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Driven: Subaru Forester. Image by Subaru.

Driven: Subaru Forester
Subaru adds EyeSight to the 2018MY Forester, but is that enough to recommend it?

   



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Subaru Forester

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5

Good points: Spacious and quality cabin, plenty of equipment, smooth drivetrain, decent looks, EyeSight equipment improves safety offering

Not so good: It still feels like an engineering oddbod amongst the glut of mid-sized crossover/SUVs, 2.0-litre normally aspirated engine not a great choice

Key Facts

Model tested: Subaru Forester 2.0i XE Premium
Price: Forester range starts from 26,495; 2.0i XE Premium from 31,495, car as tested 32,834
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: all-wheel drive, Lineartronic continuously variable transmission
Body style: five-door SUV
CO2 emissions: 150g/km (VED 200 first 12 months, then 140 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 43.5mpg
Top speed: 119mph
0-62mph: 11.8 seconds
Power: 150hp at 6,200rpm
Torque: 198Nm at 4,200rpm

Our view:

The Subaru Forester, a crossover-SUV, celebrated its 20th birthday in 2017. Built across four generations, it began life as a cult vehicle, certainly in its turbocharged form - where it borrowed the engine from a contemporary Impreza Turbo. And it has always, since then, remained something of an outsider, albeit one which garners a faithful if minority following.

For the 2018 model year, the fourth-generation 'SJ' - which was launched back in 2012, remember - has been blessed with Subaru's EyeSight safety technology. Stereoscopic cameras mounted either side of the interior mirror scan the road ahead, giving the Forester pre-collision braking and throttle management, adaptive cruise control and Lane Departure/Sway Warning. This makes it a safer car than ever before. And that safe quality could be applied to the whole vehicle. The Forester is much less idiosyncratic than it once was. Instead, here we simply have a large-ish SUV that doesn't particularly stand out from the crowd. And it has quite a few issues, we might add.

That's not to say it's not without many facets that appeal. It's not exactly striking in the looks department, but there's enough presence about its hawkish face to give the Forester some visual clout. We're not sure about the rear three-quarter view, in which the Subaru can appear a little bloated and top-heavy, but in general it's a clean enough shape. The 17-inch wheels look extremely small in the arches, however, although there's an obvious dynamic benefit to those that we shall come onto later.

Inside, it's another excellent Subaru cabin. There's acres of space in the back and a whopping boot that seems even bigger than its relatively average (for this class) 505-litre figure would have you believe. But it's more the standard of the dashboard we're impressed by. It's not quite up to the all-new Impreza's cabin, yet the Forester still has an air of solidity and classiness about it that's most welcome. Highlights are the attractive steering wheel, and the clear displays in the cluster and centre stack. OK, it's not perfect in here - there are still some dated buttons and graphics - and the Forester has to focus on durability ahead of soft-touch premium-ness, but the long and short of it is that you'll not lament the quality of the fixtures and fittings. Nor the equipment list, which is generous to a fault; the only cost options apportioned to our test car were a towbar (with 13-pin towing electrics and installation for 789) and metallic paint for 550, and we didn't want for luxuries during our week with the car.

Unfortunately, the Forester is as unremarkable to drive as it is to look at. Again, it's a mix of the good and the mediocre. The ride, for instance, on those aforementioned 17-inch wheels is fantastic across a wide variety of surfaces. There's good suppression of wind and tyre noise at speed. The engine and gearbox provide velvet-smooth drive at most sane velocities. The steering is positive enough and there is, naturally, loads of traction from the symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, plus a feeling of unshakeable grip from the chassis, which makes the absolute most of those 17-inch tyres.

But you'd be hard-pressed to say the Forester XE is any fun to thread along a country lane at pace, because the chassis is stubbornly planted rather than delicately balanced. And that drivetrain, for all its smoothness, is seriously flawed in today's light-pressure-turbocharged age. The 2.0-litre petrol used here has the same power as the 2.0-litre turbodiesel option offered alongside it in the Forester range, but that - along with the 2.0-litre, 241hp turbocharged petrol 'boxer' in the XT - possesses 350Nm. And as EyeSight means you have to have Lineartronic, then we're talking about a Forester that does 0-62mph in nearly 12 seconds, when all its siblings get below ten seconds; the XT by some distance, managing a 7.5-second sprint.

Quoting 0-62mph times is not the be-all and end-all, of course, but they tell something of the story of the way the Forester drives. There's a sharpness to the way the Subaru manoeuvres at low speeds which suggests it's going to feel quite sparky as the revs build, but that's simply not the case. The instant go of the Lineartronic, the bite of the AWD and the crisp throttle response all make it quick for 0-30mph, but slap the throttle down beyond 50 per cent and the acceleration doesn't noticeably ramp up. It's a trick we've noticed other manufacturers doing on small-capacity turbodiesels, whereby the car is mapped to feel lively on part-throttle, but then it just can't follow that up with some decent thump when you actually summon up maximum power. The Forester, doling out a mere 198Nm at a giddy 4,200rpm, performs much the same trick.

And while we will happily admit Lineartronic is by far and away the best continuously variable transmission (CVT) on the market, it's still behind comparable dual-clutch or torque-converter automatics for its levels of refinement. Subaru's 'box minimises that propensity of most CVTs to hold on to a screeching level of revs for much of the time, instead mimicking 'upshifts' of a true auto box on most throttle openings, but if you pull out of a side junction and need to accelerate sharply, then it reverts to more traditional, unpleasant CVT behaviour. Furthermore, a normally aspirated petrol in a 1,500kg SUV means poor fuel returns - we drove the Forester for 222 miles on local, give-and-take A-roads and country lanes, at a slow average speed of 29mph. That gave back 28.8mpg overall, with a best of about 35mpg on a 50mph SPECS-covered main route; numbers which are, plain and simple, not good enough. And at nearly 33,000 as tested, the Forester XE is hardly a cheap machine.

All in all, this normally-aspirated petrol Forester doesn't do anything which makes it easy to recommend ahead of a vast array of talented rivals. Now, the brand still focuses on its unswerving customer loyalty, its impeccable reliability record and the mental security the symmetrical AWD engenders in buyers' minds, and that's all well and good, but in order to grow sales, you have to attract new customers - and none of the above will tempt potential purchasers into Subaru showrooms. So, after 21 years, the fine but forgettable Forester might still have a cult following but we think it'll remain an outsider... at least until Subaru decides to stop being wilfully different with its engineering ethos.

Alternatives:

Honda CR-V: A bit of a by-the-numbers SUV, this, but the CR-V is a likeable package. It can get pretty pricey pretty quickly, especially with the four-wheel-drive underpinnings that would allow it to match the Forester for traction.

Land Rover Discovery Sport: Subaru itself has previously described itself as wanting to be a 'cut-price Land Rover' and the Disco Sport definitely costs more money than the Forester. But it feels a more premium product, too.

Mitsubishi Outlander: Only rival listed here with a smaller boot than the Forester, either with or without the fancy hybrid drivetrain. That Mitsubishi PHEV model does appeal to a wide audience, however.


Matt Robinson - 17 Jan 2017



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2017 Subaru Forester EyeSight drive. Image by Subaru.2017 Subaru Forester EyeSight drive. Image by Subaru.2017 Subaru Forester EyeSight drive. Image by Subaru.2017 Subaru Forester EyeSight drive. Image by Subaru.2017 Subaru Forester EyeSight drive. Image by Subaru.

2017 Subaru Forester EyeSight drive. Image by Subaru.2017 Subaru Forester EyeSight drive. Image by Subaru.2017 Subaru Forester EyeSight drive. Image by Subaru.2017 Subaru Forester EyeSight drive. Image by Subaru.2017 Subaru Forester EyeSight drive. Image by Subaru.








 

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