The Forester has won a lot of accolades over the last few months. Does it truly deserve all this praise? Is it, quite simply, the best compact SUV on the market? We took it off road to find out.
The Subaru Forester was recently voted SUV of the Year by Motor Trend in the US. According to the esteemed panel of judges, made up of some of America’s top motoring editors, the 2014 Forester proved not only to be the best new SUV in its class but the best overall.
The award was based on value, safety, efficiency, advancement in design, engineering excellence and “performance of intended function”. So it wasn’t a straight comparison. Instead, each vehicle was judged on the above criteria, and in the end, the Forester defeated vehicles such as the Range Rover Sport, Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, Toyota RAV4, Mini Paceman and Kia Sorento for the title.
But it doesn’t end there. The Forester has won prizes all over the globe. It took the Good Design Award in Japan, during which one of the judges commented: “This is an elaborately-created vehicle design embodying SUV elements which will fit all roads and conditions. Encompassing stability, all-road-capability and versatility in one package, the car reflects the result of steady evolution achieved over the long-time pursuit of SUV simplicity and balance. The combination of stable handling and supreme high-quality design, with features such as seats which focus on the fundamentals and the highly-functional inside door handles, has resulted in high level automobile design.”
In Australia, the Forester was voted “Best SUV under $40 000”, and in SA it won the prize for “Best Mom’s Taxi” during the Women’s Car of the Year Awards.
A HORSE FOR ALL COURSES?
The fact is, though, that while all these awards are impressive and show that the Subaru is an excellent SUV, our criteria at Leisure Wheels are a tad different from those of most publications.
Off-road ability has largely become irrelevant for a lot of testers. So few people actually take compact SUVs off the beaten track nowadays that it has become justifiable to evaluate these small SUVs without really taking off-road ability into consideration.
But not at Leisure Wheels. If you are reading this magazine, you probably have a substantial interest in a vehicle’s performance on bad roads, which is why we decided to test the Forester on a very poor gravel track. We took it over Breedt’s Neck Pass to see if it is as good off road as it is on the tar.
OVER THE MOUNTAIN
Crossing the Magaliesberg mountains, Breedt’s Neck is not the sort of pass that just any vehicle can traverse. As we arrived at the bottom of the pass, we came across an old Corolla that had been blocked by a badly washed away section of road, beaten before it had even begun.
Although the condition of the pass was not as bad as it had been on previous visits, it was still pretty bad, so it was a good place to test a compact SUV such as the Forester. Very few compact SUVs are likely to venture onto a road as bad as this. Moreover, we didn’t steer clear of the worst sections, opting instead to drive straight into them.
How did the Forester perform? It did very well. In fact, we had hoped to give it a proper test, but it quickly became apparent that Breedt’s Neck wouldn’t pose much of a problem for this vehicle.
Very few compact SUVs can boast the same sort of off-road ability as the Forester. What other SUVs in its segment can compare? Probably the Jimny, Grand Vitara and the Freelander 2, but that’s about it.
While it doesn’t have low-range gearing, the Forester does have something called X-Mode, which basically optimises all systems for travel over wet or ugly surfaces. By pressing that one button, you tell the vehicle to make use of a list of components such as the centre differential, rear differential and brake and traction control to provide better grip.
The combination of AWD and X-Mode is great, but what probably plays the biggest part in making the Forester so good off road is its ground clearance. At 220mm, it has better clearance than just about any other compact SUV. Some double cab bakkies don’t even boast that sort of measure.
ON THE (GRAVEL) ROAD
If you really want to test an SUV’s performance, the best place to do it is on a bad gravel road. An ugly dirt road will instantly tell you if the suspension works well, if the cabin is well insulated, and whether the vehicle remains composed and surefooted on an uneven surface.
The Forester excels on a gravel road. The suspension setup is perfect for a compact SUV. It has enough wheel travel for an off-road situation, but the vehicle doesn’t rock and wallow when you go around a bend. It feels sporty, but never harsh or unforgiving.
Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels in the cabin are also low. The driver is ensconced in a comfortable cocoon, even when the road is horrible.
Overall, the Forester seems solid and well made. It feels as though it would be able to withstand years of abuse on gravel without falling apart.
The handling on gravel is equally impressive. Thanks to its symmetrical AWD and host of driving aids (electronic stability control, TCS limited slip device, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist) the Forester feels surefooted on gravel and induces a lot of confidence in the driver. You don’t feel as if the SUV might do something unexpected at any moment. This isn’t a vehicle that you need to wrestle with on a dirt road. It remains placid and predictable, even when the road surface is very uneven.
THE BEST COMPACT SUV?
There’s no doubt that the Forester is an excellent compact SUV. It is well priced, it is fun to drive, it is practical, and it is chock full of safety features. Moreover, it boasts a level of off-road ability that you won’t find in the vast majority of vehicles in its class. So, yes, it is no surprise that the Forester is on so many “best SUV” lists.
As lovers of gravel travel, we certainly also think the Forester is one of the best compact SUVs out there. The Subaru could give a lot of traditional 4x4s with low-range transfer cases a run for their money when it comes to off-road driving.
But is it the best compact SUV out there? It just might be. It certainly ticks all the right boxes in our opinion. We certainly can’t think of a compact SUV that offers more at a better price.