to 350Nm you can feel the absence of those horses.
With its claimed 0-100km/h sprint of 7.5 seconds at sea level the Forester XT’s respectably quick if not white-knuckle exciting, and top speed is governed to 210km/h.
The car’s more about low-effort cruiseability than hot hatch-beating acceleration. It excelled at the cruising part when we drove between Joburg and KZN over the recent Easter weekend, and wafted along very comfortably at the speed limit, with a good boost of extra urge when a long truck needed overtaking in a hurry. The XT offers Sports and Sports # modes that give the throttle and transmission more athletic responses, if you’re feeling a bit frisky.
Most of the new Forester range, with the exception of the entry-level 2-litre version, is available only with the Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) – unlike the previous generation, which offered a choice of manuals and autos.
I didn’t like how this transmission felt in the less powerful Forester derivatives, but it didn’t bug me in the more powerful XT. Left in auto mode it felt much like a traditional auto with simulated gear changes, rather than droning along at high rpm with the “slipping clutch” effect that afflicts some CVTs. It felt good enough that I didn’t bother using the F1-style steering wheel paddles to shift gears manually.
Subaru went the CVT route because of the claimed fuel consumption advantage over the dual-clutch automatics that are becoming all the rage. Our Forester test vehicle averaged around 10.6 litres per 100km in a mix of town and freeway driving, which is decent for a large SUV with full-time all-wheel drive, although a lot higher than the 8.5 claimed by the factory.
The new Forester’s styling is rather mainstream and forgettable on the whole, but to bling up its plumage the XT flagship gets items like 18-inch dual-tone alloy wheels, and a sports front bumper with chrome accents.
It has huge passenger space and a raft of luxuries including cruise control, a reversing camera, automatic lights and wipers, keyless entry with push-button starting, electrically powered leather seats and climate control, although rear occupants don’t get their own air vents.
The boot’s a little small for a station wagon at 488 litres, but the kickback is that you get a full-sized 18” spare wheel, not one of those dreaded space-saver Marie biscuits. With the seats folded there’s a sizeable 1 557 litres of cargo space on offer. A powered rear tailgate opens and closes at the press of a button, although it moves very slowly, which somewhat thwarts its convenience.
Subaru has never excelled at interior finishes and the new-generation Forester’s no exception, even though it’s taken a step upmarket from its predecessor.
It still comes across as somewhat plasticky compared to German rivals’ classy cabins, but it does have the all-important leather seats and soft-touch plastics.
Safety’s been improved in the fourth-generation Forester and all derivatives come standard with seven airbags (including a driver’s knee airbag), ABS brakes, stability control, and an LSD (Limited Slip Device).
Selling for R529 000, which includes a three-year/100 000km warranty and three-year/75 000km maintenance plan, the flagship Forester XT marries good road manners with decent punch and the ability to play in the rough sometimes. It’s an appealing vehicle for families with an adventurous nature. -Star Motoring