Subaru's ever-popular Forester is all new, even if you blink and miss it. But is there more goodness below the skin in the base 2.5i version to make it a more appealing urban family runabout?
It’s been a long time since I was part of a two-Subaru family: first-gen Forester for her, Liberty RS Turbo for me, our then-toddler eldest child having no real preference for either. Fast-forward almost two decades and my now-adult eldest bears only the slightest resemblance to her former cherub self, and surely the same can be said for the Subaru Forester’s fifth and apparently all-new generation.
Perhaps the only thing unchanged is that I’ve still not seen any tree carers – hence the namesake – using Subaru’s ever-growing SUV on the job.
The Forester breed is a strange juxtaposition: on one hand, it seems the all-newie is hardly any different from its direct predecessor, yet on another it couldn’t be more different than the original version in many ways. At its late-’90s arrival, the first-gen Forester struck me as being an unorthodox if ostensibly straightforward concept that was honest and charming. Climbing into the latest version, today’s contemporary extrapolation seems much more conservative, convoluted in features and equipment, and frankly a little charmless despite sticking more or less true to a time-honoured format.
That’s no slight. Creeping conformity has proven to serve well what a good many Forester owners and SUV buyers want and expect. But does that necessarily make for a critical success? Not necessarily.
Larger, roomier, more stiffly constructed, more fulsome in safety, and with enhanced driver assistance is natural motoring evolution; though, as we noted at the range’s local launch, you now pay more for it. Our entry-level 2019 Subaru Forester 2.5i tips in at $33,490 list – $3240 pricier than its manual-equipped predecessor – but when you consider the standard auto trans and the lift in equipment on show, the value proposition is more or less unchanged.
But there’s less on offer elsewhere: no diesel or turbocharged engine options yet, although a hybrid model is on the way.
Still, this new generation has fared well as an 8.0/10 rating proposition in review overseas and locally thus far, though it remains to be seen whether that appraisal shifts after living with the price-busting version for a week in the typical urban daily driven forum.
First up, packaging, and today’s Forester is a curiously mixed result. Its tall, almost frumpy appearance – it first doesn’t sell on its styling – services sensibility in a number of ways, offering a huge glass area for exceptional visibility for all aboard, a narrow physical presence that’s easy to guide when parking and maneuvering around in confined environments (such as multi-storey carparks), and modest improvements in interior roominess and bootspace for what was already a pretty handy package to begin with.
But all isn’t exclusively well in this department, particularly once you climb behind the wheel. The boxer is a bulky engine, making the footwell and pedal box placement quite shallow. This forces front occupants rearwards in search of legroom, sacrificing second-row roominess in trade of first-row comfort, locating the deep and fussy dash fascia with its overwrought stacked-screen arrangement slightly out of natural reach when trying to access many of the car’s controls. Add the high, chunky bonnet line, and judging the extremities of the front end of the vehicle is a bit tricky, even for taller drivers.
Fancy? Yes. But it’s not nearly as congruent in clear SUV design as many of its competitors.
There’s still some conspicuous afterthought about the mismatch of graphics and fonts spread through its three displays that include the driver’s screen, the main infotainment touchscreen, and the small central top-screen serving mostly as a read-out for the EyeSight safety features (more later).
There’s further window dressing in the layout’s button frenzy – there are 17 different controls on the steering wheel alone – and a mishmash of greyed-out textures and surfaces for a bit of a ‘premium richness’ that does seem only skin deep when married with mechanical seat adjustment and a console rotary dial that seems to do little more than turn ESP on or off.
The small 6.5-inch touchscreen looks cost-cut and dwarfed by the huge angular central stack, though it's functionally sound, quite high in resolution and laden with features such as DAB+, Harmon Kardon-branded (six-speaker) sound, a good-quality guided reversing camera display, and Apple and Android smartphone mirroring that's particularly handy given that the base Forester doesn’t get proprietary navigation.
The cloth-trimmed seats aren’t terribly supportive, either. They’re more stylized, with oodles of double stitching to match much of other trimmed surfaces, than they are properly shaped. Strangely enough, the leather-dipped range-topping 2.5i-S, which we also sampled around the same time, offered front seating with more ergonomically friendly bolstering, finer long-haul comfort and fitter lateral support, for design reasons that are tricky to quantify.
Despite the aforementioned first-row packaging gripes, the Forester has good rear space for a mid-sizer, that airy ambience of the large glasshouse welcoming for rear occupants young and old, and huge headroom complemented by decent knee and shoulder room for what’s a comfortable four-adult prospect, if a squeeze for three adults in the back.
The rear seats themselves are quite flat in the base and back – again, more good-looking form than functional comfort and support – but there are ample rear occupant conveniences such as dual cupholders in the fold-down armrest, rear air vents, and a pair of tablet-friendly 2.1-amp USB ports.
As we’ve pointed out in earlier reviews, good design features are the wide rear door opening (almost 90 degrees in maximum), huge door aperture for ease of entry and egress, and the newly enlarged tailgate aperture for the moderately larger bootspace that’s 498 litres with the 40:60-split-fold rear seats in play and 1060L converted into a two-seater.
There’s a full-size spare wheel, too, necessitating a quite high-set (and nicely flat) rear floor that is, by nature, a pro or a con depending on taste and needs. While you do lose some outright spaciousness all things considered (the con), you won’t break your back loading in heavy items or, should the situation require, you need a surrogate table for impromptu nappy changes with the little’uns.
Despite its quirks, it really is quite a smart and well thought out family-friendly vessel. But what’s it like to set sail in?
The direct-injected, naturally aspirated 2.5-litre flat-four-cylinder might well be “90 per cent new”, but you begin to wonder where and how when the changes are so tough to pick academically or under foot. Its 136kW and 239Nm are nominal 10kW and 4Nm improvements against the last unit, but when you consider that some markets got a 123kW/226Nm 2.5-litre boxer two decades ago in gen one – though Australia got short-changed with N/A two-litres – it’s hardly a real march of progress in the powertrain department.
The new engine still cold idles noisily at 2000rpm. Once warm, initial throttle response is disconcertingly sharp yet, as RPM rise, roll-on energy is disappointingly flat, lacking the sort of mid-range energy and larger degree of flexibility you otherwise find with a turbocharged engine. The CVT, too, has apparently been revised for refinement’s sake, yet the strange gremlin of the Subaru transmission design – a slight ‘shunting’ while the driver modulates a constant throttle – remains an unsavory characteristic.
Despite being fitted in a great many models, Subaru’s naturally aspirated/CVT powertrains, by and large, remain ordinary at best, frustrating at worst. It’s long been that way, and back in its day the non-GT first-gen Foresters were downright gutless. Sure, a great many owners and buyers might care less about the character and execution of the current powertrain – and it remains to be seen whether an absence of turbo or turbo-diesel motivation will impact popularity with buyers – but that doesn’t automatically make it improved nor necessarily good.
The Forester has traditionally been one of the more pliant riders of the medium-SUV segment, yet even on these ‘small’ 17-inch wheels (higher-spec variants get 18s), this is a firmer, busier ride quality than I remember from the last generation. This has removed some undesirable floatiness through the tauter character, particularly at lower speed around town, but won’t be to some tastes.
The upshot to this is slightly more connection between the driver and the road, if to a point. Slightly aloof steering that errs to the weightier side of moderation at parking speeds, some pronounced body roll, and the less than assertive on-road grip of the 225mm Bridgestone Dueller tyres don’t imbue a particularly tied down, handling-savvy dynamic.
That said, the Forester does provide mixed-surface balance: tie these characteristics with the active torque vectoring in a light off-road or slippery surface environment, and the Subaru’s well-rounded nature really does impress and is well suited to the role of safe transit for the family.
Speaking of which, active safety, centred around Subaru’s EyeSight concept, has become a huge selling point for the brand, and the suite of features bundled into this base car, for the money, is quite impressive. What must be pointed out, though, is that this suite isn’t quite as fulsome as pricier variants, but you do get AEB, lane-change assist, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. You miss out on the very handy low-speed reversing AEB and the driver-condition monitoring – a sort of facial recognition system to monitor driver drowsiness – available on higher-spec range variants.
While I fully endorse ‘the more the better’ stance to active safety, poorly calibrated functionality – doesn’t activate when it ought to, activates when it shouldn’t – can defeat the desired benefits. And while Subaru’s suite of safety features is, by and large, quite good and convincingly beneficial, it’s not perfect and glitch-free.
On my daily home-work-home commute in Sydney, a town riddled with dual-carriageway turns, the lane-departure warning system triggers incessantly enough that, taken as literal advice, it might never advise to ever actually change lanes. The forward-collision warning and, occasionally, AEB are also a little too hyperactive for the Aussie big smoke, particularly in peak traffic periods.
The active lane-keeping, too, works a treat if in environmentally calmer and measured situations (out of town with nice, clear line markings), just not so well and not so consistently in the chaotic crush and thick of it in Sydney. It’s not some ‘highway’ feature, either, but instead defaults to ‘on’ above 60km/h, and around town where commuting speed fluctuates above and below such a threshold, it’s quite difficult to discern if and when the system is actually working, largely defeating its purpose.
To be fair, this isn’t a Subaru-centric issue, as both a Kia and Audi I drove the same week were prone to overly sensitive safety systems ill calibrated for real-world Aussie consumption. A topic fit for further discussion elsewhere, then...
But safety credentials the Forester has, and at the time of writing it’s an expected though as yet untested five-star ANCAP prospect. The servicing intervals are 12-month/12,500km terms, with capped-price servicing totalling $2388.34 across five years/62,500km.
From January 1, 2019, Subaru introduced a five-year/unlimited kilometre factory warranty, and a longer five-year capped-price servicing program, making the company's after-sales much more competitive against the growing number of brands offering between five and seven years of cover.
Predictable, safe and surprise-free, this new generation mightn’t represent a watershed moment in Forester history, though it still does bundle in a helluva lot of popular features by measure of the times and current buyer tastes.
And while it's no benchmark drive, its ‘smart enough’ packaging and solid all-round capabilities – anchored by its maker’s hard-earned permanent-all-paw credibility – start to look very enticing for the $33,490 list price ask when you consider what similar money offers in AWD mid-sized SUV alternatives.