ORIGINALLY launched in South Africa during 1998, Subaru’s Forester has carefully evolved into an unexpected class leader. The previous model’s combination of car-like dynamics, ruggedness, reliability, quality and comfort made it a strong contender for a sixth consecutive
Best Compact SUV award in CAR’s 2008 Best Buys, notwithstanding its replacement’s imminent arrival. But time has moved on and market trends have shifted, requiring Subaru to dig deep with this new model.
The previous Forester’s station wagon-esque styling and lack of obvious SUV masculinity were problems for some image-conscious buyers. As a result, new Forester is a rather different kettle of fish altogether. Now sporting a much more imposing look and standing 1,7-metres (110 mm higher than before) tall, Subaru’s latest also boasts an even higher ground clearance – at around 225 mm, it sits even higher off the ground than a vehicle such as Jeep’s new Cherokee and equals Land Rover’s Freelander.
After the debacle of the Impreza’s redesign, Subaru has understandably taken a more conservative approach with Forester, and the result has been generally well received by most of CAR’s staffers. We particularly like the bold wheelarches.
One of the main gripes with the outgoing model was its lack of rear occupant space. The new model is 75 mm longer than before, and the wheelbase has been stretched by a significant 90 mm.
Interior width is also up, by 45 mm, to 1 780 mm. Subaru says the distance between the front and rear row occupants has grown by 95 mm. Certainly, seated in the back one immediately can appreciate the improvement. Our rear kneeroom measurement (243 mm), is amongst the best in this class.
All new Foresters also feature reclining rear seats.
The extra rear space has not been achieved at the cost of luggage capacity. New Forester boasts a 336 dm3 boot, expandable to a class-leading 1 392 dm3 of utility space with the rear seats folded down. A full-size spare wheel is located under the boot board.
Moving to the front of the cabin one immediately recognises the Impreza-sourced facia. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the positive side, the design is modern, with flowing lines that lend a calm atmosphere. But, sadly, we do not rate the plastics very highly. At first glance the facia appears to be constructed from a soft-touch material, but knock on it and you’ll find that, in reality, it is rock-hard and shows scuff marks quickly. Oddly, one can wipe off most marks again, this particular type of plastic appearing to have some sort of a powdery coating. This XS model is the only one in the line-up to feature “wood” trim, but the trees of the world would be offended if you called it that…
Ergonomically, however, there is little reason to complain.
The steering wheel (with remote audio controls) is adjustable for rake and reach, and the seat also boasts manual height adjustment. Oddly, we noted that the steering wheel is mounted skew, but this did not influence driver comfort for most. What did pose a slight problem was the driver’s seat that can’t be adjusted high enough for some drivers’ liking but almost drops to the floor.
The instrumentation is typically Subaru – doing a swish on start-up – and features blue background detailing to lend a sporty touch. A useful addition on new Forester is a trip display featuring ambient temperature, time and average fuel consumption read-outs. A soft blue cascade light illuminates the centre console at night. XS models boast a comprehensive standard features list (see sidebox) that includes a six-disc CD sound system with auxiliary input for portable music players, as well as cruise control.
Subaru’s proven 2,5-litre boxer engine line-up again won its class in this year’s Engine of the Year awards, so there clearly was no need for dramatic revision in this regard. That said, Subaru does claim small improvements across the board. The XS model tested here is powered by a normally- aspirated version, now delivering 126 kW (up from 121 kW) at 6 000 r/min, and 229 N.m (up from 226 N.m) of torque at 4 400.
The major improvement isn’t shown by these figures, however. As a result of the introduction of AVLS (Active Valve Lift System), low- and mid-range torque are claimed to have been improved, as well as fuel consumption.
The improvement in torque delivery is immediately noticeable.
The engine is mated with a five-speed manual gearbox, driving all four wheels via Subaru’s trademark symmetrical all-wheel drive system. Essentially the same ‘box as before, it now requires less effort to shift because of lower pre-loading.
Other internal changes have reduced friction. Because Subaru has fitted all new Foresters with a stability control system (including traction control), it has decided that the limited slip rear differential fitted previously is no longer required. Manual, non-turbo Foresters still boast a low-range ratio, however, which boosts the vehicle’s ability to do crawling offroad work.
Forester’s body-in-white weight has been cut by 30 kg, but its extra size still translates into a slightly heavier vehicle overall. Subaru has tried hard to give the vehicle class-leading NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels, even going as far as getting rid of that lovable old Scooby quirk – frameless side windows – in the quest for better rigidity. It also rides on a suspension largely derived from the new Impreza, including the all-new sub-frame-mounted multi-link rear set-up, with self-levelling.
On the road, Forester is a superbly comfortable vehicle boasting impressive ride refinement and a very quiet cabin. The increase in height, however, does mean it lacks the agile car-like feel of its predecessor, but this appears to be the way the market wants it. It remains a fun vehicle to drive, though, with a crisp gearshift, a willing engine that appears to have regained some of its “blatty” sound quality, and generally good body control. One criticism, however, is that it appears to be flummoxed by mid-corner bumps or transverse ridges, which result in too much bobbing and weaving.
In terms of performance, new Forester is pretty much on par with the outgoing model, which is no bad thing seeing as this puts it in a near classbest position. We achieved a zero to 100 km/h time of 10,35 seconds, and a 191 km/h top speed. The braking times have been significantly improved – although the front ventilated discs are slightly smaller, the solid rear discs are bigger. We achieved an average 100 km/h to zero stopping time of 3,03 seconds, earning the Forester 2,5 XS our “good” rating.
One of the previous model’s greatest talents was its gravel road ability. With the new model this has been improved, further entrenching the Forester’s enviable reputation as a compact SUV that one can actually venture into the rough with. With the improved ground clearance, better approach and departure angles and, of course, that low-range facility, the Forester XS may not be a “boulder hopper”, but it is nevertheless very capable of traversing rough terrain.