If I was looking at buying a practical and capable compact SUV, the 2011 Subaru Forester would be my first choice.
Since its introduction in 1997, the Subaru Forester has gone on to become one of the most trustworthy and reputable cars on sale today. The 2011 model year Forester is armed with an all-new naturally-aspirated engine with more torque and better acceleration.
The Subaru Forester is the sort of car you buy because you know it will do everything it claims without question. Subaru has built a great deal of its brand reputation on the Forester alone, so it should come as no surprise that it's the Japanese company's best selling model. More importantly though, it's also consistently the best selling compact SUV in Australia.
Last year saw Subaru sell 14,644 Foresters, beating all other 22 contenders to become the best selling compact SUV. Of course, we all know that just because a car is the most popular of its kind doesn't necessarily mean it's the best (Toyota Camry being the case in point). However, in the case of the Subaru Forester, it's the most appealing to the majority of buyers for all the right reasons.
Don't get me wrong, the Forester doesn't dominate the Compact SUV market. The Toyota Rav4 lost to the Forester by only 47 units last year, so the competition is absolutely fierce. So fierce in fact that the Compact SUV segment is now home to 25 contenders from Japan, America, Europe, Korea and even China.
So what makes the Subaru Forester so great? It's arguably not the best looking car in the segment, so it's not relying on its looks. It's also not the best off-road vehicle in its segment (that either goes to the Nissan X-Trail or Suzuki Grand Vitara) and it's in no way the cheapest (the Chery J11 starts from $19,990).
To give you a short answer to that question, think of the Subaru Forester as the beloved family pet. She may not be the absolute prettiest or the brightest of all her peers but she comes from a very good breeder and scores high across the range, making her a favourite all around. The Forester, then, is arguably the best all around compact SUV based on its overall performance. Its modern styling is pleasant to look at while not being over the top, and it's packed with Subaru's proven all-wheel drive technology, safety and bulletproof reliability.
The good news is that everything I've said so far has been about the 2010 Forester, which was sporting the older generation 2.5-litre boxer engine based on a design now 21 years old. As part of the updates to the MY11 Forester, the Japanese company has equipped its popular SUV with the third-generation horizontally opposed (FB) 2.5-litre boxer engine that delivers 126kW (at 5800rpm) and 235Nm of torque (at 4100rpm). On paper the difference between new and old is only 6Nm of torque (same power figure), but it's not until you get behind the wheel that you really notice the difference. The new engine has allowed for the 0-100km/h acceleration to go from 10.4 to 9.3 seconds (even though it feels quicker than that) while fuel economy has remained the same at 9.3L/100km for combined city/highway cycle.
Our test car was the 2011 Subaru Forester X manual, the very base model with absolutely no options. With a starting price of $30,990, the no-frills Forester represents a great entry point into the model line-up, which stretches all the way to $50,990 for the S-Edition.
The new engine delivers power and torque right across the rev range from take-off to highway speeds. Although it's no match for the turbocharged 2.5-litre found in the XT and S-Edition (which, interestingly, are still using the previous generation engine design), it's actually fun to drive. I was initially fooled into thinking I was driving a tuned version of the Forester as in-gear acceleration is a lot better than you'd expect from a naturally aspirated 2.5-litre in an SUV that weighs almost 1.5 tonnes.
If you're going for the base model Forester and can convince the missus to drive a manual, it would be best to stick with the five-speed as the four-speed automatic is not only an additional $2,000 but also not the most advanced in its class.
As far as ride and handling goes, there was some talk among the automotive journalists back at the launch of the S-Edition that the base model actually handled just as well. While I wouldn't go that far, it's a testament to the dynamics of the entire range. Like all Subarus, the Forester is sporty at heart. Around Brisbane suburbia the Forester X conquered all the bumps and dreadful roads without hesitation, and on the drive from Brisbane to Warwick the twisty mountain roads of the Cunningham gap proved a breeze for the mighty Subaru. The 2011 models have improved their ride quality thanks to changes in the rear bushes.
The important thing to remember with the Forester is that the whole range is all-wheel drive and there is no cheaper front-wheel drive variant, which is how some of its competitors try and win on price (namely the RAV4). That means even the cheapest Forester is just as capable on- and off-road as the rest of the range. Another point in favour of the Subaru is that it comes with all safety features standard, even the base model. So while you'd have to pay extra for the side and curtain airbags on a base model RAV4 CV, the Forester has them standard.
The main point to take away here is that the Forester is an honest car, it doesn't try to be the cheapest because it doesn't need to. It's not hiding anything in terms of safety or performance, even the very base model is packed with all the must-have features.
Driven back to back with its main rivals there is no denying that the Forester is the more enjoyable car to drive, if you think of driving as more than just getting from A to B (remember, Subaru made its name in the World Rally Championship). I am not saying the RAV4, X-Trail, Kia Sportage and Hyundai ix35 are not good cars for the right buyer, only that the Forester feels more like a driver's car.
The Forester manual also offers a dual-range transfer case as standard (which can at times be mistaken for the handbrake) which allows for better off-roading ability. In reality though, unless you really want to wander out into soft sand or other very soft surfaces, it will probably not get too much use.
The interior of the base model is relatively Spartan. It has hard plastics all around and although that may be an issue for some, it offers comfortable seats both front and rear plus a very easy to use and well organised instrument layout.
Rear seats can comfortably fit two McDonald's-fed adults even for long distance drives or three average sized adults for short to medium journeys.
There is plenty of space in the boot to store the week's shopping or a couple of suit cases for a long trip. With the rear seats folded down you can fit two road bikes (with their front wheels detached) without too much hassle.
My biggest complaint with the Subaru range has always been lack of multimedia support, but with the MY11 range Subaru has certainly addressed that even on the base model. There is now full Bluetooth support across the range, which means any Forester can connect to your phone wirelessly. Better still, if you have a smartphone (e.g. iPhone) the new Foresters can stream your music wirelessly from your iPod application. You simply pair the phone and pick Forester as the output from your iPhone and you'll have your entire music library readily available without a single annoying wire. A feature which should be mandatory on all cars!
The Forester X's four-speaker audio system is not exactly something Mozart would be proud of but it's more than adequate given the entry price point.
One of the other reasons the Forester is so popular is due to its diverse variant range. Although there are only five grades in the Forester, between them they allow for 13 unique variants. The Forester grades are: X, XS, 2.0 Diesel, XT and S-Edition and each model (except S-Edition) is then broken up into manual and automatic. Additionally the XS, 2.0 Diesel and XT are then subsequently offered in premium grade for both manual and auto.
Apart from the change to the naturally aspirated engines, the 2011 Subaru Forester upgrades also include a new grille, different alloy wheels for XS and XT plus all variants except the X now house indicators integrated in the wing mirrors. The interior also gets the already mentioned Bluetooth support and a reversing camera on all variants except the X and Diesel.
The XT continues to use the same EJ turbocharged engine carried over from before while the S-Edition gets the WRX engine from the Impreza for even more go.
Perhaps the best endorsement I could give a car is to actually say, if I was looking at buying a practical and capable compact SUV, the 2011 Subaru Forester would be my first choice. The model range has a variant to suit nearly everyone and its list of standard features, excellent safety and reliability credentials plus a near 15-year track record of solid engineering is the main reason it's the most popular compact SUV on the market today.