Johannesburg - Subaru's latest Forester is one of the best-value SUVs on sale in SA when it comes to spec, space and safety credentials. But, as we recently discovered, after spending a week with the range-topping 2.0i-S CVT model, the car isn’t as engaging to drive as previous generations.

Nevertheless, redesigned from the ground up, and built on the company’s new Global Platform, the latest Forester aims to set new standards for the segment.

Thoroughly revised

The width, length and wheelbase of the new Forester have increased compared to its predecessor, but the vehicle’s overall height is 5mm lower than before.

It looks good from any angle, although some might find the rear to be a bit too fussy, with one colleague suggesting that it reminds them of ‘Hyundais’ from the back. (Not sure whether this is a good or bad thing.)

The rear section of the vehicle sports split rear taillamps with a more pronounced C-shape, and black-out cladding at the back now extends higher than before.

At the front, broader LED headlamps join a redesigned grille, new fog lamp surrounds and a new underguard treatment for added protection during off road expeditions. The vehicle’s roof rails have also been redesigned, now featuring loopholes on the premium spec model, for easier securing of ropes when tying cargo onto the top of the car.

18-inch alloy wheels adorned the test car, and overall it exuded a premium feel and presence. In fact, if felt like a much larger vehicle, more planted and sturdy than ever before.

Subjective styling traits aside, the redesign of the Forester means you now get increased interior space and more legroom too.

In the past, when compared to some of its German competitors in particular, the Forester’s interior always seemed to arrive dated upon launch; low-tech and lacking of a premium feel.

That’s all changed in the new model, especially in the range-topping S model. Soft touch materials are placed exactly where they need to be, the switches and stalks have a solid, sturdy feel to them, and the driver’s seat is plush and comfy (ideal for long road trips).

Subaru say a high focus on occupant comfort is emphasised in the new materials used on the door panels and centre console. Matching trim on the air vents and around the gear selector also complement the quality interior with new fabric or leather seats designed for optimal ergonomics, comfort all round and safety. Not bad, considering the price, which we’ll get to a little later.

Technologies aplenty

While the previous generation Forester was awarded 5-star safety ratings from most reputable crash-test agencies across the world, including being rated highest by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for 12 years running, Subaru say the new model is even safer.

The S model, which we had on test, now comes standard with Subaru’s EyeSight driver assist safety system as standard, as fitted to the WRX we tested last week.

But it’s not just about active safety features, as the new Forester’s platform is said to better-disperse energy in the event of a collision, for reduced risk to passengers.

Added to this, the engine and gearbox are designed to be pushed below the vehicle during a frontal collision instead of crashing into the cabin.

The Forester also gets seven airbags: two front airbags, two side airbags, two curtain airbags and one driver’s knee airbag.

Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and a reversing camera system also ensure the vehicle is easy to manoeuvre and to park.

The drive

As usual, the latest Subaru Forester comes as standard with Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. You can access several drive modes via the X-Mode control knob on the centre console, depending on the terrain you’re tackling.

Subaru say the new platform ensures that manoeuvrability is enhanced with less body roll than the outgoing Forester and more direct steering. The steering is certainly sharp, crisp and light in action, but it does feel a little numb in the hands when trying to corner with intent. It’s not a sporty car though, so this isn’t something that should be a deal breaker for buyers.

Active Torque Vectoring assists in cornering, a feature that distributes less torque or brakes individual wheels for more precise handling and better driver control in situations where a loss of control is detected. This technology forms part of Subaru’s Preventative safety technology called Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC).

VDC controls a number of vehicle systems such as braking, torque distribution and engine output to ensure maximum traction and control when driving. The system includes Anti-lock Braking, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Brake Assist and Traction control technologies. All of the above safety features come standard on all new Foresters too.

While the systems work well, there’s just not enough power and torque in reserve to truly explore the systems’ capabilities if you enjoy driving enthusiastically, but know that you have a strong safety net of systems to keep you upright and pointing in the right direction should you need to avoid an incident on the road.

Needs more oomph

The new Forester is a good car to look at and its interior has improved immensely, but the grunt that one needs in a Fozzie, in our opinion, just isn’t there.

There’s this moment where you put your foot flat on the accelerator and the car kicks down, but all you get is increased revs (and drone from the CVT gearbox). Subaru used to make wonderful 2.5-litre naturally-aspirated motors; both torquey and revvy, and they made even better turbo engines for Foresters, but this time around we’re only getting naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre models.

Perhaps at the coast, where you aren’t sapped of power and torque, the vehicle might feel more responsive, but there’s no hiding the fact that you’re lugging around a big car without much grunt in reserve up in Johannesburg where we tested the vehicle.

Verdict

Perhaps we’re a little too harsh when it comes to how the Forester feels to drive, considering its price point and how Subaru is trying to position the model in the market.

This isn’t the Forester XT or S-Drive you remember from back in the day, it’s a refined, upmarket replacement that will give pricier Tiguans and the Honda CR-V something to think about in terms of overall packaging at a competitive price point.

With all the safety tech you’re getting, and the fact that it sips a claimed 7.6l/100km (we averaged closer to 10l/100km though), you could do a lot worse than buying this solid alternative in a very crowded segment.

Priced at R499 900 for the 2.0i-S with CVT box, it also comes with a five-year/150 000km warranty and a three-year/75 000km full maintenance plan which can be extended to five-years/150 000km.

When you head out to test drive one, try to drive it along uphills and downhills and see if you can live with the way it hangs onto the ‘gear’. If you can live with that, then you’ve found an ideal SUV for under R500k.

Drive360