Boasting a brand image that was once at a lofty level, reports Iain Robertson, as Subaru has returned to earth, it has lost none of its original bite and, in its Forester model line, its excellence is confirmed in its unbeatable symmetrical 4x4 drivetrain.
Subaru sales performance in the UK has been stymied by a raft of management inconsistencies, poor public and media relations and a lack of involvement in high-profile endeavours. At various stages in its existence, it has been bolstered by associations with other brands. Linked to Toyota and Daihatsu (its oriental sibling) a Justy model emerged in the early-1990s as one of the most compact 4x4s available at the time. It is fortunate, in some respects, that Toyota now owns a salvation stake in the business. However, its GT86 variant of the brilliant BR-Z rear-wheel drive sports coupe sells ten times more and scant additional fruits appear to have emerged from the collaboration.
Yet, it was during the GM years that the most damage was inflicted on the brand. The American giant also owned Saab and Suzuki at the same time. The resultant ‘Saabaru’, effectively an Impreza estate sold in the North American market as a 9-2, with a Saab radiator grille, was little more than an insult. When GM writhed in corporate agony a few years ago, shedding its relationships with Fiat and Suzuki, while inflicting intense destructive pain on Saab, Subaru became a ‘partner’ without a partner.
Long before the McRaes, Burns and Solbergs of the world rallying scene turned Subaru (rhymes with kangaroo) into a household name, the Japanese carmaker demonstrated that flat-four, horizontally-opposed cylinder configurations could work in cars less illustrious than a Porsche 911. The characteristic ‘washing-tub’ beat of this engine format was important but so, too, was Subaru’s in-line four-wheel drivetrain.
In fact, known as ‘symmetrical drive’, it remains as one of the simplest, yet best of all 4x4 systems bar none. Its key difference lies in its inline configuration, by which a direct feed from the crankshaft of the engine enables an inline connection to the rear axles, with the front axles being driven directly off the gearbox. Equal length driveshafts also help with transmitting power equally to each wheel under normal conditions, allowing the system’s active torque split to intervene, when needed. Such technical symmetry means that no single wheel is disadvantaged, which equates to perfect 4x4 traction and drive stability regardless of climatic, or geographical demands.
Forester’s array of enhanced 4x4 technology includes ‘X-Mode’, which features an automatic 4.3-inch upper-screen (of the two) scrolling through its drive-apportioning capabilities, aiding the driver to tackle technically impassable ground, with minimal intervention. It is little wonder that most current Subaru models find great favour in nations blighted by severe winter weather conditions, a factor noticeable by the defrosting heater elements located below each wiper blade. Unsurprisingly, when the going gets tough in the UK, there is usually a kindly Subaru owner rescuing other stranded cars and their occupants. Thanks to a towing capacity of around two-tonnes (although a tough Subaru can always exceed its stated safety margins), very few tasks fall out-with its immense capabilities.
Having driven various Subaru models around gravel pits and forestry sections, I can assure you that a Subaru will go where other 4x4s dare not venture. As the consummate, Freelander-sized SUV, the Forester model is named aptly. Featuring a taut estate car body construction, reinforced by Subaru’s ‘three-ring’ safety cell, the car’s carefully tuned suspension system works both compliantly and confidently on whichever surface it is asked to traverse. The engine and transmission (a constantly variable type) create a lower centre of gravity than any of its rivals, which translates into market-leading on and off-road stability and agility.
Yet, Subaru manages its tasks with sublime, driver-supportive ordinariness. Lacking the design scoops and scallops of many of its competitors, preferring to rely on a principle of simple ‘practicality-first’, the square-rigged Forester provides a generous 505-litres of boot space, a volume which can be expanded three-times by folding flat the split-fold rear seats. Perhaps it is that same lack of visual flair that leads to potential buyer ignorance? All the same, its cabin is leather-clad and exceptionally comfortable and accommodating for up to five adults. The driver’s electrically adjustable seat and manually adjustable steering column create an SUV-high driving position that makes access and egress easy, while enabling a commanding view of surroundings, when punting around. Strong but slim roof pillars also aid a tremendously safe all-round view that many of Forester’s more style-conscious rivals ought to learn from. However, the Forester XE is also very well equipped to a high standard of detail finish.
Packed with active safety, including the innovative, twin-camera ‘EyeSight’ technology, its range of driver aids is market-leading, while connectivity is also on par with the rest of the market. Sadly, I became increasingly annoyed with the lane-change audible warning that ‘bing-bongs’ merrily with every centre-line transgression. There is a way to stop it, by using the indicators but, as I do not want to use them when straight-lining a traffic-free series of bends, its insistent warnings were little more than a nuisance. Two screens (the lower of more generous 7.0-inch dimension and touch-screen capability) provide copious driver and car status information, while the main instrument pod is also clear and concise. The Forester is a very user-friendly machine, without bombarding occupants with largely unnecessary information.
Power is provided by a naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre ‘Boxer’ (the name provided to horizontally-opposed layouts) engine that develops 147bhp, 146lbs ft of torque, 0-60mph in around 10.7s, a top speed just shy of 120mph, 168g/km CO2 and a fuel return of 38.7mpg, which matches the WLTP stated maximum. The standard seamless CVT transmission can be operated manually using the shift paddles.
To be frank, the engine would benefit from a bit of extra grunt but it is more than capable of keeping-up with the rest of the traffic, carrying out safe overtakes and cruising at 60mph with little more than 1,500rpm showing on the rev-counter. Tolerating the high revs required when pressing-on a bit, the CVT transmission could be more annoying, were it not so well insulated, although using the manual paddles introduces a more gear-like progression (bearing in mind that CVT has NO gears at all).
It is a pity that more people do not recognise the true values of the Subaru Forester, which is priced at a comprehensive £30,015 (pre-dealer discounts) and is only Group 16E for insurance purposes. I rate the car very highly indeed. Subaru makes tough and uncompromising motorcars and its SUV range is renowned for high attention to safety, comfort and driving dynamics. While moderately rare, the Forester is an SUV that is above and beyond reproach in my eyes and perfect as a relatively classless but surprisingly classy business alternative. It is a model I would have in preference to around 90% of its potential class rivals.