Flashiness takes a back seat to thoughtfulness in the 2018 Subaru Forester. It won’t set your pulse racing, but it's as honest, practical and unpretentious as ever, and still happy getting off the beaten path every once in a while.
Subaru has always been onto a good thing with its Forester SUV, therefore breaking the mould with the new-generation model was out of the question.
So while the fifth iteration of Subaru’s top-seller is more or less new from the ground up, it feels somehow familiar. The company’s famously loyal owner base demands as much.
The new Forester is slated to hit Australia in September, but that didn’t stop Subaru from inviting us to Tokyo to have an early look. Should you hold fire on that Nissan X-Trail, Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5 order for a bit?
Like the new Impreza and its XV (Crosstrek) spin-off, the MY18 Forester is based on the Subaru Global Platform, a stretchable and shrinkable core architecture that'll underpin the majority of its models from now on.
It's a smidgen larger than before, stiffer and stronger (ergo better at protecting you in a collision) and theoretically able to both handle better and be more comfortable at the same time.
We’ll start with the interior, which is the roomiest to date. The 1.3m-wide boot grows to 520L, with the floor now lower even with the standard full-size spare, and wider. Wide enough, in fact, for a set of golf clubs to be loaded in sideways behind the wheel arches. Big improvement.
Subaru has also fitted an electric tailgate that’s much, much faster than before, while the boot space itself has storage nooks, four sturdy bag hooks, and switches in the sidewalls to drop the back seats flat, making loading longer items easy.
The back seats offer more leg room and head room than before, and even with a sunroof on higher-spec grades there’s space for people up to 200cm tall – I’m 194cm and had no issues. The back doors open wider, almost 90 degrees; a feature shared with the equally capacious Honda CR-V.
New touches include three-zone seat-back pockets, rear vents and two rear USB points, while the side windows remain the biggest in the class, helping outward visibility and creating a spacious, airy feel. That’s a Forester signature. Naturally, you get side curtain airbags and child-seat points.
On the downside, the driveline does cause a raised hump running under the middle seat, more so than the Honda, limiting space. The back seats recline, but don’t slide or come out, and the reading lights are yellow halogens not LEDs.
The front seats are very comfortable and supportive, and trimmed in hard-wearing cloth or leather depending on the grade. Subaru added a premium visage by fitting lots of soft-touch leather coverings on contact points, and tasteful silver and black highlights. There’s a bit of form with the function.
The centre fascia is similar to the XV's. There’s a small display atop the dash that shows stuff such as torque distribution and pitch/roll angles, under which sits an 8.0-inch flush touchscreen with satellite navigation, plus standard Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
In typical Subaru fashion, there’s a super ‘busy’ steering wheel with up to 17 buttons (!) controlling the various trip computers, audio functions, etc. Storage areas include a big console and glovebox, decent door bins and a sunglasses holder in the roof.
More importantly, you sit up nice and high, and the thin A-pillars and big windows make outward visibility best-in-class. You’re driving a greenhouse.
In terms of safety, every version will get some form of Subaru’s EyeSight active safety system, which is camera-based rather than radar/lidar based. That big plastic hump next to the rear-view mirror houses the unit.
Features include autonomous emergency braking in drive and reverse, and front- and side-view monitors. Depending on the grade, you also get active cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and lane assist.
Another new function that’ll polarise is called the Driver Monitoring System, which uses a facial recognition camera like many smartphones. When you hop behind the wheel, it’ll recognise you and put the cabin temperature, memory seat position and exterior mirror height to your presets. You can set five profiles, and it really works. Very cool idea.
To the drive experience. We won't fall down the rabbit hole of technical jargon too much, but Subaru claims it’s 40 per cent more rigid torsionally, has 50 per cent fewer body vibrations, and is 2dB quieter thanks to the fitment of more insulating materials.
More importantly, it retains the familiar 50:50 symmetrical all-wheel drive as standard on every variant, which is a rarity in the class. This system isn't a sensor-based reactive set-up like most competitors have – instead, both axles are always driving.
Our time behind the wheel was very limited, unfortunately, but sufficient to tell us that the new model follows in the XV's wheel tracks by being more composed over hits and undulations, and a little more fun to throw around than before thanks to quicker steering, while also soaking up smaller ruts and hits as well as most rivals, and better than many.
Subaru has also massaged its X-Mode system, with a new rotary dial controlling snow and mud modes. These make the throttle more doughy on slippery surfaces to limit wheel spin, in tandem with systems that brake each wheel when slip is detected, and turn off the stability control at low speeds, which helps you clamber through muddy and sandy trails.
The fact you get 220mm of clearance helps no end. A small muddy course on our circuit drive was dispatched easily enough, while hill-descent control reduces the need for low-range for most soft-roading duties. It remains one of the better-credentialed monocoque SUVs without reduction gearing for those looking to explore beyond the bitumen.
Unlike the old Forester with a multitude of engine options, this new one has just one drivetrain: an overhauled 2.5-litre boxer four-cylinder with no turbocharger, mounted horizontally (another brand staple).
There's direct injection now, not port injection, and most other components have had some sort of tweak or another. Subaru claims 90 per cent ‘new’ parts, with things such as the valvetrain, injectors etc the obvious revisions.
The old Forester's 2.5-litre engine made 126kW of power and 235Nm of torque. The new one makes 136kW at 5800rpm and 239Nm at 4400rpm. So those hundreds of new bits don't manifest in much, but then again, the outputs are competitive for the class.
It's a little peppier than before, and should use a little less 91RON petrol (the company claims a frugal 7L/100km on Japan’s test cycle), though common smaller turbo’d units require lower revolutions to get the most from them, meaning fewer noises coming out and less fuel being burned in the process.
The Subaru's boxer is also particularly gruff on cold starts, like Mazda's SkyActiv units.
The engine is matched as standard to a CVT with a manual mode and a sportier auto mode, which regardless of detractors is ideal for urban doddering. On the other hand, the drivetrain sounds somewhat strained under heavy throttle, more so than before, and perhaps because there's less tyre noise to block it out.
No doubt a disappointment to Subaru fans is the death of the outgoing XT version's 2.0-litre turbo with 177kW, as well as the removal of a diesel engine. The former in particular had a niche as one of the few hotted-up crossovers out there and will be missed for the character it imparted, though paltry sales suggest Subaru may not regret its choice too much.
One unit we will get, before the end of 2019, is the e-Boxer hybrid, which will pair the XV's 2.0-litre petrol with an electric motor system and lithium-ion batteries. It'll use about 5.4L/100km. This will be a welcome differentiator for Subaru in Australia.
Another benefit to the new Forester over its predecessor should be running costs. Other vehicles based on the Subaru Global Platform have 12-month/12,000km service intervals and cheaper maintenance costs, and we expect that to carry over to this model. The outgoing car is unusually expensive to maintain.
We’d rather Subaru extended its three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty to five years to match the likes of Honda, Hyundai, Holden and Ford, though. But, at least it should prove reliable, and resale values on these have historically been good.
On first impression, then, the new Subaru Forester may get a few noses out of joint with its reduced engine line-up, but the gains will outweigh the losses for the majority of buyers.
It's more spacious, more capable, and should be more affordable to own and run than the car it replaces. As far as dependable (generally), thoughtful family crossovers go, it remains on our shortlist. Evolution, not revolution.
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