When you think about this whole ‘SUV’ and crossover fad that is now dominating the market, Subaru was one of the first brands to really get on board. It wasn’t a simple passenger-car company that envisioned this new segment, rather it was an evolution of its range and history.
Subaru’s history in Australia is an interesting one. Aside from being a constantly dominant force in the world and domestic rally scene, cars like the Leone and Brumby had a more grassroots following of being handy and tough little units that could handle the rough conditions of rural and regional Australia.
The Forester debuted back in 1997, picking up where the old Leone wagon left off: it was one of the first of the new ‘crossover’ breed, sporting a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated flat-four. We only got the 2.0-litre engine to start with in Australia, with turbocharging finding its way into the range in later years.
The new engine is going back to the future, with a 2.5-litre size and natural aspiration. It’s 90 per cent new, however, according to Subaru. Many elements have been tweaked and redesigned in an effort to get more power and efficiency out of it. No more turbocharging, and no more manual gearbox. This is your only driveline option on the Forester. Luckily, it’s a decent set-up.
There is 136kW at 5800rpm available, along with 239Nm at 4400rpm. It’s an engine that is unhurried and unfazed in its nature; a relatively high displacement allowing it to stay relaxed, even when called upon to deliver some quick progress. With unloaded driving, I didn't find it lacking in any power. But it won't be accused of being rapid, either.
Despite that, fuel economy was fairly reasonable. Listed fuel economy (combined 7.4) wasn’t achieved on our testing, going more towards the mid-8s. And let’s be honest, the shape looks more air dam than aero, so it’s a reasonable number.
Along with that one choice of engine, you’ve got only one gearbox: a Subaru-developed CVT called ‘Lineartronic’. CVT transmissions can get a bad rap, but I think this one is great. It’s a smooth operator through the speeds and rev range. It will happily mimic a seven-speed planetary-style gearbox, and lets the engine run through the rev range for a more responsive and enjoyable drive. Engine specs indicate the car might be a little bit peaky and rev-dependent, but that's not the experience on-road.
Symmetrical AWD is still marketed, although it’s not a 50/50 split any more. CVT-equipped Subarus use an ‘Active Torque Split’ system, giving a 60/40 torque split via an electronically controlled, multi-plate clutch pack centre differential. Wheel speed is monitored via sensors, and the torque split is then adjusted to search for additional traction.
It lets the Forester drive with a nice sure-footedness around town, which stays nice on the highway. The 2.5-litre motor pushes the 1617kg of weight along in a relaxed manner, with enough poke and responsiveness to wrangle traffic merging. Overtaking at highway speeds needs a moment’s consideration to gather momentum, but it doesn’t feel too underdone.
Suspension and ride, in a word, are fine. You don’t tend to notice many characteristics about the car when driving it, because it’s not overly soft, not overly firm, but still giving a decent amount of feedback. It feels nicely dialled in for Australian roads, no doubt helped by the pragmatic 18-inch wheels (with a 225/55 Bridgestone Dueler H/P tyre).
Where the drive feels fantastic is when bitumen gives way to dirt. The all-wheel-drive set-up, combined with a fairly soft suspension set-up, makes it eat up dirt roads really well. The driving position is relatively high, and a very substantial 220mm of ground clearance (with a tidy undercarriage) gives you good confidence to cruise along dirt tracks. Steering, in particular, feels really nice in terms of feedback and control.
When you are off-road, the Forester does give some great benefits that befit the heritage of the brand. The available ground clearance is as good as some 4x4 utes, and you have some handy off-road modes via ‘X-Mode’ that do improve the Forester’s performance beyond the blacktop.
Throttle control, gear selection, traction control and hill descent control get tweaked up with X-Mode, across two modes (Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud), not dissimilarly to how a 4WD works. The CVT is able to lock into a lower ratio, giving you a bit more control and torque to play with off-road. For an occasional off-roader on some of the more basic challenges and some low-traction situations, the Forester is a great option.
Our off-road testing was light, but I did notice traction control kick in on a roughish climb to help me clamber forward, without too much complaint. There was only a couple of seconds of bucking against gravity before the Forester figured things out, and got me moving forward.
Unlike other SUVs attempting a more svelte body line to keep a sporty appearance, the rear end of the Forester’s bodywork practically runs at right angles. The shape is all about interior space, of which it has plenty: 498L with the second row in place, and 1768L when it's folded down. Square dimensions mean those litres are all useable as well. For family-focussed practicality, the sheer space on offer is handy.
Safety is a big player in the new Forester, with some advanced tech finding its way into the new model. There is Subaru’s autonomous braking (called EyeSight), and reverse automatic braking as well. Along with lots of sensors that monitor brake lights, lane departure, blind spot and rear cross traffic, the Forester also keeps an eye on the driver.
‘Driver Monitoring System’ watches whoever is behind the wheel, and will warn them against drowsiness and distraction. It pinged me quite a few times looking around in slow-moving traffic. What’s also cool is the Forester will recognise your face and set your seats, mirrors and climate control to how you last had it.
There is no shortage of information for the driver to access and digest via three different screens: a 6.3-inch LCD screen sitting below the main 8.0-inch touchscreen display. The head-up display also has a 4.2-inch display, which can read out all manner of information. You name it, you can find it. There’s probably a button for it somewhere, too. Mind you, we had the top-spec 2.5i-S that has a listed price of over $40K before on-roads.
That price gives you some nice comfort as well inside. The interior is nicely designed and finished, feeling roomy and comfortable enough for long runs behind the wheel. Extra displays and a flash Harman Kardon sound system all finish it off nicely to a premium level.