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Road trip: The Subaru Forester to Foresters Arms

2019-03-09 06:00

Roadtrip: Text - Ferdi de Vos / Images - Jay Groat

Roadtrip drive features

Image: Jay Groat

Originally conceived as a crossover version of the Impreza the Subaru Forester has matured with every passing generation. But has it stayed true to the Foresters code? To find out, we took it on an 800 km round trip to Foresters Arms in Swaziland.

From a boxy station wagon to a full-blown SUV. This was the route the Forester followed since it was first revealed to the world in 1997. Now, in its fifth incarnation, it is bigger and more spacious than ever before.

Larger and roomier it may now be but has it stayed true to the original Foresters code? Is it still a proper 4×4, capable of negotiating terrain and roads that other sport utilities can’t? And does it still conform to the credo of rugged comfort or has it gone completely soft? 

Forest country

The best way to ascertain this was to visit its natural habitat, or at least what used to be its normal haunt: forest country. So, what better way than heading off towards the woodlands of the Kingdom of Swaziland and the Foresters Arms Hotel in the Mhlambanyatsi region, about 30 km South of the capital, Mbabane.

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Roadtrip drive features

                                                                Image: Jay Groat

Ah, Mhlambanyatsi; ‘watering place of the buffalo’ in siSwati. The name brought back memories from a time when I used to visit the kingdom annually, to follow the Castrol International Rally. Many stages of the rally were run in the timberlands of Mhlambanyatsi, and I still fondly remember the sound of highly-strung engines reverberating through the quiet woods. 

The “Castrol”, as it was affectionately known, last took place in 1996 (is it that long ago already?), the same year Subaru announced that the wagon-like Forester would join its model line-up. A decade later the third generation Forester moved away from the wagon design towards a crossover SUV. 

Larger, more spacious

It was larger in nearly every dimension with a sloping roof line and more cargo space – much like the newly launched fifth generation is wider and longer than its predecessor, with a longer wheelbase, more interior space, and a larger luggage compartment.

It is now Outback-like in terms of size and dimensions. This meant we had no trouble fitting our gear and camera equipment into the back of the Horizon Blue Pearl coloured high-spec 2.0i-S ES CVT model. The newly designed power tailgate with a wider and higher opening made it even easier. Collapsing the redesigned split-folding rear seats created a flatter loading area; perfect to fit the camera tripods.

The larger dimensions also mean more leg room, shoulder room, and hip room, making the well-appointed and classy interior a comfortable, relaxing place to be during the monotonous highway drive from Johannesburg towards Middelburg.

On the level tarmac it was soon evident how much smoother the newcomer glides over the road compared to the older model.

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Roadtrip drive features

                                                                                           Image: Jay Groat

The more powerful four-cylinder 2.0-litre Boxer engine, now delivering 115kW (versus 110kW previously) and 196Nm of torque (two Nm less than before, but at slightly lower revs) was also quieter and willing but not overly sporty – mostly due to the gearing of the lighter and more efficient Lineartronic CVT.

In normal mode the acceleration of the Forester was quite lethargic, and this made it quite difficult to overtake, but as soon as it got up to speed it cruised effortlessly. With Sport Mode selected on the Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-Drive) programme, the newcomer was much livelier, reaching 100 km/h from standstill in 10.3 seconds.

Once through Ermelo, following the sweeping N17 towards Chrissiesmeer and Warburton the CVT started to hunt between gears on inclines, causing sudden elevations in engine revs and this spoiled the relaxed driving experience somewhat. Still, the ride quality was exceptional even on unexpected undulations. 

Crossing through the Oshoek border was quick and seamless and the only change in procedure I encountered was a new road tax for Swaziland (only R50, mind you). The road from the border over the green countryside of Ngwenya was still as I remembered it, but it soon became a dual carriageway that skirted Mbabane, while in the old days we had to drive through the town centre.

Roadtrip drive features

                                                                                            Image: Jay Groat

Usutu Forest

After taking Exit 14 towards Mhlambanyatsi the road became narrow, bumpy, and potholed but the scenery, beautiful lakes surrounded by green hills, mountains, and swathes of forests, was simply spectacular. The Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system kept the Forester tracking true and soon we reached the turnoff to our well-signposted destination, Foresters Arms.

Hidden away on a secluded estate close to Mhlambanyatsi village and the Usutu Forest the quaint, upmarket hotel run by Ruth Buck has a European-style vibe to it. We were warmly welcomed by the staff and showed to our cosy rooms, each with a comfortable four-poster bed, satellite TV, and its own fireplace.

There was no time to relax, though, and we were soon back in the Forester, following directions Ruth supplied us to reach the nearby waterfall and explore the surrounding countryside. Getting to the waterfall turned out to be quite an adventure, as we had to navigate badly corrugated dirt roads.

However, equipped with the new X-Mode dial switch with Snow/Dirt mode for slippery surfaces covered with snow, dirt, or gravel, or D.Snow/Mud mode for treacherous surfaces such as deep snow, mud, or dry dirt, the newcomer was in its element, even without the low-range gear ratio option that was found in the first two generations of Forester.

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Roadtrip drive features

                                                                                                Image: Jay Groat

With Hill Descent Control now standard on the ES-model and with 220 mm ground clearance giving it better departure and break-over angles, it easily dealt with the unforgiving, rocky terrain and muddy, undergrowth covered forest lanes, and we managed to get really close to the falls.

We returned to the hotel and after a couple of beers at the pub sat down to a sumptuous dinner in the restaurant before retiring for the night. The weather closed in overnight and the next day dawned misty and overcast... perfect Forester weather. 

A hearty breakfast rounded off our stay at Foresters Arms and we left reluctantly, as we would rather have enjoyed another relaxing day at the hotel and its beautiful surrounds. 

EyeSight system

On our way back to South Africa we again marvelled at the standard EyeSight driver assist safety system in the ES. It is a fantastic system, spotting potential danger such as other vehicles, pedestrians, bicycles, or motor cycles, and warning the driver in due time. 

But we found it can also be disconcerting, as it sometimes unexpectedly applies emergency braking when it assesses the need to prevent a collision or at worst, reduce the damage of a collision. Still, this technology has seen unprecedented success globally and the latest version also includes a convenient Auto Vehicle Hold (AVH) function.

So, has the new fifth generation Forester stayed true to the original code?

Well, yes and no. It still is a good off-roader, thanks to its X-mode system and better ride height, and its ride quality and road manners are in another league compared to its ancestors. It is also quite frugal, delivering around 8.3 litres/100 km on our extended trip.

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However, while classified as a compact SUV it has now become too big and cumbersome, and due to its size and somewhat lethargic drivetrain it has also lost the 'fun-to-drive' aspect that was a hallmark of earlier models. Yet, it still offers high levels of comfort, convenience, and technology at just under half a bar; good value compared to its rivals.

Our vehicle: Subaru Forester 2.0i-S ES CVT (High Spec) 
Engine: Boxer, four-cylinder, direct injection petrol
Displacement: 1 995 cc
Maximum power: 115kW @ 6 000 rpm
Maximum torque: 196Nm @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: CVT, AWD system with X-modes
Luggage space: 520 litres
Ground clearance: 220 mm
Consumption: 7.6 l/100 km (claimed by manufacturer)
CO2 emissions: 176 g/km
Base price: R499 000

We like: Spaciousness, classy interior, smooth driving experience, luggage space, off-road capability.

We do not like: Engine very laidback in performance, CVT is smooth but uninspiring, has lost the fun-to-drive aspect. 

RoadTrip rating: 84%

Our destination: Foresters Arms Hotel 
Address: PO Box 14, Mhlambanyatsi, Kingdom of Swaziland
Email:info@forestersarms.co.za Telephone:+268 246 74177/377
Website: https://forestersarms.co.za

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