The original SUV polishes its credentials in the face of mounting opposition. Cheaper running costs and a superior automatic open the door to Subaru's fightback in Australia's toughest new-vehicle segment.
Prices are kept low - thanks to a new entry-level model with a smaller engine - while the feature list expands. Even Subaru's safety-sharp and affordable EyeSight driver assistance package is standard on the top model.
But Subaru is aware that rivals have been busy. Honda punched out a new CR-V last month, Toyota will show its new RAV4 in February, there's a new Mitsubishi Outlander and a bigger-engine for Mazda's CX-5.
But Subaru has an ace up its sleeve. Subaru Australia boss Nick Senior says it’s no pretender and is "the perfect city car for dirty weekends." While rivals trend away from getting dirty, Subaru ups the Forester's off-road ability.
True, it has dropped the low-range feature from the manual gearbox models but there's a new electronic program - called X-Mode - that prepares the wagon for more adventurous dirt duty.
Forester hits showrooms in February starting at about $31,000 - around the same as the outgoing model. But the spec is different. The new base model has the two-litre petrol engine from the smaller XV (and Impreza) models and comes only as a six-speed manual. Subaru Australia boss Nick Senior says a 2-litre CVT auto is on the cards, just not yet.
The 2.5-litre version will come in at about $35,000 (prices aren’t known until January) and that’s the same engine as the current car. But though there’s been a bit of a price rise, the feature list is far bigger and the wagon is a much better ride.
The platform is basically the same as the outgoing wagon, crimped here and there to flatten the central tunnel bump and stretched to add 25mm to the wheelbase and 35mm to the length. It's also 35mm higher, sits on a track that's up to 20mm wider and while body width remains the same, the doors are less bowed and the door trim is less obtrusive.
Add in the windscreen pillars that are punched 200mm forward - the "cab forward'' design sprouted in the 1990s - and Subaru claims a much bigger, more airy interior and more room for rear seat passengers.
The cabin gets soft-touch plastics and improved material quality and the look of the interior is now much more upmarket and better reflects the Subaru quality standard. There is an electric tail gate option on some models.
Two problems, one solution. Forester previously has a reputation for a high fuel thirst without delivering much in the way of performance. The old four-speed auto is now out and replaced with the continuously-variable transmission used also on the Impreza sedan on which the Forester is based. Fuel savings are quite dramatic.
The 2.5-litre manual version has a 8.1 L/100km thirst, a big improvement on the current wagon's 9.3 L/100km average. There's no power change to the 126kW/235Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine or 108kW/350Nm two-litre turbo-diesel, but there is a new entry-level two-litre petrol four - borrowed from the XV and Impreza - promising 110kW/198Nm.
But, like the turbo-diesel model, it comes only with a manual gearbox. At least, for now. The X-Mode is an off-road package available on the CVT models. It cleverly juggles power individually to any of the four wheels with traction, incorporates downhill assist and adjusts ESC and traction control. Stop-start is standard on all petrol Foresters and is one of the reasons for the improved fuel economy.
Subaru is trumpeting a five-star rating and brings in the big gun with its brilliant EyeSight camera-based forward vision aid. First seen last year on upmarket Liberty models and similar to the Volvo City Safety, the Subaru program is standard on the ultimate Forester 2.5i-S model and optional on the penultimate 2.5i-L.
It uses stereo cameras with 3D imaging to scan, identify and communicate with the vehicle's brake system to avoid frontal collisions, lane drifting and low-speed crashes. Used with the adaptive cruise control, it will lock onto the vehicle ahead and autonomously slow, stop and accelerate to maintain a safe distance.
It also incorporates pre-collision braking, brake assist (enhances brake pressure), throttle management (stops accidental acceleration when an obstacle is ahead), lane departure warning, fatigue warning and start alert (warns when the car ahead has moved away). All new Foresters get seven airbags, more high-tensile steel in the passenger cell construction, aluminium bonnet, paddle shifters for the automatic versions and six-speaker audio with iPod/USB connectivity and Bluetooth.
First up, the diesel. Train spotters will note that when it comes to the 2013 engine line-up, not much has changed. So the diesel remains punchy - but only in a relatively narrow opening between 2000rpm and 4000rpm. It can stumble below 2000rpm and is weak under 1500rpm.
That brings to the surface the second problem - there’s still only a manual gearbox. Senior says a CVT auto diesel “is coming" but there’s no arrival date. The diesel is also still noisy, but mainly for people on the outside of the car. Inside it’s audible at idle but diminishes to silence at cruising. Compared to the outgoing model, the gearbox feels crisper. Compared with others in its class, it needs an auto but still drives with commendable ride comfort and on-road surety.
The 2.5-litre petrol has been tweaked but only slightly. It’s the best choice. Previously, it was a thirsty beast that - in automatic - was also a tired drive. Now it’s perky thanks to the smooth CVT box. It’s also quietened down the ride and brought it well within parameters set by decent mid-size passenger cars - an admirable boost to ride appeal and one that will further swing sedan buyers into the SUV sector.
The 2.5 isn’t particularly revvy but has linear acceleration. It cruises particularly well and is quite adept at dismissing the effects of rough bitumen roads. On the gravel it is even more surprising, with excellent stability that defies the wagon’s height.
Very smooth and very surefooted manners mean this SUV is now almost in the upper-market mid-size sedan bracket for ride and handling.
Price: from about $31,000
Onsale: February 2013
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Service interval: 6 months/10,000km
Safety: 7 airbags, ABS, EBD, EBA, TC
Crash rating: 5-star
Engines: 2.0-litre 4-cyl petrol, 110kW/198Nm, 2.5-litre 4-cyl petrol, 126kW/235Nm, 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo-diesel, 108kW/350Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual or CVT auto; AWD
Thirst: 7.2L/100km; 168g/km CO2 (2.0 petrol); 8.1L/100km; 187g/km CO2 (2.5); 5.9L/100km; 156g/km CO2 (diesel)
Dimensions: 4.6m (L), 1.8m (W), 1.7m (H)
Spare: Full size