It might be a little late to the party, but Subaru has added a diesel/CVT combination to the popular Forester range.
Given the boxer diesel engine came to light in 2010, claiming the auto is a little late to the party might be somewhat kind. But Subaru had made some other worthy changes to the range at the same time, and introduced some welcome price cuts.
Always a favourite for its tough as nails reliability and longevity, the outgoing Forester was criticised for its multimedia system as well. With this facelifted release and in the face of improved competition, Subaru has addressed those concerns.
Read our 2015 Subaru Forester pricing and specification breakdown here.
“200,000 Forester sales after we first launched the model into Australia, we get to a diesel automatic option,” said Subaru managing director Nick Senior. “Our original ad campaign claimed the Forester was perfect for dirty weekends and we still believe that. It’s the ideal vehicle for the weekly grind, but then it transforms into the perfect weekend recreational vehicle.”
Senior is on the money if you look at the number of dust covered Foresters getting around town sporting bike racks, roof pods, tow bars and the like. Vehicles that need to successfully exist within this kind of double life need to be comfortable, efficient, versatile and user-friendly. Its these factors that Subaru has concentrated on to further take the fight to competitors such as the Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5, Kia Sportage and Ford Kuga.
Minor tweaks such as the shark fin antenna, daytime running lights and light design changes aside, the exterior remains very much familiar. One thing Subaru has never done with Forester is chase styling and design fashion trends. Senior told CarAdvice that all-wheel-drive remains a prime buying decision for most Subaru buyers and it seems that the rush to front-drive by other manufacturers won’t be mimicked by Subaru anytime soon.
The company has ruled out a FWD XV and you can assume the same is true for Forester. All Foresters also get a full-size spare wheel, an inclusion that strengthens the Subaru’s cause if you want to head anywhere off the beaten track. I wouldn't be heading too far out of the city confines in Australia without a full-size spare.
It’s under the skin and inside the cabin where the main changes have taken place. At launch, we got to sample the diesel CVT combination in both high grade (2.0D-S starting from $41,490 plus ORCs) and low grade (2.0D-L starting at $35,490 plus ORCs) trim levels.
There’s no doubt the Japanese brand needed a diesel automatic in this segment especially given the petrol engines' comparative thirst for fuel. With many sales going the way of the oiler, albeit not as many in this segment as in the larger SUV market, and just about everyone wanting an auto, Subaru's new ability to compete for market share there will be welcomed.
“Diesel automatic is a big share of the SUV market and its something we completely missed out on previously,” Senior agreed. Now the company can compete on a level playing field, and the good news is the overall package is impressively refined - regardless of trim grade.
The CVT gearbox is matched well to the diesel boxer engine, the only horizontally opposed diesel offered anywhere in the world. Where CVTs can feel a little buzzy and urgent working with a small capacity petrol engine, the opposite is true in this instance with the diesel.
The Forester accelerates swiftly and keeps gaining speed smoothly up to highway speeds without any nasty intrusion into the cabin from the transmission. It still kills outright driving enjoyment if you ultimately enjoy a sporty drive, but for the daily grind and the way it works with this engine, its hard to criticise and is among the best CVTs on offer. The theoretical 'stepping' within the gearbox does give back some of the feel of a conventional automatic too.
The new high-torque CVT has helped to improve both engine and environmental performance. Thinsulate sound-absorbing material has been added to reduce chain noise and reduce general operational noise on the road. An improved oil cooler reduces engine running temperatures and helps the engine meet strict Euro VI emissions regulations.
At throttle openings below 65 percent, the CVT operates differently than when throttle openings exceed 65 percent, which results in a smoother, calmer drive at low speed around town. When you mash the throttle pedal, the change in theoretical shift points (there's that stepping again) makes the whole experience feel sportier and more urgent. It’s a good compromise.
Sound-absorbing material has been added to the engine as well to reduce noise generation. A new bonnet insulator ensures as little of that noise as possible escapes the engine compartment. The end result is impressive. At start-up and idle, passersby wouldn’t even pick it as a diesel and under acceleration, there’s almost none of that harsh diesel chatter we’re used to.
Figures of 108kW and 350Nm were sufficient keep the Forester punting along Tasmanian backroads at 100-110km/h with ease. The claimed ADR fuel figure of 6.4L/100km is impressive, though we saw figures of between 9 and 10L/100km on our launch drive, one with some occasionally heavy use of the throttle.
Out on the open road with plenty of high-speed dirt and gravel sections, the Forester comes into its own. It cruises along quietly, with impressive refinement from behind the wheel no matter how nasty the road surface. On bumpier dirt roads, the Forester feels solid, and its suspension tune is a strong mid point between handling prowess and ride comfort. Its competition might handle marginally sharper in outright terms, but we’re not on racetracks every day either.
The AWD system engenders its usual level of confidence at speed, especially on dirt, although the ESC did tend to cut in harshly and often on slippery surfaces. It can be annoying and it's something we didn’t appreciate, but it will be reassuring for drivers not wanting things to get too loose on slippery surfaces. On tarmac at speed, it didn’t cut in once, such is the sure-footed nature of the AWD system. There’s no nasty feedback through the wheel either even over harsh surfaces and overall, the Forester feels solid. Even washouts and larger ruts couldn’t disturb the composure.
The steering is light enough at low speed around town, but firm enough at speed to encourage a punt on some twisty roads. If you spend any time out of the city confines, on fire trails and in national parks, the historical strong points of the Forester’s pedigree remain with this facelifted model. A theoretical touring rage up near 1000km thanks to the efficiency of the diesel engine strengthens the family touring credentials.
There’s more to the facelifted Forester story than simply an automatic gearbox behind the diesel engine though. In the cabin, the Japanese company has lifted the quality of the interior, improved the ageing infotainment system and enhanced general cabin ambience with higher quality materials.
The top-spec variant with leather trim is especially impressive, while the base spec we also drove looks tough as nails but certainly doesn’t feel premium. Then again, if you’ve got young children and the interior might take a hammering, the base variant looks like it can withstand some punishment. Visibility remains a Forester strong point on or off-road. A tall glasshouse plays an integral part in this.
A luxury feel in the cabin has become a serious buying decision, with a raft of competitors delivering a premium cabin in a segment that used to be focused on utilitarian toughness alone. The Forester’s HVAC vents and surrounds have been redesigned and certainly look more premium, although we’re still not sold on the swaths of stylised aluminium-look trim.
The centre console mounted switchgear is more attractive than it was though, and it’s easy to decipher without feeling like you’re drowning in a sea of buttons and controls. Overall, the segment-leading (in terms of interior) vehicles are still a step ahead if you value that factor.
I paired my phone to the Bluetooth system and it was quick and easy. The connection was reliable too with a short phone call delivering clarity at both ends of the conversation. We’ll test the new system more comprehensively when we spend a week behind the wheel, but the screen itself, at 7.0 inches, is clear and the pinch and zoom in and out functionality seems to work well.
The high spec model equipped with satellite-navigation showed that the screen is clear and legible on the move too. Crucially, a reverse camera is standard across the Forester model range and the image projected back to the screen was crystal clear. The two diesel variants share a braked towing capacity of 1800kg with the XT and XT Premium grades. All other grades have a 1500kg towing capacity.
The Subaru Forester has always been the tough nut in this segment, which has increasingly become more about show than go. Or, more about around town posing than proper back road ability if you like. That tough as nails feel though continues with this facelifted model combined with an enhanced interior and improved NVH.
Scores of SUV buyers have moved to this segment and many have opted for a FWD variant. But some may say that makes them the driver of a jacked up hatch, not an SUV as we used to know them. Furthermore, if you intend on doing any serious touring, few can compete with the real-world flexibility of the Forester once the going gets tough and dusty.
While there’s a more convincing premium story to be told with some of the competitor vehicles in the segment and others have an edge around town or in outright dynamics, the Forester remains a real all-rounder in the segment. It’s capable of anything you throw at it and if history is any guide, it will still be taking abuse in a decade or more.
Furthermore, the new drivetrain option and the cabin revisions are exceedingly worthwhile. A comparison test with other class-leaders awaits...