The long march of hybridisation and electrification continues, with another medium SUV getting the green treatment. No doubt buoyed by the shelf-stripped success of the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, Subaru has added a petrol-electric powertrain to its own medium SUV, the 2020 Subaru Forester Hybrid.
The Forester Hybrid gets a choice of two trim levels: 2.0e-L ($39,990) and 2.0e-S ($45,990). And in this test, we’ve got the range-topping option.
Choosing the hybrid 2.0e-S over the 2.5i-S costs $3000 more, while the difference between 2.0e-L and 2.5i-L is $3050.
Otherwise, the specification between hybrid and non-hybrid stays mostly the same.The additional six grand in asking price over the 2.0e-L nets you big-ticket items like electric-dropping second row, electric sunroof, Harman Kardon audio system, 8.0-inch infotainment display with all of the trimmings, leather interior trim, electric tailgate and power-fold mirrors with auto-dip. This is all amongst many other small improvements and updates.
The driver-monitoring camera system also has the ability to recognise the driver's face, and adjust the seat and rear-view mirrors to preset profiles as one of the neat tricks of the S specification.
This comes atop other bits that round out the Forester nicely: auto wipers and headlights, tyre pressure monitoring, dual-zone climate control, leather steering wheel and shifter, privacy glass, smart key, push-button start, and a comprehensive set of active and passive safety gear.
The Forester Hybrid gets a driveline shared with the smaller (and 66kg lighter) XV Hybrid. What Subaru has dubbed ‘e-Boxer’ is a combination of its existing 2.0-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder petrol engine, augmented by an electric motor that slots into the ‘Lineartronic’ CVT automatic gearbox. This set-up lets the hybrid powertrain work in conjunction with Subaru’s existing permanent all-wheel-drive system, including X-mode for light off-roading.
The petrol engine engine develops 110kW at 6000rpm and 196Nm at 4000rpm in this application, while the electric motor has peak outputs of 12.3kW and 66Nm. Subaru doesn't quote a combined total of 122.3kW and 262Nm, like some might assume. In fact, it doesn’t give a combined figure at all. The relationship between current and hydrocarbon isn’t a fluid one: 1+1 doesn’t always equal two.
Subaru also tells us there isn’t a standardised metric for measuring the combined power output on a hybrid drivetrain, and that’s the reason why it chose not to publish one.
Regardless, this hybridised Forester definitely makes less power and potentially more torque than a more conventional 2.5-litre Forester (the only other engine option in the range), which makes 136kW at 5800rpm and 239Nm at 4400rpm.
As is the case with electric and hybrid vehicles, I need to throw some more numbers and data at you to complete the driveline picture. The motor, which expels as well as captures energy when coasting and braking, operates on a 118V system, with a 4.8-amp-hour battery that is housed over the rear differential.
Subaru also doesn’t quote a kilowatt-hour (kWh) rating for the battery, but it can be deduced from those above numbers, working out to 0.568kWh. For reference’s sake, this is a similar size to most 48V mild hybrid systems. A RAV4 Hybrid battery is 1.6kWh, nearly three times the size. It’s a different chemistry battery (nickel metal hydride) and a higher voltage (245V).
Accommodating these extra bits means the Forester Hybrid goes without a spare wheel. Users are left with a goo-based puncture repair kit, which isn’t a cure-all for a flat tyre. Big punctures and gashes or damaged wheels can’t be fixed by goo, for example. Subaru is looking at a solution with its aftermarket team for securing a spare somewhere in the boot, but it’s still a compromise.
Hybridisation also makes the Forester a heavier vehicle: 67kg, when comparing the tare weight of a petrol-only Forester 2.5i-S.
Subaru says the electric drive system is enough to theoretically power the Forester in EV mode up to 40km/h. However, in actual practice that never happens. Aside from letting your foot off the brake and crawling forward, or stuff like slow manoeuvres in car parks, the Forester is only able to run without the petrol engine up to, say, 4km/h. You might be able to double that, if you press the accelerator so very gently, and accelerate glacially, but in the real world, pure EV power is less than negligible.
Instead, the electric motor looks to supplement the petrol engine where possible, and lets it switch off when not required.
The powertrain is overall not as good or smooth as a 2.5-litre non-hybrid Forester. While the infographics indicate that the petrol and electric motors work synchronously, the petrol engine is often found to be labouring valiantly around that peak torque range (4000rpm), or redlining at highway speeds when you require a decent burst of acceleration.
Although the power-to-weight ratio is lower than a 2.5-litre Forester, performance for the e-Boxer Forester is mostly adequate. It’s an experience not helped by the stop-start nature of the vehicle that is exhibited when you’re looking to quickly transition from dead-engine stopped to accelerating. It’s not an issue when you’re able to predict the flow of traffic – easing off the brakes and breathing on the throttle is enough to kick the main engine into life.
However, when you’ve spotted a gap in traffic, there is a brief but unavoidable moment where the car takes a beat, and despite a buried pedal, you are left waiting for the engine to kick in. It’s a short wait, but it’s neither smooth nor enjoyable.
While performance around town is mostly good enough, calling upon everything the hybrid system has to offer against a heavy load like a slow, steep climb or freeway slip road, you’d prefer to have a bit more power overall.
Bump absorption is a real strength of the overall ride compliance, and general refinement and noise suppression are good as well. The steering is on the slow side, especially when compared to some other SUVs that feign sporting pretensions. The Forester rightly prioritises general comfort, particularly over rough surfaces and around town.
Our average fuel economy worked out to be an indicated 8.5L/100km during our time with the hybrid Forester. Keep in mind that my driving consists of mostly highway driving – not the kind of scenario that gives the biggest supposed benefits. This fuel economy (which did include stints of suburban driving) remains largely unchanged compared to my previous experience in a Forester 2.5i-S.
That lines up with Subaru’s official consumption split, which points to only 0.1L/100km difference for extra-urban (highway) driving: 6.3 versus 6.2. Any real fuel economy benefit would then have to come in the trench warfare of heavily trafficked urban driving, where stop/start and slow-speed coasting has the potential to let the hybrid system conserve more fuel.
In this scenario, Subaru claims a big improvement: 9.3L/100km versus 7.5L/100km when comparing 2.5i-S against 2.0e-S. However, those numbers are only indicative of what you might get. And considering my experience yielded relatively high consumption figures in easy conditions, I don’t hold a lot of hope for the Forester Hybrid to deliver the claimed mid-7s (a 19.35 per cent improvement) in urban driving.
The unabashed boxy shape yields a spacious and comfortable interior, and well appointed in this high grade. For the purposes of hauling friends, family and all that comes with them, the Forester is well proportioned. The boot measures in at 509L, 11L better than a non-hybrid. Fold down the seats and 1779L of space avails itself.
When used for passengers, the second row offers enough leg room, head room and general comfort to suit the application. Air vents and two USB points are welcome, and the general outward visibility lends a good feeling of overall airiness.
Up front, you’ll notice plenty of digital real estate vying for your attention. Along with the easy-to-use main 8.0-inch infotainment display, you also have a smaller multi-function display on top. While you might have your navigation or radio controls running through the main display, having the second screen for something like fuel economy and range works well. If that’s not enough, you’ve also got another multi-function display nestled between analogue meters in the binnacle.
Safety is a strong point for the Forester, and something Subaru loves to espouse. And true to form, a five-star ANCAP safety rating was awarded in 2019.
On top of the usual mix of safety gear (lane-departure warning, forward and reverse autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, front-view and side-view camera), Subaru’s forward-facing EyeSight system is bolstered by yet another camera, which keeps a keen eye on the driver.
It monitors your driving and body movements behind the wheel, and isn’t shy to call you out. I was repeatedly reminded to keep my eyes on the road, even though I was leaning to one side while sliding along in slow traffic (with eyes on the road).
The lane-keep assist can be annoying at times, dropping in and out despite travelling on (seemingly) well-marked main roads. A slight tug on the steering wheel as the system dropped out wasn’t appreciated, either. And while we are at it, I noticed the forward-collision warning and autonomous emergency braking can be a little too overeager.
All of the safety stuff is great to have, but it would be nice if it were more seamless and less intrusive when it didn’t need to be.
Servicing costs increase slightly with the hybrid driveline, going up by $49.50 over the five-year capped-price program. With intervals of every 12 months or 12,500km, you're looking at each visit costing $350.25, $588.31, $354.83, $784.77 and $354.86, for a grand total of $2433.02.
Subaru has a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty on its new vehicles, which has been in place since the start of 2019.
Subaru’s Forester has always been a solid option for a modern-day family wagon, because it nails the important basics well. A spacious and comfortable interior that favours practicality over panache, and a ride that prioritises general comfort and bump absorption.
Unfortunately, the introduction of a hybrid driveline does little to improve the overall offering of the Forester. We didn’t notice any real-world fuel economy improvements, but we did notice a reduction in driveline refinement and performance. Combine that with the lack of a spare wheel (the 2.5-litre Forester gets a full-sized spare) and an increased asking price, and it’s a difficult car to recommend overall.