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OFF-ROAD TEST

Subaru Forester 2.5 SX





5 November 2006


  • The Forester's boxy shape makes it easy to judge extremities.

The Forester 2.5 XS falls in the middle of the three-tier trim menu offered with the normally aspirated cars. Priced at R265 000, it offers a comfortable compromise between – well – comfort and price

“Crossover” has been one of the buzzwords of the motor industry for a number of years – a term which refers to a vehicle’s ability to fill more than one key role. While it is a fashionable concept, Subaru will argue that it has long been a fundamental design feature of many of their cars.

To test that claim, we lined up a Subaru Forester, stalwart of their SUV offerings. It’s not a new vehicle, but was facelifted in the middle of last year. Styling changes were numerous – the most obvious of which are the addition of side repeaters integrated in the mirrors, and smaller front fog lights – but there was also an update on the 2,5-litre “Boxer” engine. Power went up to 121 kW and torque climbed by three units to 225 Nm. Minor revisions to suspension settings completed the mechanical picture.

Features and equipment
★ ★ ★ ★

No test of a Subaru would be complete without making mention of Symmetrical All Wheel Drive, the brand’s system for permanent distributing of traction to all the wheels. The Forester has a viscous coupling between the front and rear axles, adjusting the standard 50/50 torque split when necessary. There’s also a limited slip rear differential for sideways transmission of torque.

For many, the Forester’s trump card will be the low-range gearing. It’s not designed to turn it into a bundu basher, but the feature makes it into a true crossover vehicle: in normal usage it is simply a station wagon, but it can morph into an SUV at the pull of a lever.

SUVs and soft-roaders ultimately mean reduced levels of dynamic safety (mainly due to increased weight and a high centre of gravity), but Subaru say their combination of the horizontally-opposed engine and the resultant ground-hugging positioning of much of the drivetrain hardware overcomes these inherent disadvantages.

Passive safety features such as ABS with EBD are fitted, as are four airbags (front, and front sides), pre-tensioning front seatbelts, and ISOFIX attachment points.

Accommodation
★ ★ ★ ★

The word that comes to mind when discussing the Forester’s cabin is “functional”. Those looking for a more stylish cabin may be disappointed but there is no doubt that it generally works well.

We particularly liked the large and exceptionally user-friendly controls for the climate control. A similar approach means the instruments are large and clear through the small, leather-rimmed steering wheel. (The same material adorns the gearknob and handbrake lever.)

Subaru say their seating material is both water- and dirt-resistant and it certainly looks rugged without being utilitarian. The driver’s seat boasts lumbar and height adjustments, but its comfort in terms of driving position wasn’t universally praised. However, it is hard to fault the all-round visibility, and the Forester’s boxy shape makes it easy to judge extremities.

Between the front seats is a versatile multifunction console/armrest that slides 60mm.

Flip it through 180 degrees and a cup-holder for the rear occupants is revealed (in addition to the two flimsy pop-out ones already there). The storage compartment is quite deep and generous, and there’s a 12V power point within, too.

There’s more storage in the form of a circular moulding aft of the gear lever – ideal for propping up a cellphone – and an additional, pop-out cup-holder in the upper-left segment of the centre console. Door pockets are modest but they look the part with their webbed finish. A lidded compartment atop the facia provides a further storage option.

The Forester’s wheelbase is 2525mm (the same as the Impreza, on which it is based) so don’t expect lashings of space in the back. It is adequate, though, and comfort is not bad at all. There’s decent underthigh support, and sufficient headroom. The main criticism is that it doesn’t make a wonderful 5-seater, the result of a relatively narrow cabin.

The wheel arch intrusions are fairly compact, so the Forester still cuts it as a load-lugger: the 60/40 back seats quickly and easily fold flat to expand luggage space from a claimed 387 litres to a utility volume of 1692. The long rear overhang aids luggage length and the boot floor is also low (despite a fullsized spare underneath it), so the floor to ceiling measure makes it quite practical.

Bag hooks and sturdy steel rails along each side of the luggage compartment (designed so that clips can be easily attached, or a net used to make a sling for fragile items) are all useful. A retractable luggage cover of high quality finishes an impressive array of convenience features.

Performance
★ ★ ★ ★

The Forester weighs in at a modest 1390 kg (the RAV4 tested recently was almost 1600 kg) and that determines the overall performance envelope. It feels nimble and agile, and accelerates at decent pace whether on wet or dry tar, or on dirt.

The flat four has good mid-range torque, but it still sometimes feels as though there’s a bit of a dearth of the stuff really low down. This makes the car moderately easy to stall, and careful clutch control can sometimes be required.

At a true 120 km/h the motor is turning over at about 3250 r/min, and downshifts are seldom required to hold that pace. Cruising economy is reasonable and around 9,5 to 10 litres

Ride/handling
★ ★ ★ ★

In terms of road manners the Forester feels light on its feet with direct steering and firm suspension. Turn the wheel and the nose of the car follows quite obediently, more than enough feedback provided via the 215/60 dual-purpose rubber.

This somewhat sporty persona can make it less relaxing to drive than some rivals. You certainly feel the bumps, both through the car’s body and the steering, as well as occasionally hearing their effect on the suspension.

Off-road, the Forester’s 21% reduction ratio is useful when you want to traverse rough terrain without abusing the clutch and it is as worthy when pulling off with a trailer, or horsebox, on an unpredictable surface or on an incline. You can shift on the fly, too, so there’s no reason why you wouldn’t be able to use it like a 6-speed box: going from first low into first high and then through the box in the normal manner.

The Forester proves more than adept at tackling mud or sand but while the traction is impressive, a lack of protection underneath is a limiting factor. As is so often the case, it’s the exhaust system which is most at risk. The lack of any serious points to attach a recovery device is another reason not to venture too far from the dirt tracks. Interestingly, Subaru offers a differential protector as a dealer accessory.

Verdict
★ ★ ★ ★

A Forester isn’t the kind of vehicle you’d buy because you want to look the part – rather, you’d buy it because you are the part. Its low roofline and station wagon profile means it is less SUV-like than many pretenders, yet the under-the-skin design features actually position it closer to real off-roaders.

Its workmanlike persona coupled to the ability to cross many kinds of surfaces at pace without too much stress suggests it will be the perfect match for the kind of people who want a “normal” car Monday to Friday, but require something which can roll with the punches at the weekend.

It is showing its age in certain areas (including levels of noise, vibration and harshness) but it is still arguably the best compact crossover vehicle on the market.