“SUV Tough, Car Easy.”
Anyone remember that slogan? No, neither do I, but, that’s how Subaru pitched the original, segment-defying crossover, the Subaru Forester, back at its launch in 1997.
Designed to fill a gap in the market for those who wanted the practicality of a traditional station wagon, but sitting slightly higher on its wheels while also being able to tackle off-road terrain, the Forester heralded a new era of motoring, creating an all-new segment that barely existed previously – the crossover/medium SUV.
True, the original Subaru Forester looked more like a family wagon than any SUV – or, more pertinently, 4WD or 4x4 as they were known in Australia back then – of the day. But it offered a slightly higher ride and the surety of AWD in a market that didn’t really know it wanted – or needed – it.
Today, of course, the medium SUV segment is booming, enjoying a 16.4 per cent market share year-to-date, second only behind small cars (18.5 per cent). Just about every manufacturer is in on the act, too.
A quick break down: in Australia, 27 manufacturers offer 30 different models and a staggering 234 variants in the medium SUV segment. Prices range from a low of $23,990 for the MG GS Vivid to a mind-numbing $265,329 for Tesla’s Model X P100d (yes, it’s classified a medium SUV).
That’s a lot of choice for the buying public, making standing out from the crowd, not only difficult, but essential for any manufacturer looking to nab the cash of the same family of buyers – families.
There’s no question automotive tastes have moved on over the last couple of decades. Before the explosion of the medium SUV segment, Aussie families satisfied their personal mobility needs typically with large sedans, capable of seating five in comfort and with plenty of storage space out back in the boot.
In its place, today’s families are catering to their desires with large-ish SUVs with seating for five in comfort and plenty of storage space out back. The requirements haven’t really changed much; it’s just taken on a different shape.
Enter the 2017 Subaru Forester 2.5i-L S4 Auto AWD, the Japanese brand’s near entry-level combatant in that hotly-contested segment.
And it’s a crowded market, a segment fought out between the sales leading Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tucson, Toyota RAV4, Nissan X-Trail, Mitsubishi Outlander, Kia Sportage, Volkswagen Tiguan, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and the Forester. And that’s just at the lower end of the price range before we even consider premium offerings from the Europeans.
Our test car, rolls out of the showroom for $33,240 (plus the usual on-road costs), placing it firmly in the sights of similarly-priced and specced rivals such as the Mazda CX-5 2.5 Maxx ($33,690), Nissan X-Trail 2.5 ST ($32,490), Mitsubishi Outlander 2.4 LS ($33,500), Toyota RAV4 2.5 GX ($33,650), Suzuki Grand Vitara Sport ($33,489), and Ford Escape 1.5 Ambiente EB ($32,990). That’s a spread of just $1200 across seven different manufacturers.
Spend just a grand or three more, and another horde of similarly specced SUVs enter the fray for family dollars – Honda CR-V 1.5 VTi-S ($35,490), MG GS 2.0 Essence X ($34,990), and Renault Koleos 2.5 Zen ($36,490) all offer similar specification and features.
That’s 10 mid-sized SUVs from 10 manufacturers with a price spread of just $4000. All are petrol-engined, and all are AWD. Cheaper, two-wheel drive models are available, but if we’re looking at where the Forester sits in the segment, then these 10 cars are it.
So, competitive much?
The 2017 Subaru Forester then, has its work cut out to crash through its rivals and attract the attention of family buyers. How does it stack up?
Pretty well, actually. Your circa-$33k spend leaves you with precisely nothing more to spend. The Forester is an anomaly in this day and age of option boxes (and the corresponding ring of the cash register), with precisely zero options available. None. Oh wait, there’s metallic paint, but that’s a no-cost option (our tester was finished in Sepia Bronze, not the most striking of colours, but hey, at least it’s free).
That’s not to say the Forester is left wanting. It’s not. But, and it’s a big but, it misses out on some pretty crucial safety features new car buyers have come to expect – there’s no blind-spot monitoring, lane change assist, or rear cross-traffic alert, for instance. And they can’t even be optioned, which is incongruous since the next model up in the range, the 2.5i-S, has those features standard. Surely, an optional pack wouldn’t be that difficult to implement, would it?
That said, the 2.5i-L scores the following: six airbags, ABS, electronic brake force distribution (EBD), a rear-view camera, cruise control (but not adaptive), Subaru’s active torque transfer system, remote keyless entry, electronic stability control (ESC), hill-descent control, traction control, daytime running lamps, idle stop/start, halogen headlights and LED tail-lights. There’s also a full-size alloy spare, rare in this day and age, and commendable.
But, and it’s another big but… this spec of Forester has no proprietary satellite navigation, nor does it feature smartphone mirroring, so no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. That leaves buyers wanting the convenience of sat-nav having to either rely on their phone mounted clumsily on an aftermarket holder, or purchasing and installing a third-party GPS system. In this day and age, that’s a big letdown in such a hot and competitive segment.
Navigation issues aside, the Forester is a decent thing, if a little utilitarian. No one is buying this mid-sized SUV to make a statement, It’s a simple, effective, no-fuss means of lugging the family and associated kit around town or off the beaten track. And it does so, pretty well.
The 2.5-litre, naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine offers 126kW of power at a peak of 5800rpm and 235Nm of torque at 4100rpm, by no means earth-shattering numbers but they do the job well enough. The Forester, despite its kerb weight of 1568kg, can hustle the 0-100km/h sprint in a claimed under 10 seconds, 9.9 to be precise. Respectable enough.
But let’s face it, Forester owners aren’t going to be too concerned with acceleration times. They’ll likely just want something that moves off from the lights at a reasonable clip, is able to cruise on the highway at a settled and easy-going 110km/h, and has enough punch for overtaking. Tick.
But the real hidden gem under the Forester is the constantly variable transmission (CVT) that drives power to all four wheels. It is a delight, quiet and intuitive, you never feel as if the ’box is working against the car. It just seems to know the exact gear needed for any given situation.
There’s next to no drone or ‘whine’ from the CVT. I know some reviewers in the past have made note of excessive droning from the CVT, but honestly, I did not experience that at all. Perhaps, I was driving the Forester like its intended customer and not a motoring journalist. Simply, it goes about its business of propelling the car with a the minimum of fuss. And, I suspect, this is exactly the type of experience buyers of this car are after.
The ride is not remarkable, in that it does its job well. Bumps are absorbed without fanfare and the Forester settles quickly, even over sharper hits like speed bumps and deep potholes. It’s a cossetting experience, and makes for a pleasant journey around town, even on the potholed, speed-humped streets of inner city Sydney where I live.
Subaru claims an urban cycle fuel consumption figure of 10.2L/100km and, after a week in the Forester on primarily urban duties, we saw 10.8L/100km. Not too shabby. The idle stop/start also has a nifty display which tells you how long your car has been 'stopped' at idle and how much fuel you've saved. In my case, I spent just over an hour stuck in traffic with the stop/start engaged for a saving of 1.1-litre of fuel. Still on fuel, the Forester is happy to sip the cheaper 91RON variety. A cheap date, then.
Inside, the Forester is, let’s call it, hardy. It’s quite dark inside, lots of black and dark-grey, broken up only by the light-coloured headlining and a smattering of gloss black accents. The seats are finished in a durable cloth trim and are firm and comfortable. There’s heaps of headroom, both in front and back while leg-, toe- and knee-room is also perfectly plentiful.
Infotainment comes courtesy of 7.0-inch touchscreen and while it’s acceptable enough, it’s not excellent. There’s only AM/FM radio (no DAB), a CD player (!) and a six-speaker sound system which offers a middling sound at best. There’s also Bluetooth connectivity for phone and audio streaming but as already mentioned, no smartphone mirroring and no satellite navigation. Grrr.
The Forester does have one feature I just love – massive sun visors. In an age where visors are so small and narrow and seem to have very little effect, the Subaru’s are huge and as such, do a fantastic job of blocking out that pesky dawn/dusk sun glare. It’s a small thing, and to be honest, one you won’t notice. But like all good things, you don’t really notice them until they’re not there. Anyway, kudos to Subaru for sun visors that work!
The front row has the usual accoutrements expected of a family oriented, medium SUV: there’s a couple of USB points, an auxiliary outlet and 12V outlet, too. There’s also a neat little coin tray in the centre console.
Second row passengers are not so well catered for. There are no rear air vents and no USB points. There are two ISOFIX points on the outboard seats as well as three top-tether points for those with kiddies.
The boot itself is spacious – at 422 litres – without being huge. That expands to 1481 litres with the 60/40 split-fold back row rucked away. Look, it’s not a huge boot by any stretch, but it’s big enough for a modern family, depending on your definition of modern family. In my case, it’s a single parent with a toddler and a teenager and there’s definitely enough space for a pram, a week’s worth of groceries and the usual teenage girl ‘necessities’ that seem to run to four bags of clothes, five pairs of shoes and a pair of roller skates!
And the boot is rubber-lined, so the family pooch, complete with muddied paws, won’t inflict too much damage on the interior.
The Subaru Forester comes with a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty with services due every six months or 12,500km, whichever comes first. It also comes with 12 months roadside assist. The Forester has a five-star ANCAP rating, earned in 2013.
Buyers can also opt into Subaru’s capped price servicing plan, which, over three years (or 75,000km), will set you back a total of $2283.25.
The Subaru Forester has come a long way since it blazed the trail with its ‘SUV Tough, Car Easy’ mantra back in 1997. Then, it stood almost alone in a segment that had yet to be defined. But the game has moved on, and rapidly.
Luckily for Subaru, it has moved with the times and while the current generation Forester is not without its flaws, it remains a versatile, family-friendly mid-sized SUV. Sure, it’s not as distinctive as it once was, but as a low $30k offering in a segment crowded with reasonably-price alternatives, there’s still plenty to love about the Forester.
Click on the Gallery tab for more images by Sam Venn.