Who says a mid-sized family crossover vehicle has to be a boring econobox? Surely there are roomy high-riding wagons for people who at other stages of life owned a coupe or hot hatch?
Say hello to the $48,240 (plus on-road costs) Subaru Forester XT Premium, which packages a wound-up 177kW turbocharged engine with the brand's symmetrical AWD system, under a practical medium SUV body. Sure, it's no WRX, but there's at least some edge there.
Subaru has been offering warmed-up Foresters for some time now, but we've given this model a revisit for two main reasons.
One, there are some newer rivals including the 162kW Volkswagen Tiguan Highline ($48,490) and 178kW Ford Escape Titanium ($44,990), to consider. Two, there's an all-new Forester due in 2018, so is this ageing model really the one to go for?
Under the 2017 Forester XT's bonnet is a 2.0-litre turbocharged Boxer petrol engine with the aforementioned 177kW (at 5600rpm) and 350Nm of torque between 2400 and 3600rpm. This is 20kW less than the outputs in the WRX and Levorg.
The engine is sufficient to punch the 1600kg crossover from standstill to 100km/h in 7.5 seconds, which isn't rocket-fast, but still sprightly.
The Boxer is a strong unit with a fair whack of torque from just above idle and a willingness to rev hard, though it's less characterful than the Volkswagen's 162 TSI engine in terms of engine note.
What further dims the performance when you’re driving hard is the gearbox, a CVT with flappy paddles and stepped ‘ratios’ in Sport # mode that typically lacks rapid-fire shift times and the ability to double-downshift like a performance DCT.
This unit also brings on torque delivery in a slow surge rather than a leap, with the familiar dull droning soundtrack accompanying. CVT units are just not amenable to performance variants. Full stop. And there's not even a manual option here.
Fuel use on the combined cycle is claimed at 8.5L/100km for the Forester. We exceeded the claim by about 10-ish per cent, because unlike the ADR testers, we aren’t driving these things on a dynamometer.
Here's also where we add that you can get the exact same engine in the lower-specified Forester XT for only $41,240, which clearly offers a better bang-for-buck proposition.
Unlike a lot of 'on-demand' crossovers, the Forester has a variable front-to-rear permanent symmetrical AWD setup that’s ‘always on’, or proactive. This is the brand's staple and features in some form on all its vehicles bar the BRZ.
The Forester has a few more years under its belt than many rivals, but it still has merits. It rides over broken roads, corrugations, cobbles and even ungraded gravel with a high level of smoothness.
The high-sidewall tyres and softer springs than you might expect in a performance derivative mean it absorbs hits and cushions occupants really well, while noise suppression is acceptable. The AWD also gives surety on low-grip surfaces.
On the downside, the steering is a little wooly – meaning light for easy urban use, but lacking in feedback – and its body control is conventional for the class, meaning there’s some roll against lateral forces and tyre squealing past six-tenths.
There's a plethora of active safety features as standard, controlled by an EyeSight stereo camera near the rear-view mirror, including adaptive cruise control and a prompter in traffic-jams to remind you to take off if you lag.
Yet we’d like to see Subaru’s Vision Assist with blind-spot monitoring, despite the excellent outward visibility, though naturally this will be offered on the next-generation model .
Off-road, the Forester has established a niche for itself as one of the more accomplished offerings, though it lacks conventional low-range gearing, as do all rivals bar the Suzuki Grand Vitara.
It has 220mm of clearance (the Tiguan has 201mm, for context) and there’s an 'X-Mode' system that incorporates hill-descent control, and adjusts throttle mapping, gearing and brakes as needed on slippery surfaces.
To the cabin. Standard features beyond the EyeSight stuff just mentioned include seven airbags, ISOFIX points, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane assist and a rear-view camera.
The Subaru has a five-star ANCAP rating, though the Forester was tested back in 2013, against easier metrics than 2017 standards. Still, there's no reason to doubt its inherent crash safety.
There are also leather seats with heating and electric operation up front, rain-sensing wipers, a 7.0-inch touchscreen, sat-nav, eight speakers, Bluetooth/USB, push-button start, keyless-go and a (torturously slow, it must be said) electric tailgate.
Other features include LED headlights and daytime running lights, 18-inch alloy wheels and roof rails. There's also a lovely airy sunroof fitted as standard.
To the design. If hard-wearing materials and simple operation are your priorities, you’ll do well with the Forester.
There are flat but soft leather seats, glossy black and nice metallic highlights to break up the monotony a little, watch bezel-like knurled ventilation dials, and numerous tough and easy to clean contact points. It feels solid and is easy to operate.
Additionally, that sunroof, plus the deep rectangular side windows and slim A-pillars make outward visibility outstanding, given all occupants a ‘breezy’ feel. And the front extendable sun-blinds are perfect for dawn/dusk.
All this said, it doesn’t exude the premium feel of the Tiguan, or even the Kia Sportage or new-gen Mazda CX-5. We also found the air conditioning a little lacking on a very hot day, and wished it offered Apple CarPlay/Android Auto like the Impreza.
But at least the Bluetooth proved rapid to re-pair and the audio system offers good sound quality, while the rectangular digital display atop the fascia has some cool tech-y information such as mapping out the variable torque distribution.
As befits the body-style, you aren't lacking back-seat space for adults up to two-metres tall. The leather seats are flat but wide, plus there are ISOFIX points in the bases and reclining back-rests, plus overall simple entry/egress. No rear vents though.
One area where the Forester isn't so crash hot is the meagre 422L of cargo space, thanks to the raised hump in the boot floor there to accommodate the full-size spare (which is a great feature not found on many rivals).
Nice touches include a nifty sliding cargo cover, clever levers to flip the back seats down from inside the cargo area, and an electric tailgate, which may be slower than treacle but is still handy.
From an ownership perspective there's a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and 24-hour roadside assistance plan.
Subaru Australia’s importer has acknowledged its service costs need to drop, and it’s starting the process with the new Impreza. However, the Forester still sits under its older structure.
Service intervals are six months or 12,500km, whichever comes first, and the cost for the first five visits at current levels comes to: $307.41, $307.41, $388.62, $517.62 and $307.41. Manageable, if not class-leading.
Actually, that last line sums the Forester XT Premium up. It's not as car-like as the Tiguan 162 TSI, as nimble as the Escape Titanium, well-priced as a Hyundai Tucson, or as well-backed as a Kia Sportage.
However, it has the genuine rugged character that comes with its strong brand heritage, a punchy engine (let down by a dreary CVT), a spacious cabin, good safety credentials and comfortable driving dynamics. Plus full-time AWD.
The real take-away here is that the current iteration of the Forester remains an excellent option even near the end of its life cycle, which tells you of its inherent qualities. Push for a deal and you'll be happy with your choice, even still.
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