The Subaru Forester has a long tradition of bulletproof reliability and quality family SUV ability. It's got a tough fight on its hands against the excellent BMW X1 though.
Bringing the 2016 Subaru Forester XT Premium and 2016 BMW X1 sDrive 20i together for a head-to-head gunfight isn’t quite as left field as it might seem. Pricing is close – only $3610 between the starting prices – and both are positioned as affordable family SUVs at the smaller end of the scale. The fact that one of them – the X1 – is FWD hasn’t escaped us either.
So, side step the argument over whether a FWD is actually an SUV in the first place, and you have two similar takes on the same basic theory. Don’t worry about the X1 slotting into the ‘Small SUV’ segment, while the Forester is a step up in ‘Medium SUV’ either – the X1’s cabin is actually larger…
BMW’s promotional material will have you believe the German manufacturer has a mortgage on the ‘ultimate driving machine’ tag too, so the X1 has a lot to live up to. In that same vein, Subaru claims to build vehicles that are ‘all four the driver’, so the Forester needs to be as enjoyable to drive as it is sensibly packaged, and needs to match up to Subaru’s reputation for versatile, fit for purpose SUVs.
This is going to be interesting.
Starting from $47,990 plus on-road costs, the Subaru Forester XT Premium is packed with everything Subaru can conjure as standard, and our test model doesn’t have a single option. That means, what you see here is what you get if you only have a tick under 48 grand to start with. And there’s plenty of SUV for the money.
You can of course get into a Forester as cheaply as a starting price of $29,990 for the 2.0i-L model, and while that grade isn’t extensively equipped, it is AWD. Our CarAdvice pick of the Forester range though is the 2.5i-S, which starts from $39,490 plus on-road costs.
A small $3610 jump up from the starting price of the Forester XT Premium, takes you to the second most affordable BMW X1 as tested here. The sDrive 20i starts from $51,600 plus on-road costs and is beaten only by the sDrive 18d in the affordability stakes – it starts from $49,500 plus on-road costs.
As you’ll see when we move into specification details below, now more than ever the higher specification Japanese vehicle can really take the fight to the lesser equipped European option, with value for money and standard inclusions more important than ever.
As the most expensive Forester in the range, the XT Premium is jam-packed with standard inclusions, so much so, that our test example doesn’t have a single option. Highlights include: three-mode drive select, Subaru EyeSight, full-size spare wheel, 18-inch alloy wheels, LED DRLs, dusk sensing headlights, leather trim with perforated inserts, eight-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, satellite navigation and a seven-inch LCD touchscreen.
The X1 in sDrive 20i guise doesn’t get some of the standard kit of the more expensive model grades, but still gets some noteworthy gear at the price point. Highlights for the X1 include: automatic tailgate, driving assistant, high-beam assist, LED headlights, satellite navigation, parking assistant, performance control, reverse view camera, roof rails in satin finish, xLine trim. The X1 also gets second row air vents, missing on the Forester.
Additional cost options fitted to our test vehicle include: metallic paint ($1140), panoramic glass sunroof ($1690) and a DAB+ tuner ($385). That takes the as-tested price up to $54,815 plus on-road costs. The DAB+ radio is something we’d definitely like to have, but we would happily forgo the other two options to save some money.
Engines and transmissions
The Forester is powered by Subaru’s horizontally-opposed four-cylinder boxer engine, featuring DOHC and dual AVCS. The engine uses direct injection and requires 95RON PULP fuel.
It generates 177kW at 5600rpm and 350Nm between 2400-3600rpm and scoots from 0-100km/h in 7.5 seconds. The ADR-claimed combined fuel usage figure is 8.5L/100km and the Forester has a 60-litre fuel tank. On test, we used an indicated 9.8L/100km over more than 300km of testing.
The boxer engine is backed by Subaru’s gearbox of choice (the CVT), which has a theoretical eight-step system of ratios. We don’t love CVTs at CarAdvice, and it’s hard to argue the case for them if you love driving, but keep in mind, Subaru’s execution is better than most.
BMW’s X1 in sDrive 20i guise is powered by a two-litre, four-cylinder engine, which generates 141kW at 5000-6000rpm and 280Nm at 1260-4200rpm. Those power and torque figures push the X1 from 0-100km/h in 7.7 seconds. The X1 will run on 91RON ULP.
The ADR fuel usage claim is 5.9L/100km and on test over the same 300 plus kilometres as the Forester, we saw an indicated return of 7.8L/100km. While the Forester is still impressively frugal, the BMW’s engine is definitely the smarter of the two when it comes to minimising fuel usage.
The 1998cc four-cylinder is backed by an eight-speed sports automatic that is an excellent gearbox whichever way you slice it. The broad spread of ratios is smoothly accessed regardless of road speed too, making for an enjoyable drive, no matter how fast or slow you’re travelling. The conventional auto isn’t dead just yet.
Cabins and measurements
It’s here, inside the cabin, that the BMW really gives the larger Forester a serve. That’s the case despite being a physically smaller vehicle in most areas too. The BMW is 4439mm long, 1821mm wide and 1598mm high, while the Forester is 4595mm long, 1795mm wide and 1735mm high. Ground clearance measures in at 183mm for the BMW, while the Subaru has 220mm.
One of the big bragging rights figures though is the luggage space on offer, and it’s here that the BMW really surprises, offering up 505 litres with the second row in use and 1550 litres with those seats folded flat. Against those figures, the Forester has 422 litres with the second row up and 1474 litres with those seats folded down. The BMW has a run-flat spare so it has extra storage space beneath the floor as well, while the Forester has a full-size spare and therefore a slightly higher floor than we’d like.
So, while the Forester sits in a larger segment and is a physically larger vehicle, it’s not larger by that much, and as you can see from the accompanying video, the X1 impresses in every sense in the real world when you assess the cabins. The BMW also has second row seat bases, which slide forward and back to make even better use of the space. Both vehicles have second row seat backs that can be dropped remotely.
On the subject of trim and ambience, both feel solidly built and well insulated, but the BMW doesn’t feel quite as premium and luxurious as we’d like and perhaps you’d expect of a European flagship.
The Subaru gets leather trim with perforated inserts and we really liked the heated front seats, but the lack of second row air vents is annoying. The BMW seats are trimmed in Sensatec man-made leather, that is acceptable but not as appealing as real leather. That’s not to say the Subaru has the most luxurious trim we’ve encountered and we’d probably prefer cloth anyway if we had the choice.
While the X1 is controlled via BMW’s excellent iDrive system, the screen seems a little small both inside the cabin and in comparison to the Subaru’s unit (even though it’s only 0.5-inch smaller). There’s the familiar iDrive controller with one-touch keys, while the screen measures 6.5 inches, has high-res graphics, map display with bird’s eye view, voice control, favourite buttons and integrated storage facility for navigation data.
The BMW system caters for MP3 connectivity, as well as iPod, USB memory stick and a conventional cabled USB interface. Controlling the system is entirely effortless, given the all-round competence of the iDrive functionality. It’s quick and easy to learn, and works perfectly once you learn it – ideal for a motor vehicle.
We found basic functionality like Bluetooth connectivity, satellite navigation and operation and accuracy, and the DAB+ radio also worked flawlessly. I had an intermittent issue with audio streaming via Bluetooth that a disconnect and complete refresh seemed to iron out. Screen clarity is also excellent.
The Subaru’s 7.0-inch screen is surrounded by piano black trim that has a tendency to mark easily and shows fingerprints quite badly. There’s proprietary satellite navigation standard, AM/FM radio, but no digital radio, and MP3, WMA and iPod connectivity.
USB inputs in the centre console provide the same connectivity as the X1, and there’s also an auxiliary jack. Like the BMW, the Subaru’s Bluetooth system was crystal clear and reliable once set up, and the system is easy to use. It’s not as intuitive as iDrive though, and therefore isn’t quite as easy to use.
On sealed surfaces, this comparison should be a lot closer than the deficit between FWD and AWD might initially suggest. That’s even more the case when you think about the clever electronics that govern traction and stability – AWD isn’t as much of a benefit as it once was.
First, the X1, which is shod with quality 225/50/R18 Pirelli tyres, which completely annihilate the Subaru’s standard offerings in every aspect on road. The BMW rides well enough, can be hustled if you want to wind things up a bit, and is capable of putting a smile on your face through twisty back roads, but doesn’t quite earn the ‘ultimate driving machine’ mantle.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the way the BMW drives, it’s just that the interface between driver and chassis isn’t as sharp or intuitive as we’d expect of a BMW. The steering isn’t as razor sharp as other models – in fact it can feel a little heavy at times, and there isn’t the same clarity to the braking, turn in or handling balance as an exemplary BMW would offer. Truth be told, most X1 owners will never punt their SUV too hard anyway, and it’s only at that six tenths or above threshold that any of this becomes visible.
The X1 is otherwise beautifully insulated at speed, with little road or wind noise entering the cabin. Some coarse chip surfaces generate a bit of noise from the run flat tyres, but there’s a solid feel to the X1’s chassis at any speed. Quick right angle exits from intersections will generate torque steer though, especially on slick surfaces. On the subject of run flat tyres, the X1’s ride errs on the side of firm, which can be an issue over consistently poor surfaces.
In comparison to the BMW, the Subaru gets very average 225/55/R18 Bridgestone tyres that quite frankly let the rest of the well-sorted driveline down. Part of the Forester’s strength is without doubt it’s 50:50 AWD system, which at all times ensures maximum grip, but there’s more to the story than that alone.
The Forester always seems supremely well balanced, positive in its inputs, with a surfeit of grip and balance to match. It’s a rare situation that will find the Forester flustered, and we’d hesitate a guess that quality tyres would only add to the equation.
The ride is near perfect, with a solid balance between bump absorption and comfort and we liked the way the Forester felt so inherently solid and well put together. The chassis is nicely tied down at all times and the Forester lives up to the SUV tag by being able to easily deal with poor road surfaces.
Head onto some well-manicured dirt forest tracks like we did during our photo shoot and the X1 is well-adjusted enough to handle it, although the more speed you add to the equation, the harder the stability control is working. You have to be pretty smart and snappy with the steering wheel too, especially if the clay is a little greasy.
Being 2WD, the X1 really isn’t in its element in these conditions, but it is classified as an SUV, so we decided to put it through some basic off-road driving. Low ground clearance and road-focused, run-flat tyres mean you’ll need to be smart and careful if you plan on heading anywhere that looks even remotely challenging. On smooth dirt though, the X1 is a hoot.
The Forester on the other hand is tailor made for these kinds of national park tracks. The AWD system is capable and the steering also feels beautifully weighted if you want to have a bit of fun in the dusty stuff.
Higher ground clearance than the X1 means the Forester will go further, easier and with less work required by the driver. The standard tyres, which don’t impress on-road, work a whole lot better off-road.
We contend that neither of these vehicles will ever head too far off-road – if at all – but regardless, both purport to be SUVs and as such, we thought a quick dirt loop was warranted. The X1 was more accomplished than we expected, while the Forester dealt with the tracks as effortlessly as we thought it would.
Warranty and servicing
The BMW X1 is covered by a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, and a five-year/80,000km capped price servicing plan.
The Forester is covered by Subaru’s three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and 12-month roadside assistance programme. It is also covered by a three-year/75,000km capped-price servicing scheme.
This comparison took us a little by surprise almost from the outset. On paper, you might expect the German combatant to walk all over the offering from Japan. It didn’t turn out that way at all though. Coming to a clear conclusion is made a little more difficult, because neither model grade present as the pick in their respective ranges. In fact, the X1 doesn’t make much sense at all especially if you compare it to a 2-Series Active Tourer for example.
The Subaru Forester has won this comparo though. The X1 beats the Forester for interior space and packaging, but everywhere else the Forester is simply more accomplished.
Within the X1 range then, we’d argue the case for either of the AWD models (the cheapest can be had from $56,500), while the pick of the Forester range is almost certainly the 2.5i-S, which starts from just under 50 grand at $39,490.
We reckon the 2.5i-S is an 8.5 overall, which positions the XT Premium, as tested here, at an 8 overall. The BMW X1 sits a clear point behind the Forester in this comparison with a 7 overall.
Across the board, the X1 is an impressive vehicle, but it can’t match the Forester for driving engagement, ride, outright handling, interior ambience and believe it or not, that hard to define premium feeling. It does, as we mentioned before give the Forester X1 a serve in terms of packaging and use of space.
You might not need AWD, but its hard to argue against it when you’re getting that technology for less money and while the Forester isn’t perfect, it’s still a sensible, value for money, family SUV.
Click the photos tab above for more photos by Glenn Sullivan.