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Car reviews - Subaru - Forester - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Space, value, refinement, styling, safety, driveability
Room for improvement
Four-speed auto’s performance in X and XS is disappointing, interior is too much like the Impreza’s – the Forester deserves more cabin differentiation

14 Mar 2008

SUBARU is hoping you are a mum or dad with a small family, a penchant for weekends away and the need for a new set of wheels.

Now, while the previous Forester certainly appealed to a wide and varied clientele base, its limitations were obvious.

Being too workmanlike in style and lacking sufficient rear-seat legroom ruled it out for the sort of people who have slipped through Subaru’s fingers to go on and buy a Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-7 and Nissan X-Trail... or, in other words, small families seeking a spacious – and stylish – compact SUV.

A quick glance at the ‘what’s new’ spec sheet reveals a Forester that has been honed to fit the desired target market better.

Fitted with full-frame doors that open wider, you are immediately impressed – or should that be “Imprezzed” – by how much Subaru’s latest Impreza’s dashboard and interior has made it into the Forester.

That’s no bad thing, since the quality and presentation is way better than any Forester or Impreza cabin that’s come before.

And funnily enough, the same things we like and dislike about the Subaru small-car apply inside, such as comfortable seats that are a tad flat for some, excellent instrumentation, great ventilation and a quality feel that is unfairly compromised by the amount of shiny metallic-look plastic that abounds.

You’re also immediately aware of how much higher you sit in a Forester these days, which may be great for school-run mums and dads, but it plays tricks with your sensation of bodyroll.

The fact is, the Forester never feels like it will come unstuck, whether you are driving on bitumen or fanging it on dirt roads. But because you are perched up higher, you seem to be more aware of speed and body movement. Yet both are fully contained within the safe and secure Subaru’s stride.

We’re no fans of the dead-feel steering either (another Impreza family trait), yet this too belies initial impressions by weighting up nicely at speed, being progressive in its inputs and giving the keen driver a sense of security (if not tactility) on loose surfaces.

Linear, predictable handling is the order of the day here, while the latest Forester’s rough-road ride is exemplary. Full marks to the double wishbone rear suspension and more rigid chassis.

We drove both the sweeter-shifting five-speed manual as well as the four-speed automatic. And unless you must drive the latter, changing gears yourself makes for a much more fun Forester experience.

The cars at the launch were quite low on kilometres, and we know from experience that Subaru’s boxer engines take time and mileage to open up nicely. Still, even in the XS manual, the car had to be revved hard and rowed along in order to fire up the performance wick.

In the X automatic we drove, constant foot-to-the-floor jamming was necessary for highway overtaking, but otherwise, under acceleration from lower speeds, the regular atmo 2.5-litre Forester’s pick-up was not too bad.

Indeed, even when you do rev it, the car is so much quieter that you can barely make out the Subaru’s signature engine thrum, which is great news for some but not music to all fans of the marque’s ears.

So much for the regular models what about the much-vaunted turbocharged Forester? Is it still a WRX stuck in the box it came in?

Well, for starters, the XT’s turbocharged growl is much more evident, which is nice.

Better still, the 2.5-litre engine’s performance is now a lot more accessible in the low ranges, and comes on strongly but smoothly with a newfound finesse. No longer do you feel as if the power delivery is all or nothing, making the XT a far more pleasant drive.

And be careful: flooring it will catapult the Forester through the trees with licence-losing speeds that keep spiralling upwards in seconds. This XT is proper-fast.

Thankfully, it’s also properly sorted, with the type of body control and easy manoeuvrability you might not expect from a compact SUV.

Yes, the steering still feels dead in the XT too, but it has the handling and roadholding verve to put a smile on the dial of the delighted driver.

And on the evidence of our all-too-brief acquaintance with the Forester turbo, the previous model’s ragged and quease-inducing ride characteristics have given way to a supple firmness.

This is the Forester you should aim for if you want fun to go with your family duties.

In a nutshell then, the MY09 Forester range is now civilised and refined enough to be considered the spiritual replacement for the lamented Impreza ‘sport wagon’ that disappeared when that range went all hatchback on us.

A slightly less quirky car it may be, but the Forester’s appreciable progress in areas of space, safety, value and usability means that the target audience that Subaru is seeking is sure to be pleased.

And yet, with the XT now striding along nicely, there’s still something for the enthusiast too.

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