2016 Subaru Forester tS Review: Quick drive

Rating: 7.5
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We get behind the wheel of Subaru’s flagship performance SUV bound for Oz in 2016.
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The 2016 Subaru Forester tS is coming to Australia in the middle of next year - and we’ve just driven it in Japan.

Already released in its homeland, Australia will be the only other market in the world to get the flagship performance family hauler treated to the STI skunkworks makeover. Due to go on sale in May 2016, there will only be 300 units built, available in white, black and signature WR Blue.

“This is our new SUV pinnacle,” says Subaru Australia Managing Director, Nick Senior. “The Forester has always been the sporty SUV. It has lead the market with performance variants (such as) the GT, XT and S-Edition.”

The Forester tS features revised styling inside and out, a completely revamped suspension, Brembo brakes (with four-piston calipers up front) and STI Enkei 19-inch wheels loaded with wide 245/45 Bridgestone Turanza rubber.

The handling enhancements alone include an exclusive tuning of the SI-Drive system’s Sport Sharp mode, a new Flexible Support rear subframe, invert front struts, Flexible draw stiffeners (for lateral cornering load) at both ends, and a – you guessed it – a flexible strut tower brace.

“They have 22 changes over the XT on which it’s based,” Senior explains.

While the Forester tS carries a gamut of STI enhancements, some of which is available via STI’s aftermarket product line, others, such as extensive sound deadening, are only achievable during mainline production.

“The cars are built on FHI’s production line then transferred to STI for final completion,” Senior says. “(Some) 28 post-production changes are made by STI.”

It’s not, however, an STI model per se.

“When it arrives in Australia it will definitely carry some STI branding,” Senior says, “though it will not be included in the model name.” In essence, the tS designation signifies a package of engine, handling, body and, in the Forester’s case, refinement improvements, whereas dedicated STI models are, true to tradition, treated to bespoke changes to everything from engines to seating.

The mandate for tS, according to Japanese brass at our twisty circuit test drive in regional Japan, is straightforward. A tS must provide a fun driving experience to owners or varying skill levels wherever they choose to drive them. The benefits tS models hone in on to provide this is improved steering, greater dynamic stability in cornering or at high speed, a flatter cornering stance and a quieter cabin.

So tS is ostensibly Diet STI: more about improved on-road character, less about wiping tenths off the stopwatch on a race track in true STI style. This was something at the forefront of the mindset when Subaru chose a twisty, punishing off-street that looked tailor-made for drift competition.

Subaru provided a regular XT for the drive with which to benchmark the tS version’s prowess. And our test cars are current Japanese domestic market (JDM) spec, while the Australian version, to be produced from January 2016, will be based off the newer face-lifted Forester.

What’s abundantly clear from the get-go is that the normal XT’s performance talents shine when pushed to seven-tenths, after which it falls off a performance and handling cliff.

As an SUV, it has no place on a circuit, its limitations a compound of meagre road-holding grip, washy dynamics with chronic on-limit understeer, recalcitrant powertrain – with terribly wide CVT faux gearchanges – and braking power easily overtasked. As a track car, it makes a fine grocery getter for the school run, albeit a quick one by medium SUV standards.

The tS ups the ante everywhere it counts, if most suitably in a back-road environment and aptly driven at a warm rather that red-hot pace. It’s no STI - but then, to be fair, it doesn't pretend to be.

Back-to-back, the St is noticeably tighter and more cooperative in dynamic character. The steering is a step up in responses, as the nose is keener to tuck into chicanes and change direction on exit, and the there’s generally more linearity between the steering wheel and direction of travel. However, there’s a patent lack of feedback from the road surface, no load-up once the nose pushes into understeer, and it’s generally inert in feel.

The Turanzas, though a meaty 245mm in width, aren’t Bridgestone’s grippiest performers. And while it’s more surefooted and leverages higher road-holding limits than the XT, the tyres cry freedom fairly easily and almost always into understeer, be it during heavy braking or under full-noise acceleration out of corners.

Arrive too hot into a closing-radius corner and that fine, innate Forester balance is a faithful ally, the chassis yawing safely, predictably and in sync with a lift of the throttle pedal. It’s never spooky or taily; it doesn’t want to punish driver indiscretions by throwing itself, and you, off into the scenery.

It sits flatter than an XT, though body roll is noticeable and, compared with our recently tested Levorg for example, suffers at the nature of its high-riding stance and less-than-ground-scraping centre of gravity, despite a 15mm drop in ride height.

In fact, the presence of the new Levorg on the same day and circuit served to illustrate best the line in the sedan between sporting wagons and SUVs – that when choosing a practical family-swallowing device with performance pretensions, the latter has a far bigger fight on its tyres overcoming basic laws of physics.

The Forester is less hamstrung in format by its powertrain. Output from its 2.0-litre direct-injected turbocharged boxer four, however, remains at an unchanged 177kW at 5600rpm. Torque should likewise mirror the local 350Nm (between 2400-3600rpm), although Senior says that's yet to be confirmed.

It’s a perfectly potent engine for normal driving situations, though when you do wring its neck in heated moments, the flat top-end, lack of engine volume and sometimes laziness in the CVT’s faux upchanges means it’s easy to find the boxer’s soft rev-limiter all to often.

On balance of power and handling, though, the Forester tS strongly favours the former while contending with limitations of the latter to get from A to B post-haste.

To be fair, the testing environment didn’t favour the Forester tS and the more leisurely driving experience in which its hopes to shine brightest. And the drive program of just a handful of hot laps served as a taste test rather than a proper appraisal which, of course, is best left for another place and time.

Given that final Australian spec is yet to be confirmed, the Japan car isn’t necessarily indicative of what Aussie buyers can look forward to - att which time a fuller and more well-rounded review will be in order.

And thus, our attached ratings should be taken as cautionary at best.

Senior admits that this first tS for Australian production won’t be the last. “Hopefully we can build on this (tS concept) in the future and look at enhancements on other vehicles.”

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