Car reviews - Subaru - Forester - 2.0D-S
Honest and simple wagon, very capable off the bitumen, lots of space, light on fuel
Room for improvement
Less features than rivals, flat seats, chalky sat-nav display
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27 Oct 2015
By NEIL DOWLING
Price and equipment
There’s a lot of tradition in the styling of the Forester and though now substantially bigger – seriously, stand alongside and it’s a shock how large it has become – the subtly-chamfered edges to the boxed body are unmistakably from the same family.
It’s even a bit old fashioned in comparison to, say, the curvaceous Nissan X-Trail or chiseled Skoda Octavia Scout. Clearly the Forester is more about function than form.
Chrome trim and glossy plastics may be part of the allure of the modern automobile but it’s not on the list at Subaru.
Japan’s most austere car company has put more effort into engineering and build quality than the baubles. That’s good for the pragmatists but unfortunately doesn’t give the impression of the car being well equipped.
The conservative cabin styling starts with the leather-mix upholstery, compact central-console screen and sunroof. Hidden beneath this fascia is a six-speaker audio with Bluetooth, electric-adjustment front seats with heaters and an electric tailgate.
The 2.0D-S is the most expensive diesel model at $41,490 plus on-road costs.
That’s $6000 more than the less-equipped 2.0D-L diesel auto and is justified by the inclusion of sat-nav, leather, the sunroof, xenon headlights and the front seat features.
Buyers have a decent saving by opting for the cheaper model and, externally at least, there’s not a lot of difference. Buyers intending to leave the bitumen would be better opting for the less expensive model to get the higher-profile 17-inch tyres, against the 18-inch low-profile rubber.
Other than the alloy wheels, the extras are convenience oriented.
Safety equipment is on par with its cheaper sibling but falls a couple of items short of many rivals in its price bracket.
A five-star crash rating envelopes the Subaru range and a reversing camera is standard, but even parking sensors are missing and there’s no sight, yet, of the diesel getting the company’s famed EyeSight autonomous collision avoidance technology.
Make no mistake, the Forester is a big wagon. It’s 4600mm long and sits on a 2640mm wheelbase which allows a very spacious, open and airy cabin.
It’s exactly what the family and the leisure-seeker wants: lots of space. The boot is a large 422 litres with the rear seats in place. Fold the split-fold seat backs down and it grows to 1481 litres.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The lift-up tailgate is now electrically operated and the gate stretches to the edges of the wagon so the load opening is wide and deep.
Subaru uses a leather and vinyl mix for its 2.0D-S upholstery (increasingly a common formula for durability and luxury) but the impression is quite subdued.
The seats are flat, with modest lateral support, and a bit short in the thigh measurement. But the rear seats will gladly accept three adults occupants with excellent legroom and the headroom liberal enough for each passenger to wear a hat. If they must.
The dashboard is now partially of soft-touch plastics rather than the hard plastics of just a couple of years ago.
A mid-mounted satellite-navigation screen is comfortably within driver’s eye-line but the graphics lack clarity. There is a top-panel with detailed driver information including fuel consumption.
Ventilation controls are rotary dials, a design that has become almost a trademark for Subaru’s small cars. It is, however, very effective because the ease of adjustment.
Personal storage is good, including a centre box, a pocket ahead of the gear shifter and a large glovebox.
There is a neatness to the instrument panel design and centre console and while that impresses the owner who likes to keep it simple, it fails to look as impressive as some of its rivals.
It’s this austere air about the Forester that gives it its durable, tough and purposeful appearance. Subaru is just a bit behind the eight-ball when it comes to producing sumptuous flair with its cabin.
Engine and transmission
If there’s a sense by now that Subaru is a conservative company, it will be instantly confirmed by one look at the drivetrain.
The signature horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine has been powering cars with the Seven Sisters star cluster logo since the 1000 model of 1965.
Cooled by water and driving the front wheels, it is Japan’s counter to the air-cooled, rear-engined Volkswagen and, similarly or coincidentally, aimed at the same budget market.
Volkswagen even toyed with a flat-four diesel engine in the late 1950s but never pursued it to production. Subaru did. The 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine is claimed to be the world’s first production example of its type and merges perfectly with Subaru’s all-wheel drive platform.
Subaru makes only one diesel for its Forester and Outback models. The 108kW/350Nm engine has not changed since its introduction in 2010, though there has been minor tweaking to the internals to reduce friction and simplify component design.
What is new is the automatic transmission. The extraordinary five-year pause between the manual-transmission diesel and this year’s automatic counters marketing surveys that point to an auto diesel being almost mandatory.
But the diesel was designed initially for Europe where automatic transmissions are far less favourable than manuals. The delay may have also been caused by a shortfall in funds by Subaru’s parent, Fuji Heavy Industries.
The automatic is a continuously variable transmission (CVT) designed in-house and not related to the Aisin CVT used by Toyota in vehicles including the front-wheel drive RAV4 and Corolla. Toyota owns 16.5 per cent of Subaru and while model and component sharing is the goal of the shareholding – evident by the Subaru BRZ and its clone the Toyota 86 coupe – it has yet to extend to drivetrains.
The CVT in the Forester diesel is one of the better belt-drive gearboxes on the market.
It successfully masks the poor low-end torque of the diesel by allowing transmission slip – a feat obviously not available in the manual gearbox siblings that can have a tendency to stall off the mark or peter out under load.
It is a far better vehicle in the dirt and on the bitumen than the manual for this reason. It’s especially more adept in sand, able to find and hold the torque sweet spot and slide up and down the infinite ratios without being interrupted by clutch changes.
The transmission is complemented by Subaru’s X-Mode torque vectoring electronics that were first seen in the diesel auto Outback launched late last year.
X-Mode will monitor and adjust drive to the wheels to minimise traction loss with its positive effect tangible on everything from slow rock climbing to fast gravel roads.
It also automatically engages hill descent (or downhill assist) when it senses a steep decline, holding a low gear and using the ABS to maintain a safe crawling speed.
Owners wanting a wagon that is even better away from bitumen should consider the cheaper 2.0D-L model with the higher 60-profile tyres that can be deflated for improved off-road performance. Or simple buy a second lot of wheels.
Back on the bitumen the Forester is smooth and quiet with a confident stance that feels far more secure than a similar wagon of just a few years ago.
Excellent visibility, simple controls and a peppy engine with a strong mid-range kick reverse any preconception about the conservative styling and austere cabin.
Ride and handling
The Forester sits atop a modified platform shared with the Impreza, stretched to a 2640mm wheelbase that is the smallest of its rivals listed below.
The strut-type suspension with long-travel coil springs is precisely what is required for comfort in metropolitan road conditions but also works well on rutted gravel tracks.
As mentioned, it is a clever compromise. Owners of SUVs rarely get this blend of city comfort for the family and strength to rebuff poor roads.
So generally ride is very good. Handling is great and tempered by the fact that at 1740mm high, there’s a bit of top-heaviness about the Forester that shows its ugly face through the bends.
The body roll tends to lighten the inside wheels and subtle traction loss – though rectified by the electronic stability control – is a splash of cold water to any enthusiastic driver’s face.
The Forester isn’t alone in this department as most SUVs get a bit jiggly and potentially untidy when hurried through corners made for low profile, road-centric sedans.
The electric-assist power steering saves a bit of fuel by not taxing the engine and though it’s nice and light, there’s some deadness in the feel especially just off the straight-ahead position.
It is a wagon, however, that quickly becomes familiar. In the dirt it can be hurried along gravel roads or slowly over rocks or through beachside tracks.
The generous 220mm of ground clearance and near flat underbody also assures it of passing over many sandy trail humps.
Safety and servicing
Subaru prides itself on delivering high safety to Australian audiences and the Forester is no different.
It centres its safety spiel around the all-wheel drive system and its five-star crash rating.
But Subaru’s other arrow in its safety-rich quiver, the EyeSight autonomous hazard avoidance technology, is not available on the diesel models and even on this top-spec 2.0D-S variant. It is, however, standard on the petrol and turbo-petrol flagship models.
Standard fare is a reversing camera, seven airbags, automatic headlights and wipers, xenon high-intensity discharge low-beam headlights, daytime running lights and heated mirrors. It also has a full-size alloy spare, making it suitable for rural driving.
In the same price range, rival models all add a rear parking sensor but none extend standard equipment to the increasingly popular features such as lane-change and blind-spot monitors. In saying that, very few have a full-size spare wheel so it’s sixes and sevens.
Subaru has a three-year, unlimited distance warranty and a one-year roadside assistance program.
It was one of the last major car-makers to adopt a capped-price service program. It is seen as a sales benefit – especially considering it is strongly marketed by its main competitors – but costs a steep $2444 for three years. The service interval is six months or 12,500km.
The forecast resale value after three years is estimated by Glass’s Guide to be a strong 55 per cent of its purchase price, equivalent to the Toyota RAV4 and just behind the Mazda CX-5’s 58 per cent.
It’s difficult to walk the fine line between serving a family in daily urban chores and creating a car that will tackle some arduous off-road conditions.
At its sub-$42,000 plus costs price, the Forester does an excellent job of compromise. This go-anywhere versatility and the spacious passenger and/or cargo volume make it a flexible wagon, particularly for one-car families.
The service program is comprehensive but twice the cost of its rivals. But as a package, its advantages heavily outweigh any hiccups.
Skoda Octavia Scout 135TDI from $41,390 plus on-road costs
The thinking man’s SUV arrives in 2015 with a new crop of engines, tight chassis and the Octavia’s pretty styling. The solid dual-purpose wagon is also amazingly frugal at 5.3L/100km and has a barn-like cargo capacity of 588 litres to 1718 litres. The 135TDI has the gutsy 135kW/380Nm 2.0-litre engine and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic with all-wheel drive on demand. Features include electric tailgate, faux suede and leather mix upholstery, heated seats, sat-nav, nine airbags, reverse camera, rear park sensors and 17-inch alloy wheels. It has a three-year, unlimited distance warranty with roadside assistance and annual service intervals with a capped-price program costing $1344 for three years. It has an estimated resale value after three years of 53 per cent.
Toyota RAV4 GXL from $40,490 plus on-road costs
It was once the go-to compact SUV but has faced increasing pressure from newcomers including the Mazda CX-5. But it remains competitive with a new 110kW/340Nm 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine, six-speed automatic and agreeable styling both inside and out. Toyota claims 6.5L/100km and a smallish boot space of 577-760 litres. It tows only 1000kg. Features include rear park sensors and a reverse camera, auto headlights and wipers, cloth upholstery, seven airbags, selectable driving modes and 17-inch alloy wheels. The warranty is for three years or 100,000km and service intervals are every six months or 10,000km. The capped-price service program costs $1080 for three years and resale is estimated at 55 per cent after three years.
Mazda CX-5 MAXX Sport from $38,990 plus on-road costs
The most popular SUV in its segment was upgraded earlier this year with a sharp new nose, ride refinement and interior enhancements. The drivetrain remains the same with a 129kW/420Nm 2.2-litre turbo-diesel – the most powerful in this comparison – claiming 5.7L/100km. It has a 403-1560 litre boot area and easily seats five adults. It can tow 1800kg, equal to the rest except the RAV4. Standard equipment includes six airbags, reverse camera, auto headlights and wipers, 17-inch alloy wheels and cloth upholstery. An optional pack with a comprehensive safety upgrade is recommended at $1230 extra. It has a three year or unlimited distance warranty, annual service intervals and Mazda’s capped-price service program costs $1087 for three years. Glass’s Guide estimates its resale is the highest here at 58 per cent after three years.
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