What’s Hot: Good handling and economy, reasonably spacious, decent off road
What’s Not: Noisy diesel from outside, not exactly quick, no 'Eyesight' or stop-start
X-FACTOR: The addition of a proper automatic option now makes Subaru's Forester diesel a far more palatable product
Vehicle Style:Medium SUV
Price: $41,490(plus on-roads)
Engine/trans:108kW/350Nm 4cyl turbo diesel | CVT auto
Fuel Economy claimed: 6.4 l/100km | tested: 8.3 l/100km
Subaru’s venerable Forester has always been a left-field choice for anyone seeking a medium SUV. It’s safe, reliable and good to drive, but it has always seemed a bit small in comparison with X-Trail, RAV4, Outlander and CR-V et al.
That hasn’t stopped it selling well.
Always in the top five of its category, the addition of a diesel around five years ago was a boon; any SUV with a diesel will sell. Problem was, it only came in manual, and Aussie buyers almost always opt for a self-shifter.
Fortunately, the transmission issue has now been addressed.
Subaru’s slick CVT has been mated to the oiler, providing an auto option for the masses. But the latest iteration of the Forester also liberates more space inside, is neater looking and does most things a whole lot better.
Sounds like a decent package, then. But it’ll need to handle some rougher stuff to really complete the picture.
So, we took one off Subaru’s hands for a week to see how it holds up in different circumstances. Here’s how it went.
Quality: Subaru’s typical no-nonsense build is evident in the Forester. The materials aren’t ostentatious but they don’t feel cheap, either. What they are is solid.
Across the dashtop is a lightly grained plastic which is soft to touch, and segmented by a silver strip across the top of the glovebox. The centre stack is neatly arranged with a large touch screen, and at the top a simple readout for climate control, fuel economy and vehicle messages.
Little silver highlights are dotted around the place (air vents, start button and gear lever surrounds, and some buttons) to stop the cabin feeling dark and dreary. The design isn’t a standout for the segment, though, being quite conservative in its approach.
Comfort: Billed as a car for active families, the Forester had better be comfortable, especially when piling in and out. Getting in and out is easy, as the Forester is just the right height so you’re not falling into it, nor do you have to climb up to hop in.
There’s plenty of knee and headroom available for all passengers, but the front seats let down the side a little.
While the squab length and support are good (if a little flat), the lower back support needs more attention.
With a lack of padding at the bottom of the backrest, you find yourself fidgeting after some time behind the wheel to adjust and get comfy again.
The back seat is geared toward smaller people, and as such is a bit smaller in squab length, but adults will be fine for most trips. Three across is a squeeze, though.
One area where the Forester shines, however, is visibility.
With large windows and small pillars, it’s one of the best mid-size SUVs to see out of; no matter which way you turn your head, you’re guaranteed a clear view of what’s going on around you.
Equipment: The Forester on test was the 2.0D-S, the best equipped of the diesel Foresters.
As standard, it features a six-speaker stereo with MP3/WMA/iPod capability and seven-inch touch screen infotainment system. With Pandora, Bluetooth handsfree and audio streaming, voice commands, rear view camera, and satellite navigation, it’s a fully functional system.
Creature comforts include dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, powered rear boot/tailgate, power windows, mirrors and steering, reclining rear seat and eight-way powered seats for both fronts.
Storage: Apart from the smallish glovebox, there are four cupholders in the Forester, two up front and two in the flipdown armrest. Ahead of the gear lever is a good space to store a wallet or lay down a can of drink.
The centre console has a small space under the hinged armrest and the door pockets will easily take a standard bottle of water.
The boot is an average 422 litres, but it expands to 1481 litres with the back seats folded down. Do this and the seat backs line up with the boot floor to give a completely flat space.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: While we’ve experienced the diesel flat four previously in the Forester, we concentrated on whether the CVT has improved the drive experience. And for the most part, it has.
The negatives are simple: It’s slow off the mark and it uses more fuel than the manual version. At 6.4-litres (the ADR figure), it’s a half-a-litre thirstier than the version with the third pedal, but on test, we averaged 8.3 l/100kmh, with mostly urban driving and some off road work.
It’s not fast either. Subaru says it’ll get to 100kmh in 9.9 seconds, but some against the clock testing reveals a fraction more than that.
The reason is the step-off – it’s a little leisurely off the line, but with 350Nm behind it, it builds up and pulls quite strongly.
On the roll, you’ll notice that the transmission keeps the revs nice and low at part-throttle, but put your foot flat and it acts more like an auto with distinct steps creating gear-like changes.
There is a reasonable turn of speed there for overtaking, or pulling out of a corner.
In daily traffic, the CVT is the pick of the range (over the manual), but not just because it’s easier to drive around the city.
It has a trick up its sleeve when heading off-road.
Press the X-mode button and the CVT shortens the ratios, making it behave like a virtual low-range transfer case has been added. It loads up more torque at lower speeds, excellent for climbing steep hills.
Add that to the stability control which is quick to respond to slippage, and the Forester is brilliant in medium duty off-tarmac excursions. But deep sand can be a bit of a challenge, as we discovered.
The good-looking 18-inch wheels may be stylish, but don’t quite let the tyres bag out enough.
Heading into softer sand? Let the tyres down as much as you dare, switch the stability control off and away you go.
Except it never fully disengages. Any sign of sideways movement and it clamps down on the wheels, trying to stop the car sliding around. But when the sand is hungry, you need that slippage to be able to 'wind' your way through.
Off-road, the Forester is good, but you have to recognise it has its limits. Want to be a bit adventurous? This car is for you. Want to traverse the Canning Stock Route? Best take a LandCruiser instead.
Refinement: There’s no mistaking the diesel rattle when you’ve pressed the start button, especially when cold. From the outside it’s quite noisy; we had more than one person comment on its truck-like sound while idling nearby.
However, apart from the diesel note while accelerating, it’s quite subdued when on the roll. The cabin does get quite thrummy, however, because of the 18-inch wheels and the open cabin. The 2.0D-L’s smaller 17s, by comparison, are noticeably quieter.
Ride and Handling: On the larger wheels, the ride is pretty firm. While it’s not crashy, it’s certainly can be a little lumpy on bad surfaces. The trade-off is assured handling.
While the steering needs more feel, the Forester can be confidently thrown into corners and it easily out-grips and out-handles its competitors.
Braking: Unlike the manual version which has solid rear discs, the CVT-equipped Foresters use vented discs both front and rear.
The pedal feel is quite good, and it hauls up when needed. And on uneven surfaces, the ABS isn’t overly intrusive.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - this model scored 35.64 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: Subaru’s standard five-star suite applies here: stability and traction control, ABS, EBD, reversing camera and seven airbags (dual front, front side, full-length curtain and driver’s knee).
Despite the good ANCAP rating, it’s disappointing to see that it misses out on Subaru’s Eyesight camera system which alerts you to hazards and obstacles as well as autonomously braking if need be.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/unlimited kilometres.
Service costs: Intervals are unusual in that they’re every six months/7500km. Subaru has a capped price schedule, and the Forester diesel varies between $304.89 up to $574.94, depending on the interval. Please check Subaru’s website for interval pricing.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
Toyota RAV4 GXL diesel ($40,990) – Toyota prides itself on reliability, and you won’t find many unhappy RAV4 owners. Its drive experience though is a bit dull, and its interior is very mishmash. But it’s as solid as a rock and should last for years. (see RAV4 reviews)
Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport diesel ($40,220) – Mazda’s SUV has been a runaway sales success, owing to its smooth drive, outstanding quality and good looks. But don’t expect it to venture as far off-road as the Forester. And its visibility is nowhere near as good. (see CX-5 reviews)
Honda CR-V DTi-L ($43,040) – While the latest CR-V is a huge improvement on the previous model, it’s still not a hugely involving drive. That said, its power and torque output is virtually identical to the Forester’s and its ride is excellent. For good, honest transport that doesn’t need off-road capability, it’s one to have on your short list. (see CR-V reviews)
Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The addition of the auto to the diesel is a win for the Forester, despite the fact it does blunt its off-the-line performance.
However, it would be nice if the interior felt a little more up-market when at the wheel, given the Forester's $40k+ price point.
A bit more front seat padding, a bit more flair in the cabin, and a touch more boot space would finish it off nicely.
For a couple or a family who are into camping or heading out beach fishing every so often, the Forester is a good runabout that will comfortably cover those needs.
With a proper all-wheel-drive system and good traction control, it’s built for getting dirty every now and then. With a proven drivetrain and Subaru robustness, we'd certainly recommend a close look.