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Tentative hybrid application doesn’t do much for the new Forester on the road but at least preserves its hard-working all-round capability

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The fifth-generation Subaru Forester, now on sale in the UK, is the first European Subaru to offer petrol-electric hybrid power.

We drove it in prototype form at a proving ground earlier this year. Now comes the chance to see how it works in right-hand drive, out in the real world, and to run a critical eye over its now-confirmed vital statistics.

This is one of a few Japanese hybrid SUVs that have come along over the last couple of years, all of them out to prove that they can be a viable alternative to what many still consider the default-option diesel family 4x4. If you’re one of the many in question, take a moment before you roll your eyes. Electrification remains conspicuously high on the political agenda, after all; as a trend, it isn’t going anywhere. Moreover, benefit-in-kind (BIK) bands are set to tighten quite dramatically next year as the UK company car taxation system makes the full switch to WLTP CO2 test figures, giving fleet drivers very good reason indeed to dump a conventionally powered alternative for a low-emissions hybrid.

So, has this Subaru come along just at the right time to save your tax bill? Not quite. With or without its relatively low-impact hybrid powertrain augmentation, the new Forester probably would never have been the first hybrid SUV for a thrifty company car driver to test drive, for reasons we’ll get to. Even so, it’s disappointing to find out just how weak the money-saving case for ownership of this car might be.

It may not plug in to charge, but that doesn’t seem to do Toyota or Lexus any harm. And it has very limited electric-only running potential, which may or may not bother you either. But the real disappointment is that it emits 154g/km of CO2. So, even by the outgoing NEDC Correlated test measure, it would have only very narrowly avoided the top 37% tax band come next April anyway. And rated by the new, even tougher WLTP test numbers that will actually be applied? Well, Subaru isn’t legally obliged to declare them yet, but as far as it’ll make any difference on your P11D, this car might as well be running a BRM V16 on Holley carburettors. A 37% liability is as bad as company car tax gets.

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What the Forester has in order to begin to make up for all of that is Subaru-brand off-road capability, of course. It has 220mm of ground clearance and proper mechanical full-time four-wheel drive, as well as 1800kg of maximum towing capability and self-levelling rear suspension, all of which certain rivals don’t even approach. Ironically enough, it sounds like the right mechanical specification for an uphill struggle.

The Forester has never been a typical mid-sized family 4x4, and while it’s now bigger than it ever has been, it continues in that unconventional vein in plenty of ways. It’s now a match for most of its rivals on overall length and interior space but remains lower-slung than is the class norm and has seats with a relatively low hip point that most people will either slide sideways or even sit down into, rather than climb up to berth.

The interior fixtures and fittings show evidence in places of an attempt to improve markedly on Subaru’s established standards on perceived quality, but it’s one that’s had limited success. The Forester has plenty of chunky-feeling, quietly classy switchgear and some fairly rich leathers on its seats and door panels, but the material palette elsewhere is a little bit too variable and haphazard, with inconsistent tactile quality, for it to strike you as a genuinely upmarket driving environment.

Equipment levels include adaptive LED headlights, touchscreen infotainment with smartphone mirroring, adaptive cruise control, self-levelling suspension and Subaru’s Eyesight suite of active safety systems as standard. If you want a sunroof, sat-nav, leather upholstery or a powered tailgate, you’ll need to cough up £3000 for Premium trim.

The car's on-road performance never makes it far beyond the mark of respectability for outright acceleration, all-round driveability or fuel efficiency, although it does a little better for mechanical refinement.

Subaru’s decision to keep its maiden hybrid technology application relatively small, light and simple may have kept costs down and preserved much of the Forester’s utilitarian qualities, but it also saddles the car with a CVT that saps its responsiveness much of the time.

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When picking up from low speeds on part-throttle, the hybrid powertrain seems usefully keen, and so the need to dig deep into the pedal and let the revs soar in typical CVT mode isn’t quite as ever-present as you may expect. The farther you go above 50mph, however, the clearer it gets that the powertrain’s electrified portion can do little to assist the petrol flat four, and both outright performance are responsiveness are disappointing. At motorway speeds, it can take several seconds for the engine and gearbox to deliver full power to the wheels for a fairly urgent lane change.

On country roads, meanwhile, you can tell that Subaru has done its best to avoid the well-known ‘rubber band effect’ that CVT cars can suffer with when accelerating under full power. The slush-and-slip feel there is to push through before getting meaningful responses to smaller requests for fresh impetus leaves regrettably little room to mistake what you’re driving most of the time, though.

It’s also a shame that Subaru’s hybrid technology doesn’t make a greater perceptible contribution to the driving experience of the Forester. If someone told you that this was a 48-volt mild hybrid setup rather than one more powerful and integrated downstream of the crankshaft, you could well believe them for a while. That’s because it’s very difficult indeed to keep the engine in shutdown for any length of time, even when crawling in traffic, with such little electric motor-only power apparent at the very top of the accelerator travel. If you like being able to punt your hybrid SUV around town in zero-emissions mode, you'll be disappointed by the Forester’s rather limited functionality.

Real-world fuel economy is reasonable but a long way from a selling point. We saw trip computer-indicated returns of between 36mpg and 42mpg after journeys of varying lengths and types, which leaves this car among the less efficient SUVs of its kind – and one that might be unlikely to improve on the economy return of your existing mid-sized diesel. In light of the full-time four-wheel drive system, that might not come as a surprise.

Ride and handling are likewise respectable but not outstanding. They stop a long way short of recovering the kind of driver appeal for the Forester that a Subaru might once have delivered to an unexpected place in the car market, but they certainly won’t offend or annoy.

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The suspension feels medium-soft on UK roads and is pleasingly absorptive and fairly quiet at low and medium speeds. It only lets loose body control begin to adversely affect comfort when you hurry the car along on a testing surface. The steering is medium-paced, while the handling is fairly intuitive and both precise and agile enough for a car of this size.

Subaru has for a long time made cars for people who need a pretty tough, capable off-roader, rather than for those who just fancy a crossover or SUV because it’s big and might make their lives easier.

And it’s important to record that the reason that the Forester eBoxer lacks a bit of emissions-related rational appeal on the one hand and some on-road drivability on the other is because it has been designed to work just as well over gravel, ruts, slopes and fields as over asphalt, and still to deliver the utility you expect of a traditional 4x4. The CVT gearbox and hybrid assist system really do work very well on grass, mud and steep climbs. They’d likely be perfect for keeping close control of your speed when towing, too.

If that sounds like a car you have a use for, you should consider the Forester. Yes, you’ll be an atypical modern SUV buyer. Quite clearly you needn’t necessarily be a Highlands midwife, a Cotswolds equine vet or a hardened caravanning expert, but it probably helps if you are.

If you’re not, you might well look at what this Subaru offers on paper and wonder why you’d give up your diesel Volkswagen Volkswagen Tiguan for it (which, you’ve guessed it, would likely emit less CO2). Well, you probably shouldn’t, and that’s probably why, however clever their hybrid systems become, Subaru SUVs will by their nature remain pretty rare, niche options.

When all is said and done, this one has the unmistakable aura of the technological stopgap; a car that has been tentatively engineered, quite likely on a limited budget, in order to bridge a gap to a more effective, innovative successor. That’s what is least likeable about it.

On the other hand, it’s a no-nonsense car and has a striking sense of Subaru-brand authenticity about it, both of which are pleasing enough. To the majority of modern SUV buyers, there just won’t be enough otherwise to recommend it on paper and less still on the road. But those who do need what it can do will still likely find a way to appreciate it pretty easily.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Subaru Forester First drives