Subaru has launched its high-performance XT variant of the Forester SUV and hopes, with a new 2.0-litre turbocharged direct injection boxer engine, new transmission and overall refinement it will do for Forester what WRX did for Impreza in the 1990s.
As a performance model of the family AWD wagon the XT currently claims around seven per cent of all Forester sales. Subaru hopes to lift this as high as 15 to 20 per cent. It believes by toning down the styling the XT will appeal to more buyers not wanting overt performance styling.
As a result the bonnet scoop has been eliminated from the new model. It's a case of more is less for wider buyer appeal. Subaru launched the garden-variety Forester models in December and the XT turbo variants launched this week differ in external appearance by the subtle use of a mesh grille.
At the business end of the XT are steering wheel paddle shifters linked to the CVT automatic transmission. For the driver this is where the fun starts although the Forester XT covers the 0-100 km/h sprint in 7.5 seconds, quite a bit slower than WRX.
This is the fourth generation Forester since the original model was released back in 1997. It consistently sells more than 10,000 units a year here and is Subaru Australia's top selling model in one of the most competitive segments in the Australian new vehicle market, that of medium SUVs.
The standard XT includes X-Mode for off-road work, reversing camera, electric sunroof, dual zone air conditioning, multi function display, SI-Drive, 18-inch alloy wheels and silver roof rails. It is priced from $43,490.
The XT Premium gets more fruit with Eyesight driver assistance including lane warning departure and active cruise control, eight-speaker Harman-Kardon entertainment system, push button ignition start, rain sensing wipers, leather trim, auto boot door and dusk-sensing headlights. This will set you back $50,490 before on roads.
The new 2.0-litre direct injection DOHC turbo boxer engine replaces the 2.5-litre from the previous model and takes on board the latest direct injection technology as well as twin scrolled turbo. It's an impressive engine that develops 177 kW (the previous 2.5-litre peaked at 169 kW) and 350 Nm of torque (from 320 Nm).
The all-new Forester XT has significant gains over the previous model. Fuel consumption is down by 19 per cent on combined cycle, although probably not if you drive enthusiastically in Sport Sharp mode. Combined fuel consumption is 8.5 litres per 100 km compared to 10.5 L/100 km from the 2.5-litre.
Maximum torque is up by 9.4 per cent and power by 4.7 per cent. In an era when the majority of manufacturers are stripping SUVs to have a 2WD entry-level ‘cheap’ model to attract greater sales, Subaru is sticking to AWD in the Forester range.
No doubt there will be some sort of outcry from die-hard Subaru buffs about the XT only having CVT transmission. Where is the six-speed manual they will ask? Right now there isn't one.
But the CVT has clever technology including SI-Drive where those wanting a sporty fix can select Sport Sharp on the steering wheel which allows manual paddle shifting through eight steps that act like gears. Other selections are ‘I’ for Intelligent and ‘S’ for Sport. We found the Sport Sharp the pick of the options and the one most likely to win over enthusiastic drivers.
Although this is an all-new model the exterior looks more like a facelift. It is 35 mm longer overall with a 25 mm longer wheelbase while the A-pillar has been moved slightly forward to increase the sleek appearance of the car.
At the rear end the roofline has been lowered for improved aerodynamics. The interior is wider giving occupants more space with new design seats that are 60mm higher and also, in our view, among the most comfortable in the SUV segment.
The new Forester is more refined than the third-generation vehicle in all respects. The cabin is quieter, the new engine smoother and quieter, and handling - which was already a strength for Forester - has been improved even further with suspension development.
There is slight but predictable oversteer into sharp corners at high speed but the overall feeling is of a car that is well-engineered to meet the requirements of enthusiastic drivers. The lack of a manual shifter may put some buyers off, but for them we’d recommend a test drive of the Forester XT and ensure that they switch on the Sport Sharp button.
It makes a world of difference to the car's performance and takes the fun-factor from zero to hero. In particular we like how it can drop several steps at a time when the driver asks the performance question on interesting roads.
Clearly the Forester XT is no WRX dressed up as an SUV, it is however a highly refined performance SUV in the medium size segment with no real competitors in its price range.
Forester 2.0XT 2.0-litre turbo-petrol five-door wagon: $43,490 (CVT)
Forester 2.0XT 2.0-litre turbo-petrol five-door wagon: $50,490 (CVT)
Subaru Forester XT
Price: from $43,490
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged boxer 4-cylinder petrol, 177kW/350Nm
Transmission: 8-speed CVT auto, AWD