Car reviews - Subaru - Forester - XT 5-dr wagon
Sophisticated CVT, extra performance, quiet ride, extra rear legroom, lack of body roll, more upmarket ambience
Room for improvement
Dull steering, tendency to understeer, tight boot space
23 Jan 2013
QUICKER, more fuel efficient and better equipped than before, Subaru's new-generation Forester XT's greatest achievement nevertheless is its higher levels of refinement.
Subaru engineers and designers have ironed out many wrinkles of the boxer-engine, turbocharged all-wheel-drive Forester flagship while lifting cabin ambience a notch in their quest to grow a more mainstream clientele for the vehicle.
The Forester’s all-new body makes a major contribution to this new-found sophistication, as does the blown 2.0-litre direct-injected iteration of Subaru's latest flat four that features in its naturally aspirated, port injected form in other petrol Foresters (along with diesel alternatives) in this fourth generation.
But one surprising contributor is the new continuously variable transmission (CVT) that is arguably the best belt-driven transmission in the business.
With nary a hint of belt whine, this CVT has up to eight steps in its ‘ratios’ to mimic a conventional torque-converter automatic and conceal the dreaded slow-coach feel of more basic CVTs.
We have not been big fans of CVTs, and feared it might take the edge off the Forester XT – the hottest Forester with 177kW of punch – especially as no manual gearbox is now available.
But this unit won us over, delivering admirable acceleration performance, slick down-shifts and easy manual-mode operation.
With three driving modes to play with, the Lineartronic CVT can be set to lazy, everyday or drive-like-crazy settings, all selected with a click of two buttons on the steering wheel.
Officially called SI-Drive, the system allows the engine to rev out further, kick-down more easily and down-shift under braking in the sportiest Sport Plus mode.
If anything, we found the change-down under braking a little pronounced, sometimes almost locking up the wheels in its haste to grab a lower ‘gear’.
In the lazy mode – officially called Intelligent – the CVT changes up earlier and reacts a little more sluggishly, all in the name of saving fuel.
Realistically, most drivers will stick to the normal mode, confusingly called Sport, and just let the CVT go about its business. At times we had to remind ourselves that it was a CVT and not a torque converter transmission or even a dual-clutch cog-swopper, which is a victory in itself.
Of course, one of the benefits of CVTs is their ability to help save fuel. Subaru claims 8.5 litres per 100km in the combined fuel test, but we did not see better than 10L/100km in a largely rural drive program, albeit with a fair bit of throttle much of the time.
We did notice the reduced levels of road noise from the coarse-chip bitumen, as well as the super-quiet boxer engine that seems to have found new balance.
The main reason Subaru sticks with this venerable opposing cylinder design is the low centre of gravity it affords, with the bulk of the engine slung low in the engine bay.
In Forester XT, the lack of body roll is laudable, especially for a vehicle sitting 220mm above the road surface, giving Forester the best ground clearance of any SUV in its class. Of course, Subaru has beefed up the suspension on this sporty version to aid handling, although not to a teeth-rattling extent.
A swift drive through the hills of the upper Murray River region near Albury and Beechworth proved the Forester XT can hang on to Planet Earth better than most of its Japanese and Korean rivals, but what should have been a rattling good fang along almost deserted roads was somewhat sullied by the electric-assisted power steering that lacked on-centre feel and required a big armful of lock in tighter corners.
The Forester also lacked front-end bite, slipping into understeer a little too readily compared with some European SUVs, such as BMW’s X1.
Speaking of lacking bite, the brakes, while adequate, could also do with some extra oomph, especially on a vehicle that weighs a considerable 1600kg and is powered by a lusty turbo engine.
And yes, the engine is lusty, but if a would-be customer thinks they are getting a WRX on stilts, think again. Acceleration to 100km/h is 7.5 seconds, which is good for the class (Honda’s CR-V does it in around 10 seconds), but leisurely compared with the WRX sedan’s 5.4 seconds.
Unfortunately, we did not get to experience the Forester XT’s push-button X-Mode system that brings all the electronic nanny systems to bear at speeds under 40km/h in rough country or in snow, as we only had a brief drive on unchallenging unsealed road.
Here, however, the Forester’s all-wheel-drive system shines, providing loads of traction while varying the torque split between the wheels in real time. And no, there is no front-wheel drive model in the Forester range.
Driving the Forester XT, the driver sits high in the saddle with a commanding view over the front of the vehicle. While some people like to sit down in the vehicle, SUV owners typically like this tall outlook, and the Forester XT has it in spades now that the seat has been raised more than 30mm.
Accentuating this clear view are the A pillars which have been moved further towards the front of the vehicle, not only reducing the area blocked to the driver’s eye but also allowing extra side windows – ‘lights’ in car industry jargon – tucked in the corners beyond the exterior mirrors. Just the thing for judging kerbs and roundabouts.
Another bravo to Subaru for extending the rear-seat legroom in this Forester generation, as well as the shoulder room, front and back, which is sure to appeal to the families that Subaru is trying to lure.
While luggage space has been enlarged, it is severely encumbered by a raised floor that intrudes into the boot to accommodate the full-sized spare wheel. It is good thing that Subaru Australia provides such a wheel in this wide brown land (instead of the space-saver offered in less puncture-prone areas of the world), but a shame Subaru can’t build the wheel well to suit.
Inside, the seats are a little hard and flat for our taste, and the Harman Kardon audio system looks a little after-market (although apparently capable of an upmarket sound). Otherwise, the surfaces and instruments are par for the course.
The sound system also accommodates the sat-nav which is only supplied as standard equipment in the $50k-plus XT Premium and not the $43k XT, which seems a bit cheap.
Both models get a large sunroof, along with a profusion of LCD screens showing all sorts of information (except a digital speedo, it seems).
The up-market XT Premium gets leather and Subaru’s EyeSight anti-crash system that annoyingly beeps a warning every time the car gets anywhere near a white line. This lane departure warning system can be switched off – which we did after sending out a search party to locate the switch (overhead).
Unfortunately, all this extra gear costs money, and the XT Premium is now pushing into prestige vehicle price territory.
Still, Subaru buyers know they are getting one of the most reliable, toughest, capable and honest vehicles around. The Forester XT is no exception
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