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First drive: Turbocharged Forester is eXTasy

Pumped up: 2.5-litre turbo boxer adds welcome spice to the new Forester range.

Subaru adds brilliant new turbocharged variant to its compact off-roader range

5 Aug 2003

IT’S been a long time between drinks for turbocharged Forester fans.

The long lamented Forester GT was discontinued with the previous generation Forester in July, 2002, and since then the new, 2.5-litre Forester range has struggled without a turbo model.

But Subaru hopes the new XT variant – which goes on sale this week alongside the Forester X and XS cooking models - will change all that.

Last year Forester claimed 18.2 per cent of the compact all-terrain wagon market to be lineball with X-Trail, while Rav4 and CR-V were streets ahead at 22.5 and 22.9 per cent respectively.

To June this year Forester has dropped to a 15 per cent share of the renamed compact SUV segment and, while CR-V is the biggest loser at just 13 per cent, Rav4 and X-Trail have been the market leaders at 16.8 and 16.3 per cent respectively.

The lack of a turbocharged flagship to replace Forester GT in the new line-up has clearly played a role in the downturn in Forester fortunes, which stood as high as 21.8 per cent of the segment in 2001. So the projected 100 to 125 sales per month expected for the new XT flagship, which has no direct rival in terms of performance, will provide important incremental sales.

Available in five colours and differentiated from lesser Foresters by unique 16-inch alloys, an aggressive bonnet scoop and a six-CD audio system, XT will be offered in two specifications, with pricing starting at $39,490 for the five-speed manual Forester XT – just $790 more than the GT.

Selling at $42,990, the Forester XT Luxury Pack adds side airbags, an extra large sunroof and leather seat, gearknob and handbrake trim. Four-speed auto versions of both iterations are available at a $2000 premium.

The XT changes are in addition to MY2004 Forester range updates, including black headlight surrounds, chrome-look grille surrounds, different brake pad shape, new rear brake callipers and stronger front doors.

GoAuto drove the turbocharged 2.5-litre XT from Canberra to Thredbo and return as part of its weekend launch and came away impressed with the advances it realises over both its previous generation Forester GT predecessor and its current, naturally aspirated 2.5-litre siblings.

Producing a maximum of 155kW at 5600rpm and a significant 320Nm of torque at 3600rpm, XT’s new forced–induction 2.5-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine offers 38 per cent more power and a big 43 per cent more torque than other Forester models. It is also 19 per cent more powerful and 30 per cent torquier than the superseded 2.0-litre turbo Forester GT.


Forester XT manual claims a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 6.4 seconds while the auto is said to sprint to 100km/h in 6.8 seconds

Featuring a 2.5-litre turbocharged boxer engine similar to that of the 221kW US-market Impreza STi engine, Forester XT differs in its use of a smaller turbo producing 20 per cent less boost (11.6psi or 0.8 bar) and a different version of Subaru’s Active Valve Control System (AVCS) that advances inlet valve timing by up to 20 degrees, instead of the WRX’s 30 degrees.

Tuned for bottom-end torque and superior tractability instead of simply full-throttle performance under the “best of both world’s” concept, the XT engine employs a turbo similar in size to Australia’s WRX. But its larger 2.5-litre engine obviously realises a lower turbo displacement to engine displacement ratio.

“We have developed the Forester XT so that it will overwhelmingly outperform its rivals,” said general manager of Subaru’s engine design department, Ichikawa Kazuharu, who spent his honeymoon in Australia 11 years ago and says Australians “understand Subaru better than in any other market”.

Along with features like a drive-by-wire throttle, semi-closed deck cylinder block and the world-first use of a cast steel journal in an aluminium block, the result is an engine that produces 20Nm more peak torque than WRX.

The 2.5-litre turbo engine will remain exclusive to Forester XT for some time, with the forthcoming new Liberty set to feature a 2.0-litre turbo engine and strict Australian noise laws preventing it in the WRX.

Forester XT manual claims a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 6.4 seconds while the auto – which is the first Subaru to feature direct solenoid shift control (dubbed Direct AT) for increased shift smoothness and response – is said to sprint to 100km/h in 6.8 seconds.

Removal of mechanical hydraulic accumulators and control valves is claimed to have saved 2.5kg from the auto’s weight.

Front strut rigidity is improved for better steering response and Subaru’s hill holder feature is available with the Forester turbo for the first time (manual only).

Subaru Australia says it holds a strong order book for Forester XT already. Senior executives hope its significant improvement in torque will give the XT wider appeal than the GT, which they admit was less than well suited to Australian driving conditions.

With the same 1400kg towing capacity as its non-turbo siblings, Forester XT is also capable of towing popular caravans like most of the Jayco Freedom pop-top range. It is this market that Subaru believes will grow in importance to the Japanese manufacturer over the next 10 years.

While its market share has fallen, Forester has increased sales in Australia every year since its launch in August, 1997. In fact, Subaru Australia expects to sell its 50,000th Forester some time this month and hopes to shift as many as 11,000 this year. Turbocharged Forester sales number 5729 sales to date.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

FORGET everything you know about the Forester GT.

Well, almost everything. Despite minor changes aimed at improving both steering and braking performance, they remain the weak points on an otherwise unblemished score card for the new Forester XT.

The XT’s steering lacks feedback and is overly assisted (read: too light) - especially on-centre – making delicate steering adjustments at freeway speeds less precise than they should be. And the brakes still tend to fade after several mildly forceful stops.

The upside is braking is very progressive and easy to meter, while the super-light steering is great for tight carpark manoeuvring, which tends to compensate for much of Forester’s steering shortfalls during spirited going.

But Forester XT’s shortfalls end there. New to Australia and unique to Forester here, the new 2.5-litre turbo engine is a cracker. Feeling more like a six-cylinder than a turbocharged four, the force-fed boxer is lumpy, muscular and free-revving at the same time.

Offering oodles of torque right from idle and rarely leaving its driver feeling he/she’s in the wrong gear, the new engine makes its predecessor in the 2.0-litre turbo Forester GT seem laggy and lame in comparison.

There’s little to no turbo lag in the 2.5, with a stab of the loud pedal greeted with instant urge at almost any revs. Banishing the current four-cylinder turbo trend to the dustbin, the XT combines strong bottom-end delivery with deep-breathing top-end performance that does not let up until well into the 6500rpm red zone. Yes, the frustrations of driving the GT briskly are left well behind in the XT, and so is the anaemic exhaust note.

Subaru says its engineers spent a great deal of time tuning the 2.5 turbo’s exhaust note - and the results are proof they got it right. Deep and burbly at idle, it becomes a distinctly boxer-like, metallic crescendo at redline that begs to be heard. The trade-off here, however, is XT’s greater thirst and its Premium unleaded fuel diet.

Of course, a spin-off from the significant increase in torque is that Forester’s excellent viscous-coupled all-wheel drivetrain, with limited-slip rear differential, now does its job even better.

Feeling more performance-oriented because more torque is directed to the rear wheels after the front wheels lose traction, particularly on wet or loose surfaces, the all-paw system copes with the XT’s extra performance brilliantly – even offering power oversteer on demand off-road.

Shortcomings of the brakes, steering and four-speed auto aside (the latter still feels clunky, despite changes to improve shift quality), the XT’s considerable performance bonus over both its predecessor and current siblings makes it unique in the compact SUV world.

We have no doubt Forester XT’s superior driveability will attract a wider range of customers than the GT tended to, with conquest sales likely to include anything from six-cylinder SUVs and locally built wagons to WRXs.

Indeed, with its greater practicality, driveability and refinement, the almost-as-quick Forester XT could well be the car WRX-driving family folk have been looking for. XT should also help change perceptions that Forester is less hard-core than the likes of X-Trail.

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