Where I live in the Gold Coast hinterland there's a mixture of mountain and plain, of steep winding country roads and urban typicality. Cars around here need to perhaps ford a flooded main road creek crossing one month - then for the next eleven do normal school pick-up duties. It's a place of stunning beauty and a wonderful climate - and it's also Subaru territory. At the local Mount Tamborine community fruit and vegetable market on a Sunday morning - a Subaru Outback and two Foresters. In front of the post office boxes, a Liberty. (Oh yes, and an occasional Audi Allroad!) Commuting up and down the mountain - a selection of Subaru models from current WRX to old Leone. It is here - more than anywhere else that I have seen - that Subarus proliferate. They have, it appears, just the right mix of attributes to appeal to this near-urban but countrified population.
And after spending a week in a base model Subaru Forester 2.5X, the logic of their decisions becomes very clear. Simply, the Subaru does it all. With its twin front airbags, ABS and constant four-wheel drive (a triumvirate that all new Subarus sold in Australia now have), you can tick the 'safety' box. With its 112kW 2.5-litre flat four and slick-shifting 5-speed manual trans, the 'adequate performance' tick can be marked. 'Practicality' gets a guernsey with the Forester's large, flat-floor load area created by folding the rear seats. And, despite being the base model, 'Equipment' can also be ticked with its single CD radio, cruise control and electrics. The on-road dynamics are fine (albeit with relatively low grip levels), and the NVH - while certainly not class-leading - is sufficiently quelled to allow long, fatigue-free drives. In fact, at the end of the test period, all I could really intensely dislike was the performance of the headlights - hmmm, I'll have to start looking around and seeing how many of the local cars are equipped with aftermarket driving lights...
The latest model Forester has an upped engine capacity - from 2 to 2.5 litres - and a slight weight drop, giving improved performance. Power has gone from 92kW to a far more impressive 112kW at 5600 rpm. However, on the road it is the broad torque development that has the most impact (how often will a Forester driver be up at 5600 revs?) and while 223Nm is developed at 3600 rpm, an amazing 81 per cent of this peak torque is developed from "just over" 1000 rpm right through to "almost" 6000 rpm. That makes the engine a driveable delight, although its Subaru bass-throb takes a little of the shine off.
The gear-change is light and precise and with a user-friendly clutch, flicking from gear to gear is a no-pain gain. Like other manual-transmission Subarus, the Forester is equipped with a hill-holder function, which automatically prevents the car rolling backwards when it is stopped on an incline. The parking brake doesn't need to be used; instead the brakes stay locked on until the clutch is released. However, we found that more revs than normal were needed when doing hill-starts, and - perhaps because of the slow release of the mechanism - it was easy to make the engine detonate as revs dropped too low for the load. In fact, if you're a competent driver, there should be no need for such a device; it's one of the very few gimmicks in this car.
On the road the Forester steers and handles with typical Subaru all-paw stability. The Yokohama Geolander 215/60 tyres (on steel rims) don't have a lot of grip, but such is the balance and predictability of the car that getting into trouble would be difficult. Unlike other recent Subarus that we have driven, the normal viscous-coupled four-wheel drive understeer can be tweaked into throttle-lift oversteer; in fact, it's possible to have a lot of fun sliding the car around the blacktop. However, for less, er, exuberant drivers, the upshot is that the Forester is a progressive and stable car that will tend to understeer (the front push wide) when its cornering grip levels are overcome. Unlike the Honda CR-V, with its 'on-demand' four-wheel drive system, the Subaru is always putting its engine power down through all four wheels, which has the real on-road benefit of reducing the likelihood of any wheel losing traction, and so perhaps causing a cornering slide.
Talking of sheer grip, the Forester comes with a limited slip rear differential (it's a viscous coupled design, like the centre diff). However, on a fairly steep surface of exposed rock and grass, the car got stuck, with one front wheel and a diagonally opposite rear wheel spinning. A slight run-up got the Forester over the obstacle, but it's a reminder that - even with a selectable low-range gear that the car features - that this is not a machine designed for 'real' off-road work. As far as we're concerned, that's fine - think of it as an all-road car and the trade-off is put into perspective.
The instruments are clear and the controls all work well with a quality feel. The front seats are comfortable and there's plenty of room - a story repeated in the back seat, where the only borderline dimension is in knee-room. The glovebox is large (for a twin airbag car) and the pockets and compartments scattered around the cabin work effectively. Twin sunglass storage compartments are built into the roof, while there are four cupholders. Good touches abound - from the adjustable height seatbelt anchorages in the front and the back, to the practical and durable rubberised trim material used on the top of the doors and front of the dash. A full-size spare wheel is provided and a removable cargo blind can be used to cover the load from prying eyes. With the 60/40 seat backs folded the load area is large and (again that word!) practical, and the front seats can also be folded flat.
The ride is firm but the well-matched spring/damper combination means it never degenerates into a rough and tumble experience. Even on very bumpy and demanding open-road corners the Forester stays unfussed; there's very much the feel of a long-travel suspension coping with whatever is thrown at it. The steering - which now features a variable ratio - is not as precise around centre as in other Subarus, but still avoids having a large sneeze-factor.
We deliberately avoided looking up the price until we'd spent a week in the car - at that point we were guessing a RRP of around $35-36,000... which makes the $30,990 ask very reasonable indeed. The Forester's a very good car, with substantial improvements over the previous model which in turn was certainly no bad thing.
But what a pity they didn't do something about those headlights!
Why you would:
- Practical and comfortable
- Excellent on-road manners
- Well priced
- Good equipment level
Why you wouldn't:
The Forester 2.5X was supplied for this test by Subaru Australia.