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.
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.
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.