Subaru's Forester has just entered its fourth generation and finally has cast off the last vestiges of the distinctly agricultural original. The new Forester has a big job to do - keep the Subaru faithful happy as well as take on some serious competition.
With a fresh face, a new interior and an intriguing gearbox and engine combination, does the Forester XT not only keep its countrymen at bay, but can it stave off the Europeans too?
The Forester XT Premium sits at the top of the Forester range. Equipped with a down-sized 2.0 litre turbocharged engine, it gains more power and torque over the outgoing model as well as improved fuel economy, a claimed 8.7l/100km.
The Forester range starts with the manual, steel-wheeled 2.0i priced at a sharp $30,990. Various other 2.0 and 2.5 litre petrol models and a 2.0 litre diesel fill a busy range before arriving at the $43,990 XT. The Premium package adds $6500 to bring us to the $50,490 sticker price of the car we tested.
All XTs come with the Lineartronic continuously variable transmission, which pretends to be an eight-speed automatic when the driver presses the Sport # button or shifts the stick to manual mode. Sadly for some, no manual transmission is available.
Premium adds Subaru's EyeSight driver aid package over and above the standard airbags and ABS brakes. EyeSight system covers lane sway and departure, forward collision warning and obstacle warning. It also teams up with the cruise control to brake the car to a stop if the car in front is stopped.
The tailgate gains power operation and the stereo is upgraded to a Harmon Kardon with a 4.3-inch touch screen that displays stereo and phone functions and doubles as the screen for the reversing camera.
The seats are leather with classy silver stitching, while steering wheel and shifter are also leather wrapped. The huge sunroof slides back almost over the rear passenger's heads.
Dual zone climate control does a great job of cooling the huge cabin, saddled with the extra hard work brought about by the massive glass sunroof, although the dark glass on the rear windows does balance that out a little.
The XT Premium takes the price well past the Honda and Mazda competition and into premium European territory. While the spec may not be as comprehensive, badge appeal will be enough to tempt buyers at this level.
A BMW X1 diesel automatic starts out at $47,590. It's a 1.8 turbodiesel with an excellent (and traditional) 8 speed automatic. The engine puts out just 105kW but rivals the Subaru's torque figure, coming in just 30Nm short and with a far better fuel economy figure.
Even with the addition of a few options, the X1 runs the Subaru close for pricing if you're willing to go without the EyeSight beep fest. The X1 will handle better on the road, less so off it and is not as big as the spacious Subaru.
Audi's Q3 is also a contender, the 2.0 TFSI petrol starting at $47,000. Like the BMW, you'll need to tick a few boxes and some features just aren't available. It does have suburban brand cachet and is obviously a better-looking and better-built car. If off-road matters, however, the Subaru is again the winner.
The S4 Forester might have a similar silhouette to its predecessor but has a rather more, shall we say, characterful front end. Opinion is divided over the front end but there's no doubting it's a Forester.
This new one, however, comes with random slashes in the plastic bumper and bonnet's sheetmetal, a stark contrast to pinched lips of the old one. Front on, it looks like that guy who goes from person to person at a party asking if there's something in his teeth.
It all calms down at the windscreen and continues with an upright but well-proportioned theme. The XT is blighted with some unfortunate chrome bits and pieces making the Forester look a little like a grandad express but the striking 18-inch alloys make up for the brightwork.
The high roof makes for a lot of glass which gives the occupants a terrific view out. The driver also benefits from repositioned mirrors and a little quarter window at the base of the side window improves the vision to the side of the car.
The interior is a huge leap forward, the Forester finally getting a design to call its own. It's still a classic Subaru cabin - home to some flimsy plastic fittings and hard plastic panels, but the soft stuff has found its way in and covers the dash top.
Unfortunately, the seats are terrible which is something of a surprise for Subaru. The front seats are hard and unsupportive in almost every direction and the back seats are only marginally better. Slippery leather compounds the discomfort, leaving you sliding around.
All Foresters have a five-star ANCAP safety rating. On top of the seven airbags (including a driver's knee bag), ABS with brake assist, traction and stability control, the Premium pack adds Subaru EyeSight driver assist.
EyeSight adds lane departure and wandering alerts, forward collision warning and active cruise control. The reversing camera is a welcome addition but a lack of front and rear sensors is a curious omission.
The 2.0 litre turbocharged flat four is smaller than the old XT's but with direct injection produces an impressive 177kW and 350Nm of torque. The engine is paired with Subaru's Lineartronic continuously variable transmission that can also behave as an eight speed automatic.
The transmission drives what Subaru calls symmetrical all wheel drive which is heavy but more able to cope with demands of off-roading. The system is supported by X-Mode, a driver selectable mode (separate to SI Drive) that changes the torque distribution and activates ascent and descent assist.
The XT is never going to be mistaken for a sporty drive. While the body roll of the previous generation has been reined in with an anti-roll bar and stiffer springing, it still rolls a lot more than any of its compact SUV competition.
It probably feels worse than it is because you sit quite high in the cabin on terrible seats and have a lot of glass around you, so the feeling of the world moving around you is magnified.
The engine is very strong, with the torque arriving pretty quickly once you prod the accelerator. Unlike the old turbo unit, this one is much more refined, but at the cost of the trademark Subaru warble.
Under a heavy foot, the engine responds with a pleasing woofle from the turbo, which is the only real aural indicator things are happening. The CVT takes a little while to spool up but when engine and gearbox are working together, the Forester really does shift.
The steering wheel has two buttons on it to control the SI-Drive. There are three modes - Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp. There isn't a great deal of difference between Sport and Intelligent.
Intelligent is supposedly a more relaxed drive but it makes the transmission too lazy when you're rolling and doesn't banish the hesitation on the uptake from standstill. Sport is the better mode to be in and doesn't seem to affect the fuel economy, which is way off the claimed 8.7l/100km - we got 12l/100km in mixed driving.
Sport Sharp is where things get a little more interesting. The CVT switches into a stepped auto, mimicking a normal automatic transmission.
It feels more natural and gets rid of the lawnmower effect of the engine revving at a constant speed while the transmission opens and closes. It also introduces a bit of engine braking which brings some needed security to the handling, but is easily confused, often forgetting to shift up.
Whichever mode you're in, though, it won't fix the steering and the handling. For most people who buy the Forester, the handling is safe and competent, so you can skip to the end. But if you're expecting something like a sporty SUV, more like the earlier turbocharged Foresters, this is not the car you're looking for.
The tyres have no bite on tarmac and you can hear it understeering around roundabouts. The ride is also quite firm, which feels at odds with the rolling in corners. Slip-sliding around on the driver's seat with the EyeSight warnings bonging at you, you'll eventually give up having fun and go and do something more suited to the car, like ripping off slower cars at the lights.
Off-road is where the Forester pulls clear of its competition - it's much more accomplished off the road than on it. High clearance, serious all-wheel drive gear and X-Mode all combine to make the Subaru a car for the weekend warrior who wants something a bit more challenging than most compact SUVs can manage.
X-Mode is pitched at novice off-roaders to assist with the different techniques required for steep ascents and descents when off-road. Like a Land Rover, you press the button and let the car take care of the braking downhill while shuffling the power around on the uphill stuff. We had a limited go at it and it was effortless compared to, say, a CR-V.
While the ride is still firm off-road, the wheels clearly have a lot of movement available - the on-road trade-off has certainly delivered for those wanting a bit more ability saved for the muddy stuff. And being a Subaru, it'll take some pretty severe punishment while you're there.
You'll probably trip lightly past serious four-wheel-drives in the sand, too, while their owners are digging them out. On top of all that, the XT can tow a reasonably mighty 1800kg, way above what most of its competition can manage.
There is a bit of a problem, however - the EyeSight system. While the ideas are all solid and work on many other cars we've tested, this one seems a bit half-baked. The lane-departure warning is hyperactive, beeping at anything resembling a white line, such as one of those paint streaks left by a lazy tradie.
The obstacle detection stuff goes mental when you're driving through a tight-ish bend and a car is coming the other way. In traffic it never shuts-up, leaving you jabbing at the ceiling-mounted button to switch it off. Problem is, next time you start the car, it's back on and beeping at you.
It's more successful when used in conjunction with the cruise control, but again it does weird things. Let the car brake to a stop and all seems well. The cruise control then switches itself off and releases the brake. It's all really annoying and combined with the uncomfortable seats is extremely tiresome.
Unless you think the XT is a high-riding WRX, the Forester is all the things that have made it a very important car to Subaru. As a torquey, quicker-than-average SUV with all the benefits of a big interior, five star safety and excellent off-road performance, the Subaru stands alone.
And that's what Subaru does - invents a niche and refines it, creating a fan base and then taking care of it. This one is a bit more grown-up, more refined, less characterful to drive but ultimately, it takes the fight to its competition without compromising on what has made the Forester successful.
It will struggle to convert those who aren't already fans, especially with the wacky CVT and boat-like on-road handling. And at $50,490, it has to see off some premium badges, too.
Subaru Forester XT Premium
Price: from $50,490
Warranty: 3 years
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder, 177kW/350Nm
Transmission: 8-speed CVT, FWD
Thirst: 8.1L/100Km, CO2 187g/km