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

Our Opinion

We like
Space, value, refinement, safety, driveability, comfort, versatility, expected residuals, hill holder device
Room for improvement
Styling is a little meek, very little else

30 May 2008

MOVING resolutely to the beat of its own boxer heart, Subaru really is the Citroen of Japan the Tom Tom Club of the car industry or the Almodovar of SUVs.

As the Forester is the company’s best-seller, there is a great responsibility for it to retain the essence of Subaru when the time comes for each generational change.

And that time is now.

If only Subaru didn’t suffer the same crisis of self-confidence that Citroen did until fairly recently, summed-up succinctly in the rushed facelifts of models like the previous Impreza and current Tribeca which, ultimately, only serve to undermine the company’s brilliant work.

What are we to make of the latest Forester’s design, as it strives towards greater mainstream acceptance? A watered-down interpretation of the timeless 1997 original is not enough.

Never mind that the taut surfaces, clean tail and soft nose offend nobody. The fact this Subaru could be an old Nissan Pathfinder from behind or a Kia head-on is disheartening.

Go on, Fuji Heavy Industries. Be bold. Be rash. Don’t lose sight of what makes Subaru special. Daring and different design is one of the pillars of your brand’s ultimate strengths.

At least the basic boxy silhouette has been retained – and to good use too.

We’re getting older as a society, so being able to get in and out more easily as a result of wider-opening doors and higher hip-point seating is a boon. The downside is the doors are no longer frameless. Pity that. Ironically, on a warm day with the windows down, an old Subaru is a cinch to access.

Factor in a higher stance overall (the upshot of a 20mm elevation in ground clearance to 220mm, making this more SUV-like than its predecessors), as well as a significant wheelbase stretch in the name of more interior space, and today’s Forester is a roomier and more inviting proposition than ever.

For the record, the stats read: Length, width, height and wheelbase increase by 75, 60, 110 and 90mm to come in at 4560, 1795, 1700 and 2615mm respectively, while the body is 75mm longer. Rear legroom is 109mm more generous at 965mm, while front legroom rises by 29mm to 1095mm.

Subaru says that rectifying the previous model’s perceived cabin room shortfall was one of the latest Forester’s top priorities, particularly as swaying growing families from Honda CR-Vs, Toyota RAV4s and Mitsubishi Outlanders is key.

So now tall folk will be able to sit without feeling cramped, and this is even more evident in the back seat.

Critics are slamming the Impreza-derived dashboard as seeming ‘cheap.’ This is rubbish, because, while the trim or materials might feel harder than those found in an Audi for instance, there is nothing to suggest that longevity or function are compromised by it.

Anyway, lifted almost wholesale for the Forester, this simple, no-nonsense fascia in fact seems to work better in a compact SUV application.

The blue instrumentation – clashing with the red centre console lighting, it must be said – is both distinctive and attractive, although the lack of more dials or gauges other than a fuel readout is a bit of a worrying trend, particularly in a vehicle with some off-road aspirations.

Even a small child could operate the simple heater and ventilation controls, and the throughput is strong and effective.

We like the steering wheel-mounted audio and cruise control functions, and found no trouble reaching or operating any of the other buttons that Subaru thoughtfully presented within easy reach of the driver – perhaps with the exception of the stability control switch.

We also found it challenging to fault the Forester’s driving position, which now benefits from a tilting and telescopic steering column. The front seats are in the large/flat Subaru style, but do offer ample comfort and support even after long spells behind the wheel.

The rear seats recline a little via a handy hip-sited button. It works really well. But it is only a two-seater proposition for adults, as the centre position – though having a lap/sash seatbelt and tonnes of headroom available – is limited by the centre console and tight legroom – things that don’t bother the other occupants on either side.

We were surprised to find that cupholders are AWOL for people in the back too. You need to rise to XS spec level and above for that little luxury. And the rear windows don’t go all the way down. Having only one seat map pocket is a little mean too.

Roof-mounted child seat anchors also limit storage possibilities for bulkier cargo items, since the necessary straps eat into the available space.

Nevertheless, the Forester still works brilliantly as a small wagon, thanks to the cavernous back area that features cargo hooks, power outlets, storage options below the floor where the full-sized spare wheel lives, an easy and effective retractable blind, and a low loading lip combined with the large opening tailgate to make loading and unloading a breeze. Total area is wider than before too.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the Forester’s interior is its low window line (you can spot a 100cm kid standing a metre behind) and overall boxiness that upholds the series’ tradition, blessing the Subaru with an airy and inviting feel.

And traditionalists will find the driving experience familiar, but a whole lot better to boot. Under the bonnet is a comprehensively updated version of Subaru’s signature horizontally opposed ‘boxer’ four-cylinder engines.

The 2457cc 2.5-litre single overhead camshaft 16-valve naturally-aspirated unit produces 126kW of power at 6000rpm and 229Nm of torque at 4400rpm. These are small output rises, mainly due to the adoption of a variable valve timing device to plump out low and mid-range torque.

The performance in our five-speed manual X test car actually felt livelier around town and on urban roads than it did on the open bits – despite a small increase in kerb weight.

It’s the nature of the engine and low gearing, which provide a decent dollop of step-off acceleration as long as you are ready and willing.

That it is also quieter and more refined than we remember it to be helps too, as the boxer ‘four’ doesn’t sound as strained. It’s also happy to rev out to the redline with little fuss or complaint.

On the open road, however, this normally-aspirated Forester does not feel especially accelerative from take-off or during lane-change manoeuvres, for example.

Overtaking performance is on the conservative side, so some down-changing with gears is necessary if the Forester is to fly past slower traffic on the open road.

Even when pressing on a little, we still managed to average around 10.5 to 11.0L/100km, but more restrained driving should see that drop significantly.

With plenty of cog-swapping needed, it’s a good thing that the gearbox is typically Subaru in its springiness, but still much slicker than we remember it to be in other Foresters.

Aided by revisions in the transmission’s components, as well as a light clutch, a harmonious pedal arrangement and a nifty hill-hold function, darting around soon becomes second nature in this manual Subaru.

And even though it now sits higher than previously, the Forester’s handling is right on the money for a compact SUV, especially on dirt roads.

Yes, the steering feels lifeless in the hands of keen drivers. And, yes, it is difficult to ascertain what the front wheels are doing as a result.

But credit where it’s due – since the ZR1 Impreza’s platform lurks underneath, which, as a result, comprises all-new double wishbone suspension.

Besides the flat, neutral and stable handling and roadholding characteristics on offer, there is a much greater degree of controllability through tighter turns, raising driver confidence and making the Forester a fun car to fling around.

And the brakes seem up to the task, armed with anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and VDC stability and traction control system. The outcome is impressive stopping distances.

It puts the Forester firmly in the driver’s compact SUV category, and just seems to get better and more fun as the roads turn into tracks. It feels incredibly composed on loose gravel, while the ride on the standard 16-inch Bridgestone Duellers is supple and absorbent.

Subaru fits a limited-slip differential to all models, while manuals have a 50:50 torque split, with a viscous coupling all-wheel drive centre differential altering that right up to a 98:2 split if need be.

Underscoring the Subaru’s security is a strong five-star ANCAP score, and the fact the company has devised its engine to slide underneath the passenger compartment in the case of a major head-on collision.

The Forester is also first compact SUV to score a three-star pedestrian impact rating, while its rear frame is set at bumper height to transmit energy more effectively in a rear collision.

Other safety measures are breakaway pedals, active head restraints, five lap/sash seatbelts and front, side and curtain airbags as standard.

All safe and sensible stuff then.

Helped by measurably improved dynamics, a roomier, more refined and better-presented interior, higher equipment levels and styling that is meant to be more palatable to mainstream audiences, there is no doubt that the 2008 Forester X is a more rounded compact SUV.

Better still, some of the quirky Subaru traits have been retained, and a few more bubble to the surface the more time you spend in one, so there is plenty to like about this car if you are a traditionalist.

The base Forester X is a compact SUV leader, have no doubt. But is Subaru’s quest for being super safe putting it in danger of losing its hard-won loyalty base?

Being original is being best.

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