The hooligan of the SUV class has gone to finishing school. The turbocharged version of the fourth generation Subaru Forester has grown a little older, a little wiser and a lot more refined.
It’s still an athlete at heart but it’s not wearing a tracksuit and runners anymore. It’s gone smart casual. The gawdy styling and big bonnet scoop have been replaced by a more subdued appearance, one that you could take home to meet the parents.
For every customer that doesn’t like the new model because it’s too understated, Subaru reckons there will be several more who prefer it. The new Forester XT released this week has more power and performance than before, despite putting on 104kg in its middle-aged spread.
Subaru has gone to great lengths to hide the air-cooled plumbing that helps give the car its huff and puff. (For the technically-minded, the cooling tract to the intercooler, still on top of the engine, is ducted out of view behind the grille). The only downside to the bigger, better, faster Forester is that the price has risen by about 10 per cent on both models. Ouch.
The previous Subaru Forester XT could be had for less than $40,000 but the starting price of the new model is $43,490 plus on-road costs. The price hike is due in part to the lack of a manual transmission this time around.
The Forester XT is only available with an eight-speed CVT auto (replacing the old five-speed manual and four-speed auto). The starting price buys a sunroof, cruise control, remote entry, a rear view camera, Bluetooth phone control and audio streaming, dual-zone air-conditioning, privacy glass, roof rails and 18-inch alloy wheels.
The top-line XT model trips over the $50,000 mark at $50,490 plus on-road costs (up $5000 from $45,490). The extra dough buys a remote-opening tail-gate, navigation, Subaru’s “eye-sight” crash avoidance system, leather trim (with electric adjustment for the driver) and an eight-speaker Harman Kardon sound system.
There is no question Subaru has added a lot more equipment and technology to the new Forester XT but on first impressions the prices seem a little steep. With such fierce competition in the SUV market I wonder how long Subaru will hold these RRPs.
At least Subaru doesn’t gouge, sorry charge, for metallic paint like most other manufacturers do (Mazda is another notable exception).
All models come with an “Si drive” mode that enables the driver to switch between “eco”, “normal” or “sport” settings. The first slows throttle response (for snow), the second acts normally (for the daily grind) and the third reacts sharply and unlocks a manual gear selection mode (for those with a plane to catch), unleashing all available power with a dab of your right foot.
For the adventurous types, a crawl function called “X-mode” will help negotiate steep climbs or descents off-road below 20km/h. The top-line XT model comes with a second pair of eyes – tiny cameras either side of the rear view mirror detect cars, pedestrians and cyclists. If it thinks you’re about to hit someone or something it will slam on the brakes in the nick of time.
Radar cruise control is standard on the top-whack model, too. It has three pre-determined distance settings between you and the car in front, which thankfully can be disabled for those who find it leaves gaps for others to drive into.
Another cool trick: the automatic tail-gate can be programmed to open to a certain height, so it doesn’t bang on the garage roof or bump the kayak.
The new Forester XT has grown up and out, just like the regular models on which it is based. But here’s a boring fact you might like to know (but may never admit to knowing): the cargo area of the top-line model with the automatic tail-gate has 17 litres less cargo space than the standard model, because the electronic gizzards take up room behind the panels.
But (drum-roll please) it still has a bigger boot than the last one: XT 422 litres, XT Premium (with auto lift gate) 405 litres, and 1457 with the seats down. . With five seats (with five adjustable head rests) there is plenty of room for heads, shoulders, knees and toes.
Other good news: the quality of interior materials has stepped up a notch, although the dash (which you hardly ever touch) is softer than the elbow pad area on the doors. It would be better the other way around.
The only serious blots on an otherwise impressive report card: the front and back seats are too flat and unsupportive, the steering wheel is a bit Plain Jane for a car with sporting intent, and there is no digital speed display to help keep your licence intact.
Oh, and despite seeing itself as a rival to German car-maker Volkswagen, it doesn’t have auto-up power windows on all four doors, only the driver gets this luxury in the Subaru. Picky, I know, but people comment on this stuff!
Seven airbags (including one for the driver’s knee) give the Forester XT a five-star safety rating from independent auditors ANCAP. A rear camera is standard across the range, too, although the lines that guide you into a parking space don’t turn with the steering wheel, as some of the fancier ones do.
I’m also going to include Subaru’s commendable decision to include a full-size spare tyre (in an era of space-savers) as a safety plus. Do you really want to be driving home precariously with one skinny wheel after a long weekend away? Didn’t think so.
Subaru appears to have addressed most concerns with the previous model. The new Forester XT is quieter, more refined, better balanced and smoother to drive. Performance is about the same even though the car has put on 104kg. It now weighs up to 1647kg, which is almost as heavy as a Holden Commodore.
The 0 to 100km/h times tell the story. The old model with manual transmission did the dash in 7.1 seconds, or in 7.9 with the archaic four-speed auto. The new Forester XT with its eight-speed CVT splits the difference, with a claimed time of 7.5 seconds.
It still feels brisk enough, and the CVT (with small levers behind the steering wheel) is one of the better installations we’ve sampled. The Si Drive (which adjusts throttle sensitivity) may seem a bit gimmicky, but it has a purpose from time to time.
I really like the new Forester XT; my only beef is the price, which is too high, and the cruise control, which is counter-intuitive until you’re tutored on how to use it. If you tap up or down, it adjusts speed in 5km/h increments (not 1 or 2km/h as in other cars). To creep up 1km/h at a time you need to hold the button. It’s easier just to tap the brakes and reset it.
The air-conditioning also cuts in and out quite a lot, presumably as it flickers between trying to save energy and keeping you cool. Not the most controlled climate conditions.
Overall, though, the new Forester XT is a welcome change for the SUV class ruffian. But before you sign on the dotted line it is worth knowing that, contrary to what Subaru says, there are a number of compact SUVs that offer similar performance for the same or less money.
Subaru Forester XT
Price: from $43,490 plus on-road costs
Safety rating: Five stars
Warranty: Three years/unlimited km
Body: Five-seat wagon
Dimensions (L/WB/W/H): 4595/2640/1795/1735
Weight: 1629 to 1647kg
Engine: 2.0-litre direct-injection horizontally-opposed four-cylinder petrol: 177kW/350Nm
Transmission: Eight-speed CVT automatic
Performance (0 to 100km/h): 7.5 seconds
Skoda Yeti 112TSI
Price: from $35,290
Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol, 112kW, 250Nm
Transmission: Six-speed DSG auto
0 to 100km/h: 8.4 seconds
Volkswagen Tiguan 155TSI
Price: from $42,990
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol, 155kW, 280Nm
Transmission: Seven-speed DSG auto
0 to 100km/h: 7.3 seconds
Mini Countryman Cooper S
Price: from $42,300
Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol, 135kW, 260Nm
Transmission: Six-speed auto
0 to 100km/h: 7.9 seconds
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling