I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the Subaru Forester. The second-generation was one of the first cars I test drove professionally and in the days before every brand was churning out SUVs, it impressed with its mixture of rugged looks, practicality and, in turbocharged XT form, surprising turn of speed.
Of course times have changed and you can’t move for jacked-up, plastic clad lifestyle vehicles these days, so is there still a place for the chunky, all-wheel-drive offering from Japan?
Externally, the Forester retains some of the boxy, rugged styling that made the early models appealing. It’s bigger and some of the simplicity has been lost but it still has a certain charm, as long as you pick your colour and trim level carefully. I’m not sure the bright red highlights of Sport spec did much to complement the black finish of our test car.
Look beyond the styling and the Forester remains as practical and user friendly as ever. The tall boxy shape means there’s heaps of space inside for four and you’ll even squeeze five in without too many complaints. Behind the passenger compartment there’s a healthy 509-litre boot with a wide opening that makes fitting large items a doddle. There are even steps cut into the rear door sills to make roof bars and boxes more accessible.
Although Subaru has long been famous for its turbocharged boxer engines, it’s not immune to the pressures of ever-stricter emissions legislation and like most car makers has turned to hybrid technology to provide more palatable economy and emissions figures without sacrificing performance.
In the Forester’s case this updated model uses a 2.0-litre four-cylinder boxer engine and a 10kW mild hybrid electric motor. With a combined 148bhp and 145lb ft, it’ll take a leisurely 12 seconds to reach 62mph and official figures claim economy of around 35mpg. On the positive side, that’s achievable. On the negative, that’s pretty wretched by modern standards. Refinement is also poor. At start up the e-Boxer defaults to EV mode which is smooth and silent but the minute the petrol engine kicks in you’re struck with a gruff and ever present roar, made worse by the action of the standard CVT transmission.
Subaru has been building all-wheel-drive cars for 50 years and there’s no doubting that that experience makes the Forester more adept than many rivals in off road and slippery conditions. The symmetrical all-wheel-drive system comes with selectable X-drive for regular road use, snow and dirt or deep snow and mud. That’s combined with 220mm of ground clearance to offer decent ground clearance. On the road it feels confident enough thanks to a relatively low centre of gravity but there is still some pronounced body roll and a generally vague feel to proceedings. The retuned dampers at least provide a fairly smooth ride.
The Forester was updated at the start of 2022 but still feels some years behind most cars in its class. In traditional Subaru style everything feels robust and built to endure a life of hard work but the layout, design and some of the materials are a clear step behind competitors. On the plus side there’s an eight inch screen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay plus physical controls for the two-zone climate and USB ports front and rear that mean it’s a fairly simple car to operate.
One area where Subaru prides itself on being ahead of the curve is safety and the Forester has seen upgrades to its standard equipment. The feature-rich dual camera Eyesight driver assistance system has been updated to offer better coverage. Automatic emergency steering and adaptive cruise control with lane centering are now standard, along with upgraded lane departure prevention and pre-collision braking. The creepy facial recognition tech that adjusts driver settings and monitors alertness also now features a pointless gesture control to adjust temperature which you’re most likely to activate by mistake rather than intentionally.
Sport trim sits in the middle of the generously equipped Forester range. All models get the full Eyesight system, all-wheel drive, and auto dipping headlights as well as dual zone climate control and that eight-inch screen. Sport (an extra £2,100) adds a powered tailgate, heated steering wheel and sat nav, plus the questionable styling kit.
That’s a reasonable spec for the money but the problem is that there are plenty of competitors which offer the same or more. To take just one example, a Kia Sportage HEV is cheaper, better equipped and better in virtually every regard. The Forester looks and feels dated compared with competitors. That wouldn’t be such a problem if it excelled in other areas but sadly it doesn’t. It’s inefficient, unrefined and not great to drive. Its only strength is a more complete off road system than some rivals, which may be enough to tempt some buyers but probably not many.
Subaru Forester e-Boxer Sport
Price: £39,995; Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, petrol with 10kW motor; Power: 148bhp; Torque: 145lb ft; Transmission: CVT; Top speed: 117mph; 0-62mph: 11.8 seconds Economy: 34.7mpg; CO2 emissions: 185g/km