In case you needed to be reminded about the slow, unerring march of time, the Subaru Forester nameplate is coming up on 20 years old.
Yep, the decade that brought you Nirvana, Seinfeld and a million ways to wear ripped denim also signalled the arrival of a new wave of SUVs, led by the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. These small (at the time) SUVs offered a mix of the car and the full-on 4WD, which was apparently exactly what Australians were waiting for.
In the two decades since then, several mid-size SUVs have ballooned and softened to the point where only the window-dressing of off-roading remains and even part-time AWD is an optional extra.
Explore the 2016 Subaru Forester range
But not the Forester. Even after 20 years of some competitors diluting the formula to the point where modern SUVs are little more than station wagons on stilts, the Forester remains doggedly committed to the go-anywhere promises of the original.
The mid-spec 2.5i-S Forester scored a raft of updates for 2016, including steering-responsive LED headlights, daytime running lights and newly designed alloy wheels.
The Forester is a handsomely – if unassumingly – chiselled thing
Subaru has also fettled the Forester's suspension and steering, as well as its dynamic control program, to improve handling and mid-corner stability.
Thicker glass, better soundproofing and minor structural revisions cut down on NVH entering the cabin, which benefits from a larger number of soft-touch surfaces.
The Forester has also grown over the years, but its updated styling over that time is a definite improvement on the fairly dour original. Then again, it was the 1990s, so perhaps we should excuse the original, chubby-cheeked Forester.
A few recent touches to the grille, bumpers and lights have modernised the current, fourth-generation shape, while still remaining decidedly conservative, in true Subaru style. You'd never call it beautiful, but the Forester is a handsomely – if unassumingly – chiselled thing.
If anything, what's gone on under the skin is even better. Subaru has tweaked the Forester formula, adding better soundproofing, improving the steering and fine-tuning the suspension.
Inside, buttons abound throughout the Forester's cabin, even extending onto the ceiling. You can stow any plans you have to flip them like you're in the Millennium Falcon, however; they're used to toggle Subaru's suite of EyeSight active safety tech and should probably stay on. The steering wheel is a button-fest, but it all makes sense and leaves the centre console clear and uncluttered.
Cubby holes and cup holders are equally abundant, with both front and rear passengers served with enough door pockets and drinks containers for a cross-country adventure.
While rear-seat passengers are well-served for storage, they'll be let down by the airflow – air-conditioning vents for the rear seats are unfortunately absent. For whatever reason, Japanese manufacturers don't seem to include them in family-oriented SUVs, which makes about as much sense as vegetarian pork.
For space and safety, however, rear-seat occupants will have little reason to complain. There are two ISOFIX mounting points for young kids and, when they grow into lanky teenagers, more than enough space to house even the most generously sized – and awkwardly proportioned – of adolescents.
Just keep your fingers crossed that Teenager #1 isn't into ice hockey and that Teenager #2 doesn't play the cello. The raised boot floor – courtesy of an all-wheel-drive system and a full-size spare tyre – means that there's not as much room as some of the Forester's front-drive competitors. The 422 litre load area is wide, however, and there's more than enough space for regular cargo and expands to 1472 litres with the seats folded.
The 2.5i-S is one of two models in the Forester range to benefit from Subaru's vaunted EyeSight driver assistance system. Basically, a pair of forward-facing cameras mounted either side of the rear-view mirror scan the road, feeding a wealth of information back to an onboard computer. The upshot is that the EyeSight system can offer active cruise control, lane departure warning and AEB.
The system works well but, if cruise control is activated, will beep every time it picks up a car ahead, like an employee who's a little too eager to impress. "Found another car, boss!" it proclaims with each new arrival. Yes, congratulations; we're on a road.
Considering the Forester's raft of technology, the omission of blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts and lane change assist seem like oversights. It's especially bad news when these exact features are on offer in the WRX, Liberty and Outback models. Automatic high beam and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror are also present in the WRX, Liberty and Outback, but absent from the Forester.
It's a quiet, comfortable and planted tourer
Tight manoeuvring can be a bit frustrating in the Forester, but not due to an excessive turning circle or poor visibility. It's the automatic transmission or, more specifically, the change from reverse to drive. It's so slow to engage gears that you have time to lean on the throttle and sit perfectly still and completely bemused as to what exactly the gearbox is up to. On the move, however, the CVT works smoothly and without undue fuss.
On the Road
The open road is where Subaru's attention to the Forester's steering, suspension and NVH really shines. Even at highway speeds, and on poor surfaces, it's a quiet, comfortable and planted tourer.
The 2.5-litre boxer engine lacks ultimate punch, however; it's much better suited to relaxed cruising than banzai overtaking manoeuvres, where a relatively anaemic 235Nm of torque struggles to motivate nearly 1600 kilos of Subaru. Selective drive modes ostensibly change the throttle response, but you'd have to be paying keen attention to find any real difference in how the Forester reacts to your right foot.
Once you're up to speed, however, you'll be able to maintain it almost anywhere, regardless of the surface. The well-sorted suspension never feels like it's overwhelmed, even by severe mid-corner bumps and divots.
Dirt roads are no impediment to the Forester's progress, either; the all-wheel-drive system operates almost without noticeable intervention, producing an almost unnerving feeling of stability at speed.