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First drive: Subaru Forester

2008-08-12 08:14

Lance Branquinho

Subaru’s new Forester. Looks like a station wagon

Subaru’s new Forester. Looks like a station wagon in hiking boots. Dispatches dirt roads and mountains passes with equal distain in turbocharged form.

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Subaru
Model Forester
Engine 2.5-litre, boxer four, turbocharged
Power 126kW @ 6 000r/min, 169kW @ 5 200r/min
Torque 229Nm @ 4 400r/min, 320Nm @ 2 800r/min
Transmission Five-speed manual (optional low range), four-speed auto
Zero To Hundred 10.4-, 11-, 7.1-, 7.9-seconds
Top Speed 184km/h, 210km/h
Fuel Tank 60-litres
Fuel Consumption 9.3l/100km; 10.5l/100km
Boot Size 450-litres
ABS Yes, with BA and EBD
Airbags Six
Tyres 225/55 R17
Front Suspension MacPherson type strut with rebound internal spring & lower L-arm
Rear Suspension Fully independent multilink double wishbone
Service Intervals 12 500km
Warranty 3 year/100 000km
Subaru’s Forester has always been the sensible SUV with some turbocharged hooliganism thrown in for good measure. Has the latest version retained its fabled blend of utility and driveability?

The sensible SUV?

Employing the Subaru symmetrical all-wheel drive system in a raised body, station wagon style allows surprising off-road capability while Subaru’s legendary boxer engine keeps the centre of gravity low and on-road dynamics keen. Forester has always looked a bit odd though – a dreadful sin in the image conscious SUV marketplace.

Forester owners though have an affinity for their vehicles which borders on Land-Rover Defenderism.

Practical, rugged, capacious, fantastically secure on dirt roads and capable enough for limited off-road sojourns while retaining neat urban driving manners, the Forester really is all things to most people who delve behind the lack of image and aesthetic and buy one.

Characteristic Forester, just a bit bigger

With the latest model Subaru has been careful not to alienate traditional Forester customers.

Styling has seen evolutionary touches instead of a revolutionary new design, with the front still a bit soft and bulbous – the rear has been neatened up considerably with the new jagged edged light-cluster design.

Dimensionally the new Forester is 75mm longer and 110mm taller; with ground clearance improving by a substantial 20mm too (XS models 220mm, XT models 225mm). Door aperture has been improved to ease access whilst the wheelbase is stretched by 90mm to increase occupant comfort.

Loadbay capacity is 450-litres expanding to over 1 660-litres when stacked to the roof with the rear seats folded.

Capaciousness has not been at the expense of a full-sized spare wheel either; something many European SUV product planners tend to forget when bringing products to our shores. Conversely though, it would be nice if Subaru could fit a plastic, removable wet stowage tray for muddied weekend adventure gear or wetsuits.

Interior updates render a simple, flowing design with a distinctly curved cubby hold split line, and simple centre console featuring easy to operate controls with minimal clutter.

The multi-function binnacle between the front seats acts as an armrest, storage compartment, drinks holder, and multimedia support station with auxiliary socket and 12 Volt power-point.

You can hide an iPod or phone in the small stowage tray, or remove one of the partitions for the cupholders which enables a laptop to be stood upright between the seats – something you’ll hardly do in smash-and-grab riddled South Africa though.

Interior features which are standard range over are the six airbags. The entry level X model features steel wheels; though inside you have air-conditioning, an iPod socket and WMA/MP3 compatible single-disc sound system and satellite steering wheel controls.

XS models up the ante with 16-inch alloys, climate control, a 6-dics CD shuttle, front fog-lights and self-levelling rear suspension.

Top of the range XT models sport hooligan spec drilled aluminium pedals, leather steering wheel, 17-inch mags and self-levelling Xenon headlights. Premium package XS and XT auto models get a double-volume electric sunroof, full leather trim and the eight-way electrically-adjusted driver’s seat.

Engineered to be driven - most places

Although it has never been revered for style, the Forester has an enviable reputation for dynamics. Highway cruising, mountain pass blasting or dirt-road navigating, Forester does all three with poise and purpose.

The well sorted chassis and symmetrical all-wheel drive system ensures secure high-speed passage on even the most treacherous dirt roads, while the low centre of gravity makes it handle like no non-actively suspended vehicle with 200mm plus worth of ground clearance should on tar.

Forester suspension has been revised at the rear with a Legacy derived double wishbone set-up which sees all control arms attached to a rear sub-frame. Front suspension is MacPherson strut operated, and all round axle articulation has been freed up by 20mm.

Subaru say a stiffer steering rack and more rigid coupling between rack and steering column has been engineered to improve steering feel and response, it’s still way too light at speed unfortunately.

Engines have seen refinements primarily aimed at efficiency with emissions control and fuel-consumption the prominent design parameters. All Foresters are power by a 2.5-litre, over-square, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine; either naturally aspirated or turbocharged.

Of the five model range the X and XS models are powered by a naturally aspirated 2.5-litre flat-four producing marginally better figures than the previous range with 126kW at 6 000r/min and 229Nm at 4 400r/min. The negligible improvements (5kW and 3Nm) are primarily due to the presence of Subaru’s active valve lift system.

Forced induction junkies can have chose between the two XT models which both feature an Impreza WRX sourced 2.5-litre twin-scroll turbocharged engine. With the XT models weighing only a braaipack over 1500kg performance is rapid with 169kW and 320Nm on tap.

Both turbocharged and naturally aspirated Foresters drive all-four wheels permanently through either a five-speed manual or four-speed (correct, not a typo – four-speed) automatic transmission. Only the naturally aspirated five-speed manual Foresters have the additional mud-plugging 1.196:1 low range selector.

On the road

We had a fully loaded XT automatic, which meant the curious combination of Impreza WRX power and vintage four-speed automatic technology was our reference point for the new range.

The four-speed transmission curtails not so much performance, but rather economy. Weighing only 1525kg and loading the drive wheels with 320Nm at only 2 800r/min means no matter how long winded the four-speed ‘box is you’re always moving fairly rapidly.

Overtaking is undertaken with minimal drama and in sport mode the ‘box hold its ratios keenly close to the red line.

The only downer really is consumption. A fifth, overdrive ratio would have brought our 13l/100km average closer in line with Subaru’s optimal (read unrepeatable) claimed figure of 10.5l/100km – and before the Forester acolytes flame me to death the air-conditioning button was not depressed during our driving impression.

Despite having a characteristically Subaru drinking problem you find yourself engaging with Forester on so many levels it hardly matters.

The steering might be over-assisted but the chassis so sorted, permanent all-wheel drive grip so secure and four-wheel drift so predictable you’ll find yourself guiding it through flowing mountain passes at speeds nearly inconceivable for a vehicle with 225mm worth of ground clearance.

Market jargon abounds in automotive engineering press releases, but the low centre of gravity mantra surrounding Subaru’s boxer engines and their low-slung chassis position really comes to fruition when the Forester is driven with abandon.

Then of course there is the fantastically secure dirt road driving experience too; especially relevant considering many SUV owners travel over treacherous dirt-roads during vacation time.

If you know your stuff and don’t pity the pretty, chunky 17-inch alloys the Forester has some very able off-road ability too.

Though you can hear the characteristic flat-four burble when pushing on, road-noise is banished and general refinement is excellent.

Has the seamless SUV just got even better?

If you’re a serious rural adventurer who doesn’t do Kaokoveld missions each June, the Forester has a superb blend of high-speed touring ability and all-terrain secure traction for most 80% of weekend exploration needs.

If you do mildly challenging off-road stuff from time to time the naturally aspired models with their low-range capability are obviously the ticket.

Looking for a sensible SUV with no compromises bar anonymous styling and steep fuel bills? The turbocharged XT models are superb renditions of the Forester legend – with some wonderfully surreptitious Q-car ability thrown in too.

It’s hardly cheap or particularly stylish, but Forester is all the SUV you’ll ever need.

Pricing (including 3 year/63 000km maintenance plan)

2.5X Manual: R269 000
2.5XS Manual: R289 000
2.5XS Auto: R301 000
2.5XS Premium Auto: R330 000
2.5XT Manual: R349 000
2.5XT Auto: R364 000
2.5XT Premium Auto: R387 000


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