There is something eminently sensible about using diesel power for the Subaru Forester.
Notwithstanding the properly rugged and older-school Suzuki Grand Vitara, the Subaru Forester is one of those soft-roaders that appeals to adventurous types who may wish to stray from the beaten path at times.
Diesel-powered vehicles have a minority share of the bustling medium SUV market in which the Forester fights, though they dominate the large SUV space. But it’s a sizeable enough minority to warrant brand representation.
That’s why, until recently, Subaru had a problem: its diesel Forester option was only available with a manual gearbox, which might be fine in Europe, but was a deal-breaker for the overwhelming majority of Australians.
Then March 2015 rolled around, and with it the inclusion of a self-shifting transmission/diesel engine combination as part of a range of MY15 Forester updates. Hear that? It’s music streaming into the ears of a number of prospective buyers. Subaru hopes for about 200 diesel CVT sales a month.
The car we’re testing here is the entry level Forester 2.0D-L CVT, which retails for $35,490 plus on-road costs. The Forester 2.0D-L manual costs $33,490 by comparison, while the petrol-powered Forester 2.5i-L CVT with similar specs costs $32,990.
This makes the Forester diesel a pretty affordable proposition by class standards, assisted by price cuts over where they would have otherwise been, part-leveraged from the recent commencement of an Australia-Japan free-trade agreement. Consider the fact that the Forester 2.0D-L diesel with a manual gearbox was $2000 more expensive than this new auto version, prior to March.
By comparison, the Honda CR-V DTi-S costs $40,590, the Kia Sportage SLi CRDi is $37,990, the Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport diesel will set you back $38,990, and the Mitsubishi Outlander XLD DiD auto comes in at $39,490. The Nissan X-Trail TS diesel retails for $35,380, but it’s front-drive. The AWD diesel X-Trail version is manual-only.
Perhaps the biggest 'frenemy' is the Subaru Outback which, thanks to recent price cuts, can now be had in 2.0D diesel guise with an auto for $37,490. Small wonder this car is almost level with the Forester as Subaru's top-selling model this year.
Most rival brands that offer diesel/auto versions of their medium SUVs sell mid- or high-spec offerings with all-wheel-drive configurations. The front-drive, manual models are generally petrol-powered price-leaders (showroom bait). Not Subaru though.
With 108kW on tap at 3600rpm and 350Nm of torque between 1600 and 2400rpm, the Forester D’s (one-of-a-kind, horizontally-opposed) 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine compares unfavourably to, say, the Mazda CX-5’s 129kW/420Nm 2.2-litre unit.
But turn the key — yes, a proper key, how quaint — and you’ll notice less noise and fewer vibrations through the cabins than a lot of rival diesels, thanks in part to additional sound-deadening. It’s in fact a commendably subdued unit.
Like we’ve noted with the Outback diesel, the engine lacks the punch of some Korean and Japanese rivals, with a relaxed nature and a comparable lack of torque low down (masked well enough by the CVT) that makes it not quite as crisp in hauling the 1633kg (kerb) SUV up the road as some.
Pulling power down low is naturally superior to an average four-pot petrol though, and at least the Subaru diesel is quite free revving as you climb up the tacho — though a 0-100km/h sprint time of 9.9 seconds is far from fast.
The auto is a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which differs from conventional autos in that it doesn't actually shift gears, but in this case imitates one by offering seven stepped-ratios that feel like regular shifts, kicking into effect once you apply more than 65.0 per cent throttle.
There’s little of the thrashing and simulation of clutch-slipping that you’ll find on a number of inferior CVTs. The torque band isn’t notably broad, but the transmission keeps the engine revving at its sweet spot without overt intrusion. Forget the paddle-shifters, they’re largely superfluous.
Subaru cites a maximum towing capacity of 1800kg with a braked trailer — a match for the CX-5, and adequate for a mid-sized road-going caravan — and a tow-ball down load maximum of 180kg.
Subaru cites a combined-cycled fuel consumption figure of 6.3 litres per 100km (0.4L/100km more than the manual), which is about 25.0 per cent better than the 2.5 petrol. This is a little higher than some rivals, though we found a figure around 7.0L/100km achievable, which we’d live with given this would enable a range of about 850km.
An improved oil cooler reduces engine running temperatures and helps the engine meet strict Euro VI emissions regulations.
As with all Subarus bar the BRZ, the Forester is an all-wheel-drive proposition — no front-drive entry points here. The brand’s signature symmetrical AWD system, from the longitudinally mounted (flat, with lower gravity centre) engine to the rear differential, is mounted in a straight line.
Subaru’s AWD system is ‘always on’, meaning torque is always sent to all four wheels, though it can send extra torque rearwards on an ‘on-demand’ basis once slip is detected, as part of the CVT’s X-Mode (not on manuals).
The X-Mode button also inhibits rises is engine speeds to limit wheelspin on low-traction surfaces, and optimises the transmission to deliver maximum torque with minimum shifting. There’s also a Hill Descent Control system that eases you down hills, and 220mm of ground clearance.
On wet surfaces or snow, the Forester is the soft-roader we’d pick in the class, and the diesel’s more tractable nature suits this kind of adventurous weekend driving to a tee, though the aggressive ESC system could use a tweak to stop cutting in with such constancy.
Through corners the Forester feels stable and predictable on the road, with decent traction and steering, but the Yokohama tyres can run out of grip and scrub/squeal when pushed too hard. At least the 225/60 R17s don’t send excessive droning into the cabin.
The MacPherson strut (front)/double wishbone (rear) suspension tune irons out potholes, pretty well, and though it picks up rapid corrugations like those you’d find near tram tracks, reverberations into the cabin (manifesting as 'jitteriness') are kept controlled.
The electric-assisted steering is not the lightest at low speeds, though the outward visibility and 10.6-metre turning circle make the Forester a dream to park anyway, and it feels ideally weighted once you’re up and running, with sufficient bite close to centre.
Body control and handling are middle for the class, meaning it’s not as throw-able and car-like as a Mazda CX-5 or Ford Kuga, but doesn’t wallow like a conventional SUV either. All told, the Forester feels quite car-like to steer, and has good ride refinement and noise suppression. It’s also equipped to handle light/mid-duty off-road work.
The Forester 2.0D-L comes with standard equipment including 17-inch alloy wheels (and a full-size spare wheel), headlights that switch off by themselves when you turn off the car, fog lights, privacy (tinted) glass, a rear spoiler, roof rails and a sharkfin antenna.
Inside the cabin are features such as dual-zone climate control, a reversing camera display, Bluetooth/USB and Aux connections and — most notably — a new seven-inch touchscreen in place of the dated old unit, with integrated Pandora app compatibility.
You also get seven airbags and a five-star ANCAP safety rating. Unfortunately, neither diesel version gets Subaru’s Eyesight system which bundles features such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and Lead Vehicle Start Alert (it barks at you if you don't flow with traffic, maybe if you're too busy playing Words With Friends).
If you want niceties such as sat-nav, electric leather (heated) seats, a sunroof and an electric tailgate, you’ll have to fork out another $6000 for the $41,490 2.0D-S auto. We’d politely suggest Subaru look at making sat-nav standard, at least.
The new touchscreen makes a world of difference in modernising the Forester’s cabin, given the old dot matrix design was looking very dated indeed. Functionality is good as it responds to swipes like a smartphone, and the home screen with large icons for the phone, media, apps, driving info and settings is a good base.
The voice control system also responds quickly and with accuracy to most inputs. Yes, it actually works. Sound quality from the speakers is a little average, though.
The new screen is also flanked with piano black plastic that looks upmarket until it’s invariably coated in a thick layer of dust, and the volume and tuning dials look classy. There’s also a cool widget that allows you to store key contacts next to your multimedia, and two USB inputs.
The trip computer atop the dash that shows things such as fuel consumption looks a little tacked on, but it’s preferable to the lo-fi monochrome screen ahead of the driver, bereft of a digital speedo.
Storage space is pretty good, with a decent console and large door pockets, as well as a neat phone and wallet compartment ahead of the gear-shifter. The tough cloth on the doors and the soft-touch dash are fine for the class — though some cheaper plastics away from major contact points are notable and reflect Subaru’s ‘outdoorsy’ focus — and the huge sun-visors exceptional for Aussie summers. It all feels solidly screwed together too.
The rear seats in the Forester are a highlight, notably because of the class-leading outward visibility afforded by those big square side windows. This is an open and boxy cabin indeed, and that’s going to appeal to the kids, as are the cup-holders in the ski port and the large door pockets.
The lack of rear air vents is a common CarAdvice bugbear for good reason, though in typical Subaru fashion (it has many fans among rural buyers), the A/C system is sufficiently potent to cool/heat the cabin quickly enough anyway.
Buyers get three top-tether child-seat anchor points, or two outboard ones if they are using an ISOFIX seat, which we recommend. Larger rear seat occupants will find more-than-adequate rear legroom and headroom, and there’s room for three adults in relative comfort.
The cargo area is a mixed bag. In the ‘good’ column are the little latches that drop the rear seats almost flat, and the full-sized spare wheel under the loading floor.
The opportunity cost of the latter, though, is the raised floor that leads to a shallow loading area. Cargo volume of 422 litres with the seats up is about 150L less than you get in a Toyota RAV4. At least there’s a low lip and wide aperture, while campers will be happy with the 12-volt outlet.
All told, this is a cabin that still prioritises space, toughness and utility, though the new infotainment definitely moves it upmarket. It's still function over form.
From an ownership perspective, all Foresters are covered by Subaru’s three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, and three years/75,000km of capped-price servicing, with services scheduled at increments of six-months/12,500km (whichever comes first).
At current prices, your first two scheduled visits excluding some incidentals (the ‘A’ and ‘B’ services) will cost $304.89 apiece, the ‘C’ service will cost $388.95, the ‘D’ service $547.94, the ‘E’ $508.16 and the ‘F’ will cost $388.95.
Grand total after three-years or 75,000km? $2443.78. A CX-5 diesel after 70,000km is quoted as costing $2383, while a Toyota RAV4 diesel will cost $1080 after three-years and 60,000km.
All told, the new Subaru Forester 2.0D-L facelift has addressed a few areas of concern for the brand’s staple. The new multimedia system is a step up, and while still not class-leading, is vastly preferable to before. Ditto the CVT, which is good for its type, and while it doesn’t transform the mid-level engine, it at least gives buyers a viable option.
The servicing costs aren’t small, but then again the price of entry is, and the resale ditto. The Forester remains a rough-and-ready, capable and yet nicely refined compact SUV option that will now appeal to a wider demographic.
Definitely one to shortlist (alongside its Subaru Outback 'frenemy'), especially if your dreams of adventure occasionally manifest in reality.