A TURBOCHARGED, petrol-engined Subaru Forester has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure in the compact SUV market. Powerful, if somewhat thirsty, it has traditionally provided a neat balance between swift on-road and capable off-road performance. But times are changing, as are clientele demands, when it comes to what is now expected of a compact SUV. The movement has been an upward one in terms of styling and standard specification, while the on-/off-road balance has shifted more towards the former in order to placate customers potentially foregoing a dynamically-minded executive saloon for a compact SUV. Now more sympathetically styled and leaning towards civilised on-road demeanour to a greater degree, can the Forester, in range-topping 2,0 XT guise, strike the right chord in a market packed with capable premium-badged rivals?
While previous iterations of the Forester have proved entertaining enough to pilot on macadam, there’s always been the perception that it’s not quite this car’s favoured environment. In this respect, the new model has noticeably moved the game on.
An aspect of this model that could potentially prove a sticking point with those looking at this particular model is the application of a CVT transmission. Traditionally, the vagaries of this particular breed of transmission have resulted in a battle between itself and the engine with which it is coupled. Fortunately, the turbocharged 2,0-litre boxer engine at the heart of this model manages to overcome such transmission-related foibles thanks to healthy outputs of 177 kW and 350 N.m of torque. There’s plenty of mid-range punch, that pleasing flat-four burble is still evident and it also renders the Forester fairly fleet of foot, propelling the 1,6-tonne SUV from 0-to-100 km/h in 8,04 seconds. It’s somewhat short of the manufacturer’s 7,5-second claim but certainly not plodding.
In this application, the CVT is actually a plus, lending the powertrain the requisite smooth-ness of operation now expected of premium-positioned compact SUVs. You can manipulate the CVT transmission’s up or down steps via the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, but in this respect it still plays second fiddle to the snappy responsive-ness of a dual-clutch setup.
Dynamically, the new Forester is a pleasantly engaging car to drive. While it still possesses its forbear’s tendency to lean when pitched into corners at speed, the body roll is not disconcerting. And, when tempered with the limpet-like grip served up by the symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, the Forester proves composed when driven with verve. The steering’s satisfying weight and precision further cement this feeling of dynamic competency, as does the SI-Drive system. SI-Drive offers three driver-selectable presets (intelligent, sport and sport-sharp) that adjust the way the accelerator and powertrain respond. This model’s sport-sharp setting also brings two additional transmission steps into play, turning the transmission from a six-step to an eight-step unit. Each of the presets makes a palpable difference to proceedings, progressively sharpening throttle and engine characteristics when the car is driven aggressively.
In everyday driving, the Subaru manages to maintain an impressively resolved on-road demeanour thanks to a pliant ride and the cabin is well insulated from sources of on-road noise. Prioritising on-road ability has seen the Forester dispense with the previous model’s low-range in lieu of an electronically overseen system called X-Mode.
X-Mode co-ordinates engine speed, input from the brakes and traction control while apportioning torque both left to right and fore and aft. On a rocky off-road course, this system allows you to leave the throttle and brake pedals alone and just steer the vehicle over certain obstacles. It’s a setup that will flatter those less confident off the beaten track.
While the Forester possesses a handy 220 mm of ground clearance, short overhangs and enough overall off-road ability to satisfy most folks, the actual approach and departure angles (23 and 25 degrees, respectively) will preclude serious off-roading.
Compared with its somewhat amorphous predecessor, the new Forester is appreciably more pleasing to the eye. Elements such as the ornate xenon headlamps and the sporty front-valance treatment with the chrome foglamp surrounds meld neatly with the car’s chunky proportions and purposeful stance. The (standard-spec) roof rails and 18-inch rims add to the Forester’s kerb appeal and although the rear aspect is pretty similar to that of the previous model, the XT comes equipped with a nice-to-have power tailgate with height setting and keyless entry.
Despite featuring a footprint similar to that of the current model, the new Forester serves up more passenger space. Rear passengers will appreciate an additional 80 mm of legroom, but that comes at the expense of luggage space, which has dropped from the previous model’s 336 and 1 392 dm3 to 288 and 1 240 dm3 of utility space once the backrests have been lowered – an action that can be aided by boot-sited quick-release levers.
The cabin is characterised by a smart black facia with a detailed multicolour display that incorporates a reverse-view camera. The facia trim is of a soft-touch variety, the leather upholstered front seats are electrically adjustable and supportive, and there’s even a double-volume sunroof with tilt and slide function as standard. What’s more impressive, however, is that such features as the six-speaker audio system (with Bluetooth phone-compatibility and a USB input socket), cruise control-enabled multifunction steering wheel, auto air-con and seven airbags are standard throughout the range.
In essence, Subaru has done a good job of moving the Forester further upmarket without excessively diluting the all-round ability that has traditionally lent this model its appeal. The styling has improved markedly, it offers a lot of kit in XT guise and is a capable performer, but its R529 000 price tag places it uncomfortably close to a number of premium-placed rivals with badges that could potentially sway buyers.
There’s also the matter of the Forester’s standard three-year/75 000 km maintenance plan which, despite Subaru’s reputation for reliability, doesn’t compare favourably with the five-year/100 000 km packages that accompany its similarly priced rivals.
Although it’s a hackneyed expression, those who are looking for greater value will find it lower down the well-specced range. Irrepressible Subaru aficionados are, however, unlikely to be swayed by the 2,0 XT’s pricetag, and will rejoice that the flagship model is what the Forester should have been all along.
CAR tests the Subaru Forester 2,0 XT Lineartronic. Performance, convenience good balance of on- and off-road capability is the near-ideal combination for a modern compact SUV...