Subaru is now offering hybrid power in the Forester mid-sized SUV range, and the timing couldn't be better. It’s a hugely popular segment with a dizzying amount of choice, if with precisely one other conventional hybrid option in Toyota’s RAV4. Newcomer Forester Hybrid’s only direct rival has famously been thin on the ground, and it doesn’t appear to be getting thicker any time soon.
The right SUV for the times? Perhaps. The Forester Hybrid’s Bridgestones have barely hit terra firma and supply is struggling to meet demand, Subaru Australia suggesting keen buyers might have to cool their jets until, at last reckoning, May or beyond before getting a hold of one. Not too shabby a triumph for what’s an unproven twist from a well-proven brand, which wants for an expected price premium that should rightly return meaningful benefits in running efficiency and eco-savvy.
Tested here is the 2020 Forester Hybrid 2.0e-L, at $39,990 list (before on-roads) the more affordable of two available variants, and $3050 more than the petrol-powered L (and $1500 more than the unicorn-scarce RAV4 GX AWD Hybrid).
Given both Ls are virtually identical in specification save for a lick of chrome exterior trim work, ‘e-boxer’ badges and interior software tweaks for the screens, assessing those ‘meaningful benefit’ dividends should be a doddle.
The Forester L features list is familiar, unchanged and impressively fulsome in a good many of the right areas: no need for a forensic recap here. But worth serious consideration is that the last time we reviewed the petrol L version, we rated it a decent 7.7 overall prospect, if with an outstanding 8.3 for its value-for-money component.
The Forester’s considerable popularity is anchored on value – more so than all-round excellence, on evidence – and while the petrol L’s $37K-odd ask is certainly ‘on the money’, three grand’s a fair jump in investment for, powertrain apart, an identical package.
Point is: the Forester Hybrid must deliver measurable efficiency gains. Because otherwise you’d be crazy not to stick with the more-affordable petrol version. Or one of a number of other petrol medium-SUV alternatives that do offer nicer and/or fuller equipment suites for a similar $40K-odd ask.
There’s no doubt about it: a result and verdict here hinges almost entirely on what hybridisation brings to any otherwise 7.7-out-of-10 (petrol) Forester L prospect. In how it drives. In what it saves.
However, it would be remiss to not at least glance over our ‘baseline’ for established high- and low-lights. It’s no looker, particularly on the anaemic 17-inch rolling stock, but you get full LED lighting outside, and comprehensive X-mode multi-terrain chassis smarts underneath paired to, of course, Subaru’s proprietary all-wheel drive.
It's all draped in a expansive array of safety centred around the marque’s EyeSight technology that includes, amongst its various wonders, both forward and reversing AEB plus front, rear and kerb-side camera viewing.
The nothing-broken-nor-fixed cabin space offers the sort of three-screen and button-frenzied ostentation a great many Subaru owners love, but won’t find much favour with buyers after simplicity or intuitive ease of use. The glasshouse is huge and easy to see out of, seat comfort is merely average, material choice is mixed and, for general spaciousness, it’s decent if about middle of the segment.
There’s no skimping on air vents or device power in row two and you do gain 11L of boot space – now 509L – but you lose the petrol version’s full-size spare wheel and get a puncture repair kit instead. That isn’t great for its soft-roading credentials, but is somewhat necessary because under the floor is where the hybrid system’s lithium-ion battery is located.
Formalities dispensed with, let’s get down to hybrid-specific business: economy, savings, on-road character.
I’ve read commentators and commenters alike call the newcomer Subaru a 'mild hybrid'. It’s not. It’s a proper, closed-circuit, don’t-need-to-plug-it-in, conventional hybrid using both a 110kW and 196Nm 2.0-litre boxer four engine and a 12.3kW – yes, point-three – and 66Nm electric motor for propulsion, individually or in tandem, however and whenever the car itself sees fit.
Further, the term mild hybrid is an oxymoron: you either have multiple (hybrid) or singular (non-hybrid) propulsion types and there’s no technical ‘sorta-hybrid’ in between. (Further still, to call Subaru’s application a mild hybrid is to confuse it with Audi’s stated approach, which is merely internal combustion only, masquerading behind somewhat deceptive marketing.)
If hybrid-ism is a brave new world for you, no, you don’t simply add engine and motor combined power or torque outputs to arrive at total system figures: the units invariably don’t synchronise their maximum efforts at the same time, even when propelling in tandem (nor does Subaru advertise any grand totals).
The Forester uses lithium-ion power, a more advanced and efficient battery tech than the RAV4’s nickel-metal hydride approach, and it recharges using kinetic energy harvested via regenerative braking and coasting.
Worth particular note, though, is that even if the hybrid system chained engine/motor power for a 112.3kW result, it’s still well short of the regular, cheaper petrol Forester’s 136kW, which uses a larger 2.5-litre boxer four against the hybrid’s 2.0-litre unit.
On torque, the hybrid’s 2.0-litre makes its 196Nm way up at 4000rpm, the electric motor’s 66Nm from 0rpm, and on evidence of assessment it’s highly doubtful the powertrain ever manages to get close to (a theoretical) 262Nm combined. There’s almost certainly more on-tap shove from the 239Nm of the regular petrol Forester, or at least that’s the impression by the seat of the pants (more shortly).
Key point: the electric assistance doesn’t add extra performance to the Forester’s regular petrol-powered credentials, but rather compensates for being fitted with a different, lower-output internal combustion engine. But who cares, right, when the A-game is efficiency and fuel economy?
Claimed fuel savings over the Forester 2.5-litre are substantial: a huge 19 per cent improvement (7.5L/100km against 9.3L/100km) for the urban cycle and a decent nine per cent benefit (6.7L/100km plays 7.4L/100km) for the combined cycle.
It’ll run basic 91-octane, too. Interestingly, if perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s very little official benefit in comparative highway use (6.2L to 6.3L) – if you’re a keen regional buyer, it’d take an eternity flogging up and down the Hume to offset the hybrid’s $3050 price premium with hip-pocket fuel savings…
But what about the commonly quoted combined cycle? At $1.36 per litre (91RON NSW average at the time of writing), that 0.7L/100km advantage means you’d have to clock up around 320,000km in the Forester Hybrid L to achieve cost neutrality through fuel savings against the cheaper petrol L. Or 20,000km of regular driving use for 16 years. Oh, and you’ll only get halfway there, be it time or distance, before the eight-year/160,000km warranty on the lithium-ion battery pack runs out.
That, of course, is presuming the Forester Hybrid L nails its consumption claims: doubtful, given the wider industry track record, but not an unreasonable expectation given, well, that’s primarily what you’re buying (extra) into, right?
The target, then, is 6.7L/100km combined. Day one returns 8.8L. Reset the trip computer. The next day we hit double figures. Repeat. Then nines. Repeat. With increasingly sympathetic driving – outside of peak hour, around urban speed limits, in the honest flow of Sydney traffic – it tends to hover in the high-eights to high-nines mark.
Bumper-to-bumper peak hour yields similar numbers. An exploratory highway run brings mid-eights. Given myriad opportunities in vindication, the Forester Hybrid refused to get close to its claims. It dipped into the sevens just once all week.
It wasn't just this vehicle either. A high-spec Forester Hybrid 2.0e-S loan immediately followed our base L loan and its fuel economy performance was much the same. (We didn’t assess CO2 output so we’ll give its claimed reduction, from 168 grams per kilometre to 152g, the benefit of the doubt.)
Finding little positivity to report in consumption and associated hip-pocket savings, perhaps the hybrid powertrain was out to impress most by measure of drivability improvement? While we certainly weren’t expecting a quicker Forester, perhaps it was measurably nicer to drive?
On cold start-up, the 2.0-litre barks into life and settles into that 1800rpm high-idling din typical of Subaru’s boxer engines, in bold contrast to the way Toyota’s silent e-mode start-up doesn’t. Once warm, it’s quiet and refined enough, and an ever-present companion almost any time your right foot is in contact with the accelerator pedal.
Lift off on the move and much of the time the engine shuts down with its ‘sailing mode’ – a rolling stop-start function – where the driver’s screen proudly displays you’re driving ‘EV’. Technically yet, if only in a regeneration function, because the electric motor’s still bundied off.
Subaru states that, depending on conditions, the Forester Hybrid can “operate in fully electric mode up to 40km/h”. And on evidence those conditions include almost exclusively keeping away from the right pedal… Unless you’re on a slightly downhill run, with a tailwind, where the powertrain will very occasionally provide electric-only propulsion. For very short stints. On very light throttle applications. And, strangely, sometimes at speeds overshooting that 40km/h claim.
The SUV plucks EV decelerating. It prefers sitting at a standstill in EV mode. It just doesn’t much like the business of electron-only propulsion when the right foot is involved. And thus, it moves around fine fully EV at crawling speed, be it bumper-to-bumper traffic or parking, but at anything more than casual strolling pace you’re back into internal combustion zone, complete with a wobble as the boxer fires conspicuously to life.
No bones about it: the 12.3kW and 66Nm electric motor and its modest 0.568kWh battery system isn’t fit for the task of propelling 1643kg of unladen SUV, let alone once family and luggage are on board. While its inclusion qualifies a hybrid banner, its contribution is so small, so sparing and with such modest payback, you have to wonder why it even bothers.
Off the mark, with modest throttle, the electric motor makes an attempt to provide motion, and there’s an excessive pause before the petrol wobbles in with a sudden torque burst that kicks you in the back of the seat.
Between passing the output baton between the power units, and the notchy CVT transmission upshift steps, progress is grumpy and unrefined – though the boxer engine does shut down cleanly once that sailing mode activates. And just when you coerce the Forester into smooth running, you’re met with an incredibly touchy and abrupt braking action that brings it back to a halt.
It inevitably defaults to EV mode once stopped where, whether you like it or not, the digital speedo changes to an Eco display proudly boasting how much time EV has been activated and how many millilitres of fuel you’ve saved since the last trip computer reset. But given the Forester is markedly thirstier than is claimed, boasting fuel savings per litre is largely superfluous. For instance, during our video, it claimed to save 589ml with 9.9L consumption, making for a theoretical grand total of around 10.5L.
Ownership-wise, there's not a lot that separates hybrid Foresters from petrol versions. All are 12-month/12,500km intervals with a capped-price program covering five years/62,500km, and its total cost of $2433.02 for that period is close to what you’ll outlay for the 2.5-litre version. Warranty is five years of unlimited-kilometre coverage for the vehicle and, as mentioned above, eight years and 160,000km for the hybrid system’s battery pack.
If you’ve been holding out for a tangibly more eco-savvy Subaru, then I can’t help but feel that the Hybrid L will disappoint. Initially so with its drivability shortcomings, and in the longer-term ownership with a lack of any genuine fuel-saving benefit.
In fairness, it seems Subaru has opted for this powertrain format to maintain the Forester’s X-mode smarts and multi-terrain friendliness. Rival RAV4’s soft-road answer is the petrol-only Edge, but the Forester's hybrid system seems too underbaked to take full advantage of the remainder of the driveline.
As is, the Forester Hybrid lacks in final execution, calibration and polish. Like it skipped finishing school, and as if it’s hit showrooms with too little too soon. There isn’t even any ‘hybrid’ badging outside for owners willing to stump the extra three grand simply to parade eco-sensibility on their sleeves. The e-boxer badges instead convey what's happening only to those in the know.
We simply can’t find a reason why you’d opt for a hybrid Forester over the popular, more affordable, nicer driving and realistically no-less-ecocentric petrol version. Even if the idea of the newcomer seems like the more ideal solution for the times.