Subaru's rugged estate-cum-SUV is likely to be its best-selling model, but is this the best iteration of the Forester yet?

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When the history of the crossover is written, the Subaru Forester will most likely be one of a half-dozen cars to claim a close proximity to its genesis.

The original model, introduced as a concept in 1995, was based on an Impreza's chassis. Intended to snare American buyers keen on rugged outdoor pursuits, it was promoted under the catchy slogan of 'SUV tough, car easy'.

The 1995 Streega concept previewed the first Forester

All-wheel drive, boxer engines and the use of turbos were all in place from the start and continued through two more generations, launched in 2002 and 2008. One look at the current version of the Subaru Forester makes it clear that the slow transition from utilitarian, estate-bodied workhorse to soft-roader clone is finally complete. Although the next generation Forester has new targets lined up in its crosshairs, with Subaru aiming to take on the Honda CR-V and the Volkswagen Tiguan with its new Global Platform underpinnings. But that generation Forester isn't due until 2019, until then Subaru has been diligently refreshing its current model, as the implementation of new technology and powertrain testifies. 

Its predecessor had already grown far taller than any Forester before it. Now, Subaru has polished off the job with the chunkier, even bigger, SUV-shaped successor that we’re testing here. 

Ambitions have similarly been supersized for the new arrival. As predicted by the Japanese manufacturer, this Forester quickly became its most popular model, capitalising on a healthy segment to overhaul the 170,000 global sales racked up by the previous version.

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The brand will feel that – with improved practicality, better efficiency, typically high ground clearance and a standard symmetrical four-wheel drive system in place – a differentiation has been achieved in the sector. It’s time to find out if that’s actually the case.


Subaru Forester rear

So many carbuncles have lurched from Subaru’s design department in the past decade that the Subaru Forester is perhaps fortunate just to be a little ungainly in the flesh and not laughably hideous.

It’s marginally larger than before – swelling by 15mm in the hips and 35mm front to back – yet it’s the grumpy pout of the adopted family nose and a conspicuously large glasshouse that make the car appear proportionally unbalanced.

The range-topping XT uses a turbocharged version of the BRZ coupé's engine

Subaru says it has moved the Forester’s A-pillars 200mm further forward and curved the roofline 63mm down to the tailgate in the interests of sleekness, but this hardly closes the gap to the high-shouldered, simpering SUVs that make up its competition. 

The platform is shared with other Subaru models (notably the Subaru XV) and its wheelbase is 25mm longer than that of the previous generations of Subaru Forester. Although, this will be the last generation of Forester to do so, with the next iteration set to be built on Subaru's Global Platform architecture.

The suspension set-up – MacPherson struts at the front and double wishbones at the back – has been fettled, thickened and strengthened in the pursuit of better handling (on and off road) and stability. A parallel search for improved efficiency has resulted in the hydraulic power steering being replaced by an electric system. 

The engine line-up, based around Subaru’s four-cylinder boxer unit, is carried over from the previous Forester, with the exception of the new turbocharged 237bhp petrol unit.

Reduced friction inside the naturally aspirated 148bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine makes for a 15 percent improvement in fuel economy, but by far the biggest seller in Europe will be the unchanged 145bhp 2.0-litre diesel. This popular unit was given a large update in 2015, with the fitment of a new high pressure common-rail injection system, improved glow plugs, new radiator, fan, and oil cooler, and revamped turbo settings, was all done to reduce noise, vibration, harshness and improve fuel economy. There was also the addition of a Lineartronic gearbox option for the diesel models, with the same CVT unit used as the one found in the most powerful petrol version.

Whichever boxer you choose, power will be deployed to all four wheels, although how the car does this depends on the transmission selected. Models with the six-speed manual gearbox get a centre differential coupled to a viscous limited-slip diff, which will adjust the default 50 percent front/50 percent rear torque split as required.

Cars with an updated version of the Lineartronic CVT get an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch to apportion the twist, and they run a slight front-end bias torque split (60 percent front/40 percent rear) by default. The automatics also have a button-operated X-Mode system, which optimises the gearbox, traction control and all-wheel drive system (including hill descent control) for low-traction driving.


Subaru Forester interior

Inside, from the driver’s seat, the Forester seems much as it is: an Subaru XV with added volume. Subaru’s dashboard design, limited either by a lack of imagination or investment, is transferred almost wholesale and is no more appealing when viewed from higher up, though a 2016 facelift did increase interior quality with more softer touch materials, as well as bringing a new grille and front bumper, thicker glass to improve soundproofing and a quicker steering rack. 

An 80mm drop in the instrument panel compared to the pre-2013 Forester leaves you feeling dangled from a perch, commanding fine views of the surrounding countryside but as distant from the controls as a hot-air balloonist is from the treetops. There’s no denying the sense of space, though. With large windows and a vast, retractable sunroof, the Forester is airy and well lit.

We like the obvious and accessible hazard warning switch

It’s reasonable in the back, too. The longer wheelbase means an extra 23mm of rear legroom, which makes it sufficiently roomy for all but the loftiest. Access is mildly enhanced by slightly broader door openings and a 50mm lowering of the sills.

Subaru has even supplied more room for feet, remodelling the floor structure and reshaping the centre console so that even large boots can rest flush with the plastic mats. It’s just a shame it didn’t get around to doing this at the front, where there is precious little room to rest a booted foot away from the clutch pedal. 

In the boot, a more uniform deck and broader bootlid mean better ease of use and a seats-up luggage capacity of 505 litres (up from 450). That’s enough for the family hound but some way short of the Forester’s bigger-boned rivals. The rear seats collapse at the tug of two boot-located levers to reveal 1592 litres of long load space.

Bluetooth connectivity comes as standard, but the more basic Foresters are severely limited by the rudimentary nature of their stereo interface. At least one road tester was defeated by the impenetrable process for connecting a phone; many will not even begin when there is no specific button dedicated to the task. On a fairly expensive car, this is simply not good enough. 

Straightforward stereo functionality is fine when just listening to the radio, but that’s about it for the Forester. The entry-level model comes with four speakers. And there’s no DAB, anywhere in the range. Also not good enough.

On the trim level fronts, there are five to choose from three fitted with the petrol engine (XE, XE Premium and XT), while the XC and XC Premium come with Subaru’s oilburner under the bonnet.

The XE and XC trimmed Foresters come with a modest amount of standard equipment, with electrically heated and folding door mirrors, automatic lights, cruise control, electric windows and 17in alloy wheels fitted on the outside. Inside there is dual-zone climate control, electrically adjustable driver's seat, heated front seats, and Subaru's Starlink infotainment system complete with a 7.0in touchscreen display, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, DAB radio and a reversing camera.

Upgrading to the XE or XC Premium adds leather seats, keyless entry and start, and sat nav, while the range-topping XT models gain a twin-exhaust, alloy pedals, 18in wheels and privacy glass. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boxer engine, there is a special edition Forester based on the XC Premium trimmed version with the addition of a green paint job, brown leather upholstery, better under car protection and a stainless steel cargo step panel.

As part of Subaru's tweaking of its SUV range, it added EyeSight safety technology to its cars, with the Forester last to benefit from it. Only available as standard on XE and XE Premium Lineartronic models, the system uses two camera located on the rear view mirror to use image recognition to aid numerous safety systems on the Forester, including autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking and throttle management, lane departure and sway warnings.


Subaru Forester side profile

Three engines are offered in the Subaru Forester. Buyers can opt for a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol, a 2.0-litre diesel or a range-topping turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol.

Most buyers will go for the 2.0-litre diesel, due to its reasonably low emissions and competitive claimed 50mpg economy. 

The four-wheel-drive system offers plenty of traction

Subaru's boxer diesel was a cantankerous unit to start up and a rowdy one to live with. This is as much to do with its tonal quality as its volume. Although numerous modifications to the common-rail system, radiator, oil cooler and turbocharger maps all have helped eradicate some of the harshness, vibrations and noise that the Boxer engine was known for.

Our noise meter reckoned that the Forester was actually a couple of decibels quieter inside than the new Ford Kuga; it’s just the mid-range thrash that stays with you. Unfortunately, due to this diesel’s unusual requirement for revs – and a reluctance to perform without them – the maelstrom at 3500rpm is a fairly constant companion. 

Nevertheless, there is a noticeable bite among all the bark. Although Subaru insists that 258lb ft is available from 1600rpm, in reality it remains sulkily in its corner on a stool until beyond 2000rpm and then charges enthusiastically into action.

As in the Subaru Subaru XV, this makes for spasmodic, lag-dulled progress at times, but it doesn’t prevent the Forester from delivering strong performance. Despite a weightier body (although not at all heavy by class standards), it can still hit 60mph in around 10sec, placing it respectably close to the class leaders.

The naturally aspirated petrol engine may look relatively weedy on paper and feel a little sluggish in real life, but it actually performs quite well in the 0-62mph sprint. It's relaxing and refined below 3500rpm, but accelerate harder and you'll find that boxer thrum more evident. 

It's not overly intrusive or off-putting, but it does discourage spirited acceleration. The issue, then, is not with the result of the boxer’s endeavour but the experience of interacting with it.

Gearbox options include a slick, well weighted manual transmission – for both petrol or diesel units – or Subaru's 'Lineartronic' CVT automatic for petrol models.

The continuously variable transmission is the only gearbox available for range-topping turbo variants of the Forester. While undoubtably quick, its high emissions and low economy (an official 33.2mpg) will no doubt serve to make it a niche model.


Subaru Forester cornering

Subaru has gone to great lengths to refine and improve the Subuar Forester’s handling, and you might reasonably expect a strong showing, given the low centre of roll implied by the horizontally opposed engine.

But the fact is that this car is larger and taller than it has ever been. It runs on tyres with low rolling resistance. Its suspension is built to withstand fairly unsympathetic occasional service off road. And it shows.

It doesn't really do anything to impress

On the road, the Forester doesn’t feel like the modern, house-trained, easy-going SUV that Subaru would have you believe. It’s stable and surefooted.

But on top of the notchy gearchange and slightly hesitant engine, you get limited lateral grip when you really begin asking the car dynamic questions. Not only does it demonstrate at best a vague interest in turning in to a corner, but it also does so with a not insignificant amount of body roll. In other words, the Forester lacks the dynamic facets of rivals such as the Ford Kuga and Honda CR-V

Subaru has conjured reasonable feel from the quite light electro-mechanical steering rack, but all it really serves to do is tell you that the front wheels are beginning to wash out. And that happens before you’ve leant on them particularly hard.

None of which matters a great deal except that a good-handling 4x4 is a precise and easy one to manage on the road. By the class’s prevailing standards, the Forester is neither.

An absorbent, comfortable, flat ride would be equally welcome, but the Subaru’s low-frequency body control is a bit approximate, and its dampers seem to lack the tuning to be able to switch from a smooth-road ride to greater support over rough terrain with much progressiveness.

On a choppy B-road, at legal speeds, the body fidgets and jigs more than it should. The Subaru's secondary ride is quiet enough, but the net impression is of a car that isn’t agile and, at the same time, is seldom capable of preserving a competitive level of occupant comfort. 


Subaru Forester

Being at the smaller end of the compact SUV segment, the Subaru Forester is priced quite well, albeit not quite well enough to qualify as an outright bargain. 

Diesel versions are unlikely to be a popular car with fleets, but not because their carbon dioxide emissions are particularly poor – more so because unexceptional residuals and fairly limited supply are likely to keep contract hire rates quite high.

I can't recall the last time I saw a 'double DIN' stereo

Petrol versions likewise won't appeal to company users, but they may find homes with private buyers who don't have vast annual mileages. The high-output turbocharged petrol version, however, is likely to remain a niche car that could prove difficult to sell.

Private buyers will appreciate Subaru’s five-year/100,000-mile warranty and its 12-year anti-corrosion guarantee. Both are likely to chime with people who like to buy infrequently and own for longer than the next person – Forester people, without a shadow of a doubt.

Those people will also appreciate the diesel version’s economy. For any compact 4x4, an average return of better than 40mpg in an Autocar road test is worthy of a mention, given that other cars in this class have failed to return 35mpg.

Outside, the previous model’s tidy grille has been replaced by one more closely related to the one found on the XV. Because they’re essential to its butch styling effort, the Forester’s roof rails come as standard. But the silver-effect finish is an XC trim addition.

Entry models get a rear parking camera, and the removable tow bar is an optional item. Detaching it removes the bar, but not the unsightly attachment for a trailer’s lights.There’s just a single exhaust for the diesel and naturally aspirated petrol models, but the 237bhp XT will get twin tailpipes, along with bodykit bumpers and a powered tailgate. Subaru has also opted not to make the bumpers or side skirts body-coloured in a time-honoured effort to make the Forester look more resilient.



3 star Subaru Forester

Not too long ago, all compact 4x4s were like the Subaru Forester. But these days, antiquated cabin design, compromised on-road dynamics, lethargic engines and a vaguely agricultural driving experience just don’t cut the mustard in a class crammed with as much fresh metal as this one is.

The Forester may have decent performance and reasonable economy on its side. It may be more capable off road than many of its rivals. It also holds a certain amount of mechanical interest value, as Subarus tend to do.

The Forester's rivals are far better, for the most part

So, this is not a car without its charms. It is a functional and moderately likeable proposition, albeit one with limited appeal. Fans of the previous generation will be pleased by what it offers.

No doubt its comprehensive warranty and decent standard kit levels may go some way to improving its attractiveness to others as well, particularly those looking for a durable and practical vehicle.

But it’s also not a car we can recommend ahead of others that simply offer more of what the majority of buyers are looking for: space, quality, style, value, up-to-date cabin technology, day-to-day usability and well mannered road handling.

Every one of the five rivals – including the Ford KugaHyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-5 and Land Rover Discovery Sport – offers more in at least one of those areas, and most of them on several fronts. It may be just as well Subaru are hitting the reboot button on the next generation Forester as it looks more capable of offering more of what a large proportion of crossover buyers would be looking for.


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.