Subaru has repositioned its family car offering: the latest Forester features just 1 engine across the entire range and its asking price is drastically reduced. Does that bring it back into contention in an overcrowded segment, however?
We Like: Practicality, passenger space, safety and ride quality on and off-road
We Don’t Like: Subaru needs to make a better engine
Price: R499 000 (January 2019)
Engine: 2.0-litre 4 cylinder
Power/Torque: 115 kW/196 Nm
Fuel Economy: 7.6 L/100 km (claimed)
SERIOUS ABOUT BUYING?
What is it?
The Subaru Forester, now in its 5th generation, is based on the brand’s new global platform, which also underpins the XV and Impreza. It fits in the family SUV category and is aimed towards adventurous buyers (those not averse to doing a bit of off-roading), hence the integral AWD system.
With this generation, several changes have been made to make the Forester bigger inside and easier to get in and out of, update the level of onboard connectivity and provide a more efficient return from the engine. But, the main change for the local market is the single-engine line-up: a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine, mated with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), is the sole powerplant available.
Large and in charge. New styling may not be to everyone's taste, but the latest Forester's huge inside.
There is good news as far as this change is concerned: the asking price for the top-spec derivative has dropped from R597 000 to R499 000, all of that for a smarter (and just as well-equipped) car.
How does it fare in terms of…
The Forester has always been a car you can rely on. Its hard-wearing build quality, metronomic reliability and dog-friendly surfaces have meant that Subaru's family car contender has one of the longest ownership periods of any car, around twice as long as the standing average.
Upon first acquaintance, the new model doesn’t feel like a brand new design. In typical Subaru fashion, it feels like a light evolution of the old model. There are some nice, user-friendly changes though: the rear door aperture is bigger, which eases access to the rear bench and facilitates the fitment of child seats. The rear legroom has been increased too: even when seated behind a 6-ft (183-cm) driver, there’s enough space to stretch out.
A fully-loaded Forester. The newcomer now has a faster-operating electric tailgate.
The capacity of the Forester's load bay has been enlarged to 520 litres, which makes it competitive in the segment. The rear seats can be folded flat from the rear or by pulling the standard latches on the top of the rear seats. There are hooks for shopping bags, too. The previous top-spec Forester came with a rubber mat for the bay as standard, making it easy to clean, but you’ll need to order this at the dealer if you want a similar spec.
The touch points around the cabin remain child-friendly and robust – if a little bland, from a design point of view. The rear air vents are an excellent inclusion, as are the 2 USB ports for rear passengers.
You may, like us, have been a little worried at the thought of a naturally-aspirated 2.0 litre being the sole power source for a medium-sized family SUV with full-time all-wheel drive. In day to day city driving, the CVT and engine work well together, providing a quiet and responsive drive. It pulls away from the lights well and keeps up with traffic with little effort and low revs, which reduces strain on the engine and optimes fuel consumption.
A 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine is the only powerplant available under the bonnet (at least for now).
However, when you let the Forester stretch its legs on the freeway or on particularly hilly terrain, it struggles a bit; the powertrain constantly runs to maximum rpm in an attempt to maintain momentum. Freeway driving has never been a forte of CVT-endowed products and this one’s no different. In saying that, the newcomer's fuel consumption isn’t as mediocre as we’ve seen in previous generations. Inner city driving will probably see returns of around 9 L/100 km, while after 1 500 km of mixed driving, we saw an indicated 8.6 L/100 km. It’s no turbodiesel, but its asking price reflects that.
The pliant ride quality is one of the strongest facets of the new Forester. It’s composed on the road, blending comfort with supple suspension. For a car with off-road credentials, it doesn’t wallow or lean in the corners much. Then, when you hit a dirt road, it’s not so stiff that it shakes the cabin to the point of becoming tiresome. It provides supreme balance over dirt roads with the all-wheel-drive system keeping it sure-footed on the loose stuff.
At home on dirt or on tarmac, the Forester has an excellent ride quality.
In conjunction with the all-wheel-drive system, the top-spec derivative comes with a rotary dial in the cabin that allows for terrain selection of Snow/Dirt or Snow/Mud, which adapts the power delivery and traction control systems to the terrain. To be fair, the Forester gives you a bit more capability than most family SUVs that bear 4x4 or AWD stickers. There’s also 220 mm of ground clearance, which, again, bests the competition.
Styling is not Subaru’s forte; it seems to prioritise practicality throughout the design process, and for a family SUV in this segment, that might not be enough to stand out. That said, the brushed aluminium pedals are a tasteful touch and the dashboard materials and leather surfaces are of the soft-touch variety. The parts that you’ll touch a lot, such as the door lever (metallic) and handles (bound in leather) impart a pleasant and upmarket feel.
The interior is functional and ergonomically sound. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility is standard.
The infotainment system is quick to boot up, has a high resolution and features Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility as standard. There is no navigation system, but the aforementioned apps all come with multiple nav options that are arguably better than any native system.
There are 2 USB ports up front with fast charging (2.1 mA) capability. The infotainment screen also doubles as a display for the reverse-view camera, while there's another camera that displays the position of the front left wheel, which makes executing those parallel parking manoeuvres a little easier. Only the rear of the Forester is equipped with park distance control; you have to use good old feel and sense to position the front end.
The Forester made a huge step with EyeSight technology in the previous generation, which Subaru has improved further for the new model. The system comprises a suite of radar controlled and camera operated safety tools that aim to prevent accidents before they happen. There’s lane departure warning, automatic braking (for front collision avoidance), rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitoring.
The new off-road system allows you to select the terrain ahead so the traction control system can adapt.
The adaptive cruise control is easily one of the best systems we have used, it’s far less invasive than comparative systems in rival products and we found it provides a less jerky driving experience. Factor in the 7 airbags as standard... and it’s a full house in terms of safety equipment.
Pricing and warranty
The keen price of R499 000 for the 2.0i-S ES represents excellent value for a fully-specced car. The Forester range stars at R429 000 and every derivative comes with a 5-year/150 000 km warranty and 3-year/75 000 km maintenance plan.
Still the rugged family choice in the segment.
The new Forester builds on the previous generation’s strengths of excellent ride quality and practicality. It remains a solid, reliable and hard-wearing SUV that’s got a bit extra to offer when you and your vehicle need to head off-road. The powertrain is capable within the confines of the city, but struggles a bit on the hills, freeways or when loaded to the brim. That said, the fuel consumption has improved a lot from that of its predecessor.
To some, the Forester might seem a bit bland and that’s probably true, both in terms of its interior (and exterior) packaging. It is, however, very well equipped and has a proven track record for lasting forever. There is ample space for passengers and their detritus and its added off-road prowess makes the newcomer eminently suitable for outdoorsy/sporty people. There’s a lot to like about this new model, especially the price!
Alternatives (click on the names for specification details)
The top-of-the-range 2.5 X-Trail is only a little more money than the Forester. It offers a bit more power and torque, but isn’t noticeably faster or better on freeways, plus it will cost you a bit more at the pumps. You get similar levels of interior space and a more stylish exterior to show off. Quality wise, the Forester has it licked and offers more safety kit by virtue of the EyeSight safety suite.
The RAV4 is set to be replaced in the first quarter of 2019, but currently, it’s a decent match for the Forester. Again, it has a bigger 2.5-litre engine with the added benefit of a more common torque converter automatic transmission. Interior quality and feel is on par with the Forester, but the infotainment, connectivity and onboard safety systems don’t match up. The ground clearance of the Forester is markedly better too.
The often forgotten Honda CR-V plays the naturally aspirated and CVT game too. If you don’t need AWD, it’s a good choice that’s very spacious and bulletproof to run. Lacks a modern touch with the infotainment and switchgear and suffers more than the others when it comes to engine tractability.