Cars can be excellent for a variety of reasons. Some feature innovative technology, some hit new highs in terms of handling or performance, while others, um, don’t do any of that yet are still excellent.
Take the Subaru Forester, for example. It isn’t groundbreaking, forges no new high standard for tech or dynamics, yet as a balanced family all-rounder the Forester excels at being entirely unremarkable.
Subaru won’t be thrilled with a review like that because it’s not very sexy. That’s okay, though, no-one said a medium SUV needs to be glamorous. Cars like the Forester need to be thoughtful and accommodating, and this one certainly is.
Starting with the obvious, the styling, which is pretty much a big box on wheels. Yes, there are a few flourishes here and there, and a couple of angles and swage lines thrown in for good measure. Ultimately, though, there’s an upright tailgate and a big, tall glasshouse. You can put lots of stuff in the back of a Forester easily and still see out. There are quite a few SUVs that miss the mark on one, if not both, of those areas.
In 2.5i-L specification, the Forester moves up one step from the base grade. Common to both, though, are features like cloth seat trim, 17-inch alloy wheels, a full-size spare, electric folding and heated door mirrors, dual-zone climate control, rear air vents, proximity key entry with push-button start, adaptive LED headlights, and automatic wipers.
Infotainment functions are handled by a 6.5-inch touchscreen complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and DAB+ digital radio, but no satellite navigation. Harman Kardon provides the tunes via a six-speaker sound system.
There’s no denying that by the latest standards, a 6.5-inch screen is small as brands race to incorporate 8.0-inch (or larger) screens. But it’s not the only place to gather essential info, with a secondary screen at the top of the centre stack and another colour display in the instrument cluster – each displaying something different.
If you’re new to the Subaru way it can look a little busy, but once you know what’s where, it’s easy to pick out the essential info you need. Similarly, the button-heavy steering wheel looks a little daunting initially, but works well with familiarity.
Where the 2.5i-L starts to differ from the 2.5i is in terms of safety features. The base model includes blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and Subaru’s EyeSight active safety suite, incorporating features like autonomous emergency braking, lane-change assist and adaptive cruise control. The 2.5i-L adds in driver-condition monitoring, reverse AEB, adaptive high-beam, along with front and side cameras.
Driver-condition monitoring is a camera-based system that faces the driver and can detect drowsiness and distraction, as well as using facial recognition to identify the driver and update climate and display preferences.
That makes the 2.5i-L a $35,490 proposition before on-road costs – a $2000 step up from the cheapest model.
Elsewhere in the interior, the design has been dressed up, even from the base level, with the Forester looking more premium than it has in the past and taking cues from the Impreza range in the process. Plus, smartly styled stitching details on the dash, metallic accents and contrast stitching on the seats to dress things up further.
Storage space in the cabin is well catered for with huge door bins, and a variety of quick-stash spots for cups, keys and wallets fore and aft of the centre console.
As for seating, the Forester puts the driver up nice and high with a good view of the road ahead. Short drivers are likely to appreciate a shorter seat base cushion, though taller drivers might not get the leg support they need.
Rear passengers are well catered for with a high roof bringing clear head room, generous leg room, and enough width to seat three abreast without complaint. Face-level air vents are handy to have too.
On long drives, there’s enough seat backrest support front and rear to pass the road trip test without being too firm. Better still, the low belt line and large windows mean everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in a rolling game of I-Spy.
Boot space measures 498 litres to the rear seats or 1768L to the front seats. Behind the seats that’s a whisker less than the CR-V and five-seat Nissan X-Trail, but slightly ahead of the CX-5 and Hyundai Tucson.
The rear seats can also be reclined, however electric releases inside the boot are reserved for higher-grade models. Bag hooks aplenty and a rear cargo blind are included, much to the assistance of your weekly grocery shop.
At the other end of the car you’ll find a 2.5-litre engine. Being a Subaru, the engine arranges its cylinders in a horizontally opposed ‘Boxer’ layout instead of all in a row like its competitors. Brand fans will approve, run-of-the-mill buyers may not even notice.
Subaru claims the engine is nearly all-new, but outputs of 136kW at 5800rpm and 239Nm at 4400rpm are close to the previous model, up by 10kW and 4Nm. Fuel consumption improves slightly from a previous 8.1L/100km to an official 7.6L/100km, though on test this car returned a less-impressive 9.2L/100km.
The engine is paired with Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT automatic, and there’s no alternative powertrain or drivetrain. The options of a manual, turbo diesel or turbo petrol from the last-generation car have all been dropped, not just in Australia but around the world.
Amongst cars like the RAV4, CX-5 and X-Trail, the Forester holds its own. The engine is suitable for the size of the package it has to work with, but isn't particularly noteworthy when it comes to acceleration.
Subaru’s CVT usually scores praise for being good as far as CVTs go, damning it with faint praise, but in this car there’s still a hint of that stretchy feeling when starting off from a standstill. There’s a delay between driver inputs and the car’s reactions that can take some adjusting to.
All Forester models feature all-wheel drive, which is handy to have in less-than-ideal conditions, and an X-mode setting, for the more adventurous, tweaks traction control, stability control, transmission and throttle response to assist in off-road endeavours.
It’s still no rugged rock crawler, but the Forester can venture a little further off made roads than your average medium SUV might.
On groomed surfaces the Forester is pleasantly quiet. Road noise is low, and engine noise is as low as it should be in average driving conditions. Push hard and there’s a bit of thrash from the engine under load, but thankfully the CVT keeps its wits about it and moves to a stepped mode to simulate the characteristics of a regular automatic.
Ride might not be as supple as expected, though. It’s not jarringly firm, but given the more relaxed feel from other areas of the car, the firmness over small bumps won’t impress all drivers. At the same time, the Forester recovers well over more pronounced imperfections and can deal readily with churned-up off-road surfaces.
Subaru's clever camera-based safety systems bring a lot of tech, and tend to do most things well, including one of the smoothest and most natural-feeling adaptive cruise-control systems. On the other hand, hair-trigger AEB that jumps in far too often isn't as likeable, nor is the facial recognition system that chimes every time you turn away for an over-shoulder head check – just a touch too nannying.
Setting the system up to recognise users is a bit of a chore too, so in many cases owners won't unlock the personalisation options available out of apathy more than anything else.
From an ownership perspective, the new Forester asks for a service at 12-month or 12,500km intervals, with a five-year capped-price servicing program. After those first five visits you’ll have accrued $2388.34 in scheduled charges, which makes the Forester more expensive to maintain than many rivals.
Ultimately, though, the Subaru Forester puts together a stack of mainstream functions done well. Passenger space, boot space, capability and versatility have been given due attention during development and it shows.
The new Forester doesn’t break moulds for design or packaging, but it builds on established formulas set by the previous-generation car – and by competitors – and hones them to create a better family SUV.
Unremarkable though it may be in many ways, the Forester’s strength lies in its inconspicuous adaptability to family life.