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

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, practicality, front-seat comfort, ease of use, safety record
Room for improvement
Thirsty when booted, overly light steering, disappointing cabin presentation, tight rear seat space

6 Apr 2004

AS any seasoned ski instructor, farmer or park ranger can tell you, Subaru has been making 4WD wagons since before they were snapped up by city slickers, fashion victims and suburban soccer mums. As the 1975 1400 DL series duly proves.

So it’s inaccurate to accuse the Japanese company of jumping on the SUV bandwagon with the 1997 Forester, even if the Toyota RAV4 that clearly inspired it appeared three years earlier.

The first-generation Impreza provided much of the drivetrain blueprint for that original Forester, so bolting on a turbocharger to create the flagship 1998-2002 GT model was a bit of a no-brainer when the Impreza WRX was wooing new and old customers alike for Subaru.

But with only 125kW of power and 240Nm of torque on tap, the Forester GT’s potential was sadly unrealised when the contemporary WRX – which captured the affordable performance zeitgeist in the latter half of the 1990s – wrought out 160kW and 290Nm respectively.

Subaru missed a trick, dampening keen drivers’ enthusiasm as it softened the GT’s 2.0-litre turbo’s boost to almost mundane levels (8.1psi versus the ’98 WRX’s 13.6psi). And despite 2001’s 5kW and 5Nm rise in output, the fast Forester’s performance remained quick rather than electrifying.

All went quiet on the turbo all-wheel drive front when Subaru released the second-generation Forester range in July 2002. The GT went AWOL, leaving the new 112kW/223Nm normally aspirated 2.5-litre flat four as the sole Forester engine offering.

Until the Forester XT arrived last August, that is. And this time Subaru did it right.

Bolting on a bigger turbo and boosting engine efficiency means the 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine’s power rating skyrockets by 38 per cent to 155kW at 5600rpm, while a tree-stump snapping 320Nm of torque at 3600rpm is the welcome torque output upshot. That’s a 43 per cent rise.

And compared to the earlier turbo GT, that’s 19 per cent more power and 30 per cent more torque.

The XT turbocharger’s maximum boost pressure is 600mmHg (11.6psi). This compares to the 168kW/300Nm WRX’s 700mmHg (13.5psi). Subaru says the actual size of the turbos is the same in both cars, but the difference in output is down to the Impreza’s 2.0-litre capacity compared to the Forester’s 2.5.

Meanwhile, Active Valve Control is also incorporated. It adjusts the intake valve timing for improved low-rev torque and high-rev power. Aided by an electronic cableless throttle and increased computer power to the all-seeing engine control module, there are falls in fuel consumption and exhaust emissions.

And, happily enough, acceleration times, too. The official 0-100km/h claim is 6.4 seconds for the manual (which boasts an improved shift quality, a long-time Subaru bugbear, by the way). That’s 0.4 seconds ahead of the (also improved, and lighter) four-speed automatic sampled.

The great news is, if you’ve ever driven an Impreza WRX, you’ll understand what this is like to drive.

It goes like the clappers. You whoosh forward (in very un-4WD fashion) past Commodore V8s like they’re going backwards.

Furthermore, unlike the old GT, the XT’s power delivery is as linear as an airliner taking off. No off-boost turbo lag and no sky-high revving needed if it’s a quick getaway you’re after. Like the WRX, this Subie is a slingshot.

And, because of the 4WD, as well as retuned suspension (featuring strengthened struts up front), beefed-up front cross-member mounts for greater wheel alignment abilities under pressure, and fatter tyres (Yokohama Geolander G900 P215/60R16), the handling is a hoot.

So it’s doubly disappointing that Subaru has persisted with overly light and insensitive steering. There’s just not enough real feedback on offer to satisfy most drivers – let alone keen ones.

But, boy, doesn’t it grip. Bad weather doesn’t spoil play, with the right amount of roadholding through tight corners (accompanied by a fair amount of bodyroll, mind), rock-solid security on the open road and unruffled poise in between.

This car reels in the open road as if it thinks 100km/h speed limits, "road safety cameras" and revenue-raising-mad police were just a Big Brother nightmare.

On the real security front, Subaru’s Hill Hold device is fitted to manual XT models to aid handbrake hill starts (a turbo first), and the doors on all models better resist impacts.

And if you buy the Luxury Pack, you’ll get side airbags, which helped the non-turbo models score a five-star NCAP crash test rating.

Just don’t ask about the fuel consumption. If you like to party, this Subie enjoys a sip. Between 13.5 and 14.0L/100km isn’t too crash hot. And it’s so hard to not party when there’s so much fun to be had.

You’ll notice the thirst doubly so, because like so many fast and cheap dates, this Subie’s got a small bladder of a fuel tank. Sixty measly litres is all you’ve got between fill-ups.

And the brakes - fine in normal driving conditions - did fade at least once during a few hard stops.

Stepping inside, the Forester cockpit isn’t such a special place to be. Particularly if you’re not driving, because that’s what this car is all about.

Sure, equipment levels are high. You’ll find dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, climate control air-con, a sexy sounding six-CD sound system, leather trim, foglights, keyless entry, power windows and 30-odd storage places.

Plus it’s car-like in its comfort, refinement and ride levels, while further attributes include excellent quality control, good all-round vision (thanks to deep side windows), a superb driving position and cleverly sited switches. And, being a wagon, loads are swallowed whole.

But the back seat area is surprisingly tight for adults. Long legs and knobbly knees in particular feel the squeeze. And three adults sitting abreast makes for less than a titillating ride.

The dash design and presentation is a flair-free zone, especially when you sit inside the latest model Liberty and Outback offerings. There’s too much painted plastic and not enough of the nice soft-feel stuff.

If you need a wagon, want some (light duty) 4WD ability, but also crave a fast sports car experience, the Subaru Forester XT stands alone for the price. It’s the old Forester GT promised fulfilled at last.

And with the fussy body cladding, unsubtle bonnet bulge and angry Japanese Manga comic character face, who cares if the blown Forester looks as incongruous as your local vicar in drag.

Just one quick fang in this cross-wired crossover and you’ll see how the XT really does put the "sport" into SUV.

Ski instructors, farmers and park rangers have never had it so fast.

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