The Subaru Forester avoids the glam detailing of most other soft-roaders and sticks to traditional 4x4 spec

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Some have described the Subaru Forester as the original soft-roader. But the first version that arrived in the UK in 1997 was really more a utilitarian workhorse. In essence it was an Impreza with a larger estate body and raised ground clearance. Mk2 arrived in 2003, together with a raft of zippy turbocharged models (first and second generation), including some nutty STi versions that 
were sadly never officially imported into the UK.

When Subarus first arrived in the UK in 1977 there were no dealerships, so the first cars were sold alongside farm machinery. This, coupled with universal four-wheel drivetrains and the generally rugged nature of its products, soon led to Subaru’s reputation as a favourite of those who made their living from the land.

It’s the boxer diesel that most buyers go for

In more recent years, Subaru’s rallying exploits took its road cars to a much wider, more performance-oriented audience, but the new Forester is evidence that the old Subaru values of solid, no-nonsense engineering remain.

So while the longer, taller new Forester is closer than ever to the small SUV norm, it still sets itself apart from rivals such as the Honda CR-V or Ford Kuga. The Forester not only avoids the glam detailing that covers most other soft-roaders but also sticks to traditional 4x4 spec. The question is, will its plain-speaking ruggedness tempt buyers away from more glamorous SUVs? And does enough off-road estate DNA remain to keep owners of the current model happy?

Subaru still perseveres with a boxer-engined petrol model in X and XS trim, but it’s the boxer diesel that most buyers go for, in either X, XC or XS NavPlus.

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Subaru Forester rear

The third iteration of the Subaru Forester is now much closer in size and shape to its conventional small SUV rivals – cars like the Honda CR-V and Nissan X-Trail. It’s 45mm wider, 75mm longer and a whopping 110mm taller than the old car. But while you do sit 30mm higher than in the old Forester, the experience is still very saloon-like. 

Despite the new proportions, the design is still Subaru. Which means it’s simple, conservative and well proportioned, but hardly exciting.

The Forester is simple, conservative and well proportioned

The base Forester’s side skirts, bumper corners, door mirrors and even door handles are tough grey plastic. This fits perfectly with the Forester’s no-nonsense attitude.

The Forester’s innards are protected from mud, water or rocky encounters by a plastic/metal engine guard, enhancing  the car’s off-road credentials.

The slightly gaudy cheese-cutter grille is reminiscent of the one on the Subaru Legacy Outback. Unfortunately for Subaru, this is the only truly distinctive part of the Forester’s exterior design.

Twin exhausts seem like a nod to performance that really isn’t there. Considering the Forester’s Impreza genes, it’s a little strange that it doesn’t use that car’s modest single exhaust. At least Subaru doesn’t clad them in chrome, unlike manufacturers of some of the more showy SUVs.

The way the rear light clusters wrap around the sides of the car helps to inject some visual interest into an otherwise very boxy profile.

There are no alloys on the Forester 2.0X. But since the 16-inch steel items are covered with perfectly attractive plastic wheel covers, that’s no great loss. Half-close your eyes and you could even believe they were alloys. Almost.


Subaru Forester dashboard

Open the door to the Subaru Forester’s cabin and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d opened the door to the late 1990s. The swathes of dark plastic and iffy seat fabric patterns are a far cry from the sophisticated, modern-looking cabins of some rivals.

The dashboard is lifted straight from the Impreza, which means a fairly uninspiring design, and hard – though durable-feeling – plastics. That said, the interior of the Forester is effective in a workmanlike way. The seat fabric feels hard wearing, there’s acres of space (especially rear legroom), and the front seats are extremely comfortable and supportive without being in any way ostentatious. The interior quality is some way from the European mainstream, let alone some of the premium cars the Forester is priced against.

The interior of the Forester is effective in a workmanlike way

In another nod towards yesteryear, there’s no clever electronics to operate the low-range gearbox, just a large lever next to the hand brake.

Opt for a version with sat-nav and you’re treated to a vast protrusion on top of the dash in which sits a rather old-school nav system. It does break up the monotony of the dash, though.

There are also neat, thoughtful touches such as the way the rear seat backs drop down as soon as you pull the release catch. This is a particularly useful touch if you need to drop the rear seats in the middle of manoeuvring a large object into the boot. It’s a small touch, but indicative of a generally simple, intelligently designed interior.

As well as there being more rear legroom than in a Land Rover Freelander, the boot is reasonably large, especially with the rear seats folded.


2.0-litre Subaru Forester Boxer engine

Critically, the Subaru Forester’s diesel engine brings some much-needed zip to the Forester’s mid-range performance – and also adds a pleasing compression-ignition take on the familiar Boxer ‘thrum’. Subaru quotes a 10 second 0-60 time, but the Forester diesel actually feels keener and quicker than that.

Dynamically the 2.0D’s biggest weakness is the gearchange quality from the new six-speed ‘box. It suffers from both a long throw and an obstructive quality, in stark contrast to Subaru’s normally sweet-shifting manual ‘boxes.

The diesel engine brings some much-needed zip to the Forester’s mid-range performance

With just 145lb ft of torque available at 3200rpm, the Forester’s petrol-powered 2.0-litre boxer engine could be considered rather weedy. Although the petrol-powered Forester’s performance feels a little sluggish on a subjective level, it actually performs quite well against the clock. A Honda CR-V diesel takes 10.3sec to reach 60mph, while a Ford Kuga TDCi dispatches the same increment in 10.6sec. The Forester does it in 10.2sec.

One of the lowest kerb weights in the class no doubt helps the Forester here; it tipped our scales at 1510kg, a significant 170kg less than the Ford Kuga.

Part of the reason for the Forester feeling so slow is that up to around 3500rpm it feels very relaxing and refined. Wind it up beyond that and the familiar offbeat boxer thrum becomes more apparent. It’s not loud enough to feel intrusive, but it does discourage spirited acceleration through the gears.

The petrol car’s gearchange certainly doesn’t discourage spirited driving, though. Despite a slight reluctance to engage reverse, the five-speed manual gearbox is a slick, well weighted affair that makes swapping ratios an enjoyable experience. So while the Forester is no slouch against the clock, it responds best to more gentle treatment, and rewards cruising with a smooth, relaxed and refined power delivery.


Subaru Forester cornering

Subaru has always been proud of the handling of previous Foresters, making much of the extra agility afforded by a lower, estate-like body and the boxer engine layout’s naturally lower centre of gravity.

Despite the Forester now being longer and taller than ever, it continues the family tradition of surprising agility. Wide tracks help to offset the effects of a lofty roofline, as does the fact that the engine is positioned so low.

Despite the rather long and tall body, the Forester continues the family tradition of surprising agility

This, coupled with the Forester’s relatively low kerb weight, endows the Forester with remarkably sprightly handling. It certainly feels much more willing to change direction than the majority of its SUV peers. However, the electrically assisted power steering, though commendably precise, feels too light to instil real confidence on turn-in.

Once settled into a corner, the Forester never feels anything other than utterly safe and secure. If you’re pressing on – especially on damp roads – the Forester is prone to some gentle understeer, but the nose is easily tucked back in by lifting your right foot, or by the impressively unobtrusive but effective stability control system.

The ride is not the softest, but the tyres’ relatively tall sidewalls work well with the suspension to create a controlled yet supple ride quality. 
Most impressive of all, though, is the hush with which the suspension deals with humps and bumps – whether those are coarse motorway surfaces 
or lumpy suburban side streets. Subaru’s engineers have clearly put a lot of effort into this part of the Forester’s dynamic repertoire and it definitely seems to have paid off.


Subaru Forester

The showroom price tag for the Subaru Forester compares relatively well against its competitors. The base Forester offers decent standard equipment, too. It doesn’t include items like alloy wheels, leather seats or fancy sat-nav, but useful items such as automatic air conditioning, heated door mirrors, self-levelling suspension and cruise control are all standard equipment.

Running costs are less favourable, especially for the petrol model.  The CO2 outputs of both the petrol and diesel engines put the Forester in an expensive VED band, meaning a year’s road tax will cost you more than in an equivalent Kuga or CR-V.

The diesel model rights many of the petrol car’s wrongs

Stroke the petrol Forester along a motorway and you might return just north of 30mpg (despite there being no sixth gear), but on a more mixed touring route we managed only 28.8mpg. In town, expect that figure to drop into the low 20s; overall, we achieved a rather poor 23.8mpg. The diesel's official average is well over 40mpg, making it competitive with rivals, if not class-leading. Even so anyone who does more than very limited mileage will likely be better off buying the diesel.

Subaru dealers are now competitive when it comes to discounts, with a four-figure sum and more expected. However, in spite of their favour among the farming set, residual values are slightly below average for the type of car.


3 star Subaru Forester

The Subaru Forester feels like a welcome antidote to the ‘all mouth and no trousers’ approach favoured by some other soft-roaders. Indeed, in this basic spec it feels like it’s been designed as a durable workhorse capable of some light off-road work, rather than as a fashion statement. It’s not the most exciting car to look at, but neither is it offensive. It doesn’t have the most exciting or premium interior, either, but it’s comfortable and spacious and feels very durable. 

Perhaps most surprising is how well sorted the car feels – it’s a comfy car to drive, if not especially inspiring to drive. It rides the bumps well, and will reach the parts other soft roaders simply can’t.

In basic spec the Forester feels like it’s been designed as a durable workhorse

The boxer diesel engine is engaging, if not especially efficient by the standards of today’s best. Performance is stronger than the figures suggest, though. The petrol car feels weak by comparison, while its economy and emissions figures will ensure that it’s a bit player in the soft-roader sector.

In keeping with its utilitarian image, there’s plenty of space inside, especially in the rear, although the style and quality of the interior harks back a decade or so – it’s some way off the quality of most mainstream rivals, while the seat materials are of the hard-wearing, if not especially enticing, variety.

As a soft-roader with stronger than average go anywhere credentials, the Forester has plenty going for it, though. We quite like its honest charm, its reasonable equipment levels and the novelty of the boxer diesel engine. It may lack a little in the way of sophistication, but for many, its ability to do a job is far more important.

Subaru Forester 2008-2013 First drives