At what point do you abandon a cherished belief and change your mind? It's a question that haunts a few independent carmakers which have grown successful by sticking to certain core values.
Japanese maker Subaru faces this dilemma. One of its defining values has been all-wheel drive -- if you buy a Subaru, that's what you get. “Confidence in motion'' has been its mission.
In Australia, where Subaru sold a record 40,000 last year and finished between Volkswagen and Honda in the top 10, it's easy to forget that it's punching above its weight. With a global total of just 706,000 sales last year.
All-wheel drive has been crucial for its success both in Australia, its fourth-largest market, and the US, which buys almost half Subaru's total output. But it's not inviolable. Its joint sportscar project with Toyota, the BR-Z, is rear-wheel drive. Many of its small home market runabouts are front-wheel drive.
Subaru has shown it can live comfortably with those exceptions but a larger problem looms: lots of today's SUVs are two-wheel drive only. They're cheaper to buy and to run. In Australia four years ago, most mid-size SUVs came with 4WD. Now, one-third of buyers opt for 2WD. In a boom segment, 2WD softroaders have gone supersonic.
That means Subaru's commitment to 4WD is under assault. Every time it launches a new SUV, it will have to ask itself whether it can afford to deviate from the approved text.
At the launch of the fourth-generation Forester last week, it had not budged. Marketing chief Andrew Caie admitted Subaru was now the only major player not offering a 2WD mid-size SUV.
“Do we try to match the 2WD burgeoning volume with a 2WD product?'' he asked. “The answer is a resounding no.'' Its cherished unique selling point would not be sacrificed on the altar of sales and Forester could turn that to its advantage. Buyers looking for substance would find it: “Subaru's strengths are its differences.''
The top-spec Forester XT Premium includes a power tailgate, Harmon Kardon stereo, satnav, leather trim and the brand's Eyesight safety system, which uses cameras to monitor the road and brakes automatically if necessary.
These are features unimaginable in a Subaru only a few years ago and on price, the $50,490 XT Premium begins to overlap more prestigious rivals such as Land Rover's Freelander and Evoque.
While top-level prices have risen, an entry-level Forester 2.0i manual starts as before at $30,990 and a 2.5-litre petrol is still available for another $5000. Diesels begin $1000 lower than before at $35,490, although only with manual transmission.
Cabin and cargo space improve, with all Foresters longer and taller. It adopts the angular exterior styling of the smaller XV, ditching the boy-racer bonnet scoop of previous XTs. The driving position is good, offering excellent visibility, although the seats have the short squabs typical of Subarus and most variants use cheap racket-style adjusters.
Ambience lifts with a new steering wheel and soft-top dash, although the hard plastics that have blighted Subaru cabins have not been banished entirely and XT Premium could do with a bit more garnish. Control screens remain a riot of information and display styles. However, cabin refinement levels have risen and the engine stays remarkably quiet even under load.
The new turbocharged XT’s 2.0-litre engine has been downsized from 2.5 in the previous model but develops 8kW more power and 30Nm more torque (at lower revs). With a direct injection system and continuously variable transmission -- both developed in-house -- it's quicker to 100km/h by 0.6 seconds.
However, better aerodynamics, electric power steering and other efficiency measures such as idle-stop mean fuel use drops 19 per cent, to 8.5 litres per 100km. Subaru managing director Nick Senior said the XT was expected to double its share of Forester buyers with up to one in five picking it.
“The XT can do for the Forester what the WRX originally did for the Impreza and that is to create an iconic performance car that will become the halo variant in the range,'' Senior said. “It's the most complete vehicle we've ever launched. More interior room, vastly improved fuel economy, better transmissions, a significantly improved driver and passenger environment.''
You cannot remain unaware of its height but it stays fairly flat. Ground clearance has actually dropped slightly in this XT, to 220mm, although that's still serious offroad territory. For this and its other bush credentials, Subaru claims the Forester can challenge the offroad benchmarks.
The new steering was most difficult to like, with a lack of immediacy around the straight-ahead position, while the tendency for all-wheel drives to run wide in corners remains. Another negative in this upgrade is increased weight, with XTs gaining around 100kg.
Turbocharged Foresters will retain their reputation for being among the best to drive in this segment with a nicely nuanced chassis.
“The Australian love affair with SUVs is great news for Subaru,'' Nick Senior said, and if it continues to grow at last year's rate, Australians will buy another 20,000 mid-sizers this year alone. Subaru's target is 12,000 Foresters in 2013 and although its main rivals -- the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Mitsubishi Outlander, among others -- are all being renewed at the same time, demand is so strong it's possible they'll all do well.
Subaru Forester XT
Price: from $43,490
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged boxer 4-cylinder petrol, 177kW/350Nm
Transmission: 8-speed CVT auto, AWD