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There are no fewer than 11 STI emblems on the 2016 Subaru Forester tS, so if you’re a Suby enthusiast you’d expect it to live up to the hype of the Japanese maker’s go-fast sub-brand.
What is the new Subaru Forester tS? Well, it clearly isn’t just any Forester given that it features revised styling, revamped suspension, 19-inch Enkei wheels with wider tyres and bigger Brembo brakes – but crucially, no more power.
The 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine in the tS we get in Australia continues on with the XT’s 177kW of power and 350Nm of torque – where in Japan the tS has a huge 206kW of grunt.
So this model, presumably, is more about improved handling than it is about doing the STi badge proud.
Under the metal there are important alterations, including a flexible support rear subframe, inverted front struts, flexible draw stiffeners at both ends, and a flexible strut tower brace. It rides 15mm lower, too.
So, it should be a bit more tied-down and driver-focussed than the standard Subaru SUV. And those chassis alterations are just some of 22 changes to tS model, while fuel use doesn't change (claim: 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres; on test we saw 10.2L/100km).
One of the changes is an even sharper Sport Sharp drive mode. The other modes (Intelligent and Sport) are more sedate, but given that Subaru reckons this is a pretty sharp tool, we spent most of our hard driving time in the raciest mode.
What you notice, first and foremost, is that the turbo engine doesn’t sound as much like an STI as it probably should. There’s a slight warble and rumble, but nothing dramatic, and it’s a shame Subaru didn’t see fit to add a more free-flowing exhaust. Boxer burble is important to Suby enthusiasts, after all.
The engine has plenty of oomph on the move – in fact, it’s pretty rapid when you plant your foot, and because the suspension has been stiffened up, the body doesn’t lunge as much as in the standard faster Foz.
The gearbox is a continuously variable transmission (CVT) auto – hardly STI-like, right? – and it plays its part in the lacklustre noise that emanates from under the bonnet. But the transmission itself does a pretty decent job when you’re pushing hard.
It’s fine in manual mode, where there are eight “ratios” to play with, but it’s not quite as engaging as a conventional automatic with paddleshifters for actual gear changes. It won’t override you if you decide you don’t want to upshift, though.
Sadly, for a model that brandishes so many STi badges, there is no manual option (the WRX STi only comes with a manual because it’s the purest sports model the brand offers).
Thankfully all that work to the chassis of the Forester tS has had an effect, because it handles better than any other Forester on sale.
And if you try to drive it moderately fast it's actually pretty rewarding. But if you are going harder at it, it starts to show some of its shortcomings.
Get on the throttle too early on a sweeping bend and you’ll notice some understeer, and part of that comes down to the tyres – Bridgestone Turanzas, which isn’t the most renowned performance rubber available. Traction is good, grip not so much…
In tighter bends at lower speeds those tyres are a bit more forgiving, but on exit you will notice the traction control interfering with progress.
And while the suspension has been fettled to corner better, the Forester can’t hide its height: or, more specifically, it’s high centre of gravity. It rolls a bit in corners, and the seats lack the support to hold you still – they don’t adjust low enough to make you feel hunkered in the car, rather you feel like you sit on the seat rather than in it.
The ride is on the firm side, but it is reasonably well resolved. You notice a lot of the smaller bumps in the road surface at higher speeds, and while you can’t run over speed humps as quickly as you may in a regular squishy SUV, it’s still no low-rider.
The tS model’s steering is better than most Foresters, but it’s still too slow to be truly involving in the driver’s seat. And at lower speeds when you’re parking, the electric system can take a while to react, meaning a bit more arm effort than you may expect.
Inside you get a few STi bits, including a new steering wheel, gearknob, black head lining, and red stitched black suede and leather seat trim.
It does feel sportier than a regular Forester inside, but it still has all the practicality that we’ve come to appreciate from the Subaru SUV.
That means there’s excellent vision from the driver’s seat – partly because of that high seating position – but there’s still plenty of headroom in the front and the back, with easily enough space for four tall adults to be seated comfortably.
Interior storage is good, with decent door pockets all around and enough cup and bottle holders to keep the crew happy. It has a boot that’s reasonable for family use if you’re fine with stacking things above the window line, but if you’re only willing to pack to a level that leaves the glass clear, there is 422 litres of room, meaning there are bigger-booted SUVs out there.
Staying connected is relatively simple, too, by way of the touchscreen media system with Bluetooth and navigation. And while it lacks the latest connectivity – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – the system is relatively simple to use and quick to react. We don’t like the fact you can’t dial a number when the car is moving, though.
The Forester tS isn’t just about sportiness, it also has safety well accounted for, too. The brand’s EyeSight camera-based collision warning system is fitted, and it also has lane departure warning as the camera watches the lines on the road to tell you if it thinks you’re getting a bit close.
The system, in theory, is great. But it is a pain to use in real life, with the lane departure warning system proving a bit overreactive, and the forward collision system picking up objects that weren’t obstacles, despite its insistence.
The camera system also operates the active cruise control, and while it leaves a good distance, it can be jerky at low speeds. We do like that it beeps to tell you the car in front has moved if you’re not looking forwards, but we don’t like that it beeps every time there’s a car in front.
All of that stuff comes at a cost, though – the Forester tS is priced at $54,990 plus on-road costs, putting it $7000 higher than the standard flagship XT Premium.
And it isn’t what you’d call affordable to maintain, either, with a capped-price program that requires maintenance every six months or 12,500km, whichever occurs first. The average cost per visit over the three-year/75,000km plan is $369.50, or $739 per annum. The warranty on Subaru models is three years or unlimited kilometres.
Look, the Subaru Forester tS is a quick SUV and a practical one too. But we wouldn’t read too much into those STi badges, because it's probably not as sporty as they may lead you to believe.
In fact, unless you’re hell-bent on having a Forester that handles a bit better than the XT Premium, it’s hard to justify the extra spend, especially when you consider what sort of go-faster goodies $7K can get you.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Sam Venn.