SUBARU probably has as much all-wheel drive expertise as any other mainstream motor manufacturer you can name. Not only that, the Japanese company has considerable knowledge of turbocharging, so when the two technologies are combined, we should expect something that has been thoroughly engineered. The Impreza saloon is the stuff of legend, but in this country the rally-bred machine is not the company’s clear sales leader. It shares the honour with the Forester, Subaru’s compact SUV that impresses all who drive it, yet has somehow failed to capture the imagination of the mass public. The reason may just be the lack of a long established rugged off-road image to which people can aspire – even if only in their minds. Now, though, we have a facelifted Forester to better challenge that preconception.

From the whole new 10-model Forester range, we have on test the range-topping XT Premium turbo with a manual ’box, which ranks it as the hooligan of the pack. Why? Well, it can out-sprint many a hot hatch, but does so without sacrificing any of its more practical attributes such as carrying up to five people and their luggage in comfort, or acting as a powerful tow vehicle.

Outside, the freshening starts with a new grille with more slats topping a revised bumper that extends 35 mm further forward than before. The headlamps are slimmer (with xenon lamps and a washer system on all turbo models), and smaller foglights have been integrated into the bumper apron. Exterior mirrors incorporate indicator lights, and the driver’s mirror can now be specified with wide-angle glass in place of the standard – and blind spot creating – flat glass. Tail-lights are shaped as before, but with different lamp styling behind the clear lenses. The tailgate window is bigger, with its base now lining up with that of the side glass – the doors have Subaru’s usual frameless windows. Changes have been made to the rear bumper, too.

Inside, Premium spec means leather rather than cloth upholstery, and a huge sliding sunroof. Redesigned front seats – the cushions are 50 mm longer – eschew the inboard armrests of old in favour of a multi-function floor console: at its base is a storage compartment housing a 12V power socket, topped by a lid/tray. On top of this lies an armrest that can be slid forward by 60 mm, or alternatively flipped backwards 180 degrees to offer rear passengers a dual drinkholder in addition to the dual one that pops out of the base of the console… There is another dual holder alongside the handbrake for front passengers, plus a single pop-out in the facia’s hangdown section. A bit of an overkill, perhaps?

Mr Designer has been a little more practical in the luggage bay, though. Not only are there useful bag hooks, but each sidewall boasts a small towel rail-like hanger that accepts standard karabiners and spring clips to secure heavier objects, or allow fitment of a luggage hammock. Sensibly, the hooks and rails are below the level of the soft, retractable, removable cargo cover that protects the 344 dm3 boot area. The loading height is 690 mm, and the tailgate rises to 1 850 mm. With the split back seats folded forward, there is 1 264 dm3 of utility space. The full-size alloy spare wheel lies beneath the boot board. A 12V power socket is located in the right-hand sidewall.

The Forester’s cabin has reasonable levels of shoulder-, head-, and legroom up front, and the Premium’s giant sunroof helps create an exceptionally airy environment. Oddments stowage spaces include a non-locking facia cubby, a facia-top lidded cubby (that shields a digital clock), net pockets in both front doors, a map pocket behind the front passenger seat, two spectacles holders in the windscreen header console, and a driver’s visor that holds tickets, cards and a pen.

Creature comforts are catered for with such items as climate control with pollen filter, custom seven-speaker radio/6-CD front loader with satellite controls on the wheel, electric mirrors, and power windows with one touch up/down for the driver. Other driver specific items include remote central locking with buttons on the key, seat cushion height adjustment, a sporty Momo three-spoke heightadjustable steering wheel, flick/ variable intermittent/two-speed screenwipers, fixed intermittent/ continuous speed tailgate wiper, cruise control, a total-and-two-trip odometer, floor mounted fuel flap release, and a left-foot rest. Instruments have clear white on black graphics with red pointers and variable backlighting.

All seats have height adjustable active head restraints and threepoint harnesses (with height adjustment on the outer seats), child seat mountings are provided for all rear seat positions, and front and side airbags are fitted.

So, the features list is looking good, but how about the mechanicals? Subaru’s now familiar “big” flat-four has received some improvements, and the turbo version we have here has been tweaked to give 169 kW (up from 155) at 5 600 r/min, with maximum torque remaining at 320 N.m at 3 600. Changes made include revised piston and cylinder head designs, a slight increase in compression ratio to 8,4:1, driveby- wire throttle action, and the lightening of some components. The transmission features a lighter, push-type clutch in place of the previous pull-type, and there is a “hill holder” automatic handbrake.

The all-wheel drive system has been refined, and the electronic control system now monitors each wheel rather than each axle, and control now takes place in real time instead of via a matrix of preset values in the ECU. Minor suspension changes include a new rear bush pick-up point for the front lower control arm, a reinforced rear cross-member, and revised spring and damper rates. Five-spoke 17-inch alloys are fitted, shod with 215/55 tyres.

What we have as a result is a compact wagon that will sprint from 0-100 km/h in 6,65 seconds, complete a standing-start kilometre in 27,25 seconds at 186,4 km/h, and easily reach a limited 205 km/h top speed. Yet the XT is far from peaky. Providing you are sensible in not trying to lug the engine from walking speeds – the slick action gearshift is a delight – the Forester responds with an appreciable urgency, and journeys can be accomplished rapidly and without fuss. From around 2 500 r/min, the XT delivers impressive whoosh.

Ride quality is really good. The damping is ideally suited to our roads, and only the worst jolts can be felt. Steering is comfortably weighted at three turns lock to lock, and there is reasonable feed-back. What disappointed us a little, though, was the amount of characteristic 4wd understeer the Forester exhibited. While being no worse than other similar vehicles, we would have thought the XT’s responses would have been sharpened up somewhat in keeping with its performance potential. The admittedly fail-safe understeer sets in fairly early and increases steadily the deeper you go into a corner, but it imposes a limit on press on driving enjoyment. Incidentally, the rear suspension is self-levelling to compensate for any loads being carried. In our 10- stops-from-100 km/h test routine, the all-disc ABS brakes, with EBD, achieved a 3,29-second average.

Test summary
A steady stream of improvements has turned the Forester into an attractive lifestyle vehicle that sells in small but consistent numbers into a market that is not short of competitors. Except that, with its turbocharged models, Subaru has a niche practically all to itself. But the XT is not aimed solely at performance junkies: the relaxed but strong delivery of power and torque make it a capable hauler, too. Now that the Forester has a bit more style, its appeal may grow and infiltrate the established “name” models in the world of soft-roaders, of which none offers a sprinter to match the sporty XT.