Subaru Forester review
The latest Subaru Forester is spacious, well built and dependable, but remains a niche SUV choice
Gone are the days when Subaru was associated with countless World Rally Championship victories. The Impreza was an icon in the early to mid 1990s, but today the brand is better known for its rugged and capable – if slightly old fashioned – 4x4s. Models like the Forester make up the bulk of Subaru's UK sales, with owners praising the no-frills practicality and bulletproof reliability.
The Forester wraps all those characteristics up into a family-friendly SUV, with decent if unadventurous styling, excellent equipment levels and reasonable pricing. Even the official fuel economy figures look reasonable – though the real-world numbers are likely to be more challenging. The Forester’s drive is also let down by a jittery ride and numb steering.
But for folk who want to trundle around the farther-flung parts of the British countryside – often with a trailer or horsebox in tow – the dependability of Subaru’s rugged 4x4 engineering outweighs such niceties.
The Subaru Forester is a rugged SUV aimed at high-riding machines such as the Mazda CX-5, VW Tiguan and Ford Kuga. Now in its fourth generation, the original Forester helped set the current trend for crossover models when it made its debut in 1997. Combining four-wheel drive, a raised ride height and practical estate body, the Subaru didn’t fit in an established car niche back then. However, these days the Forester has matured into more of a traditional SUV, as fashion has swung the other way.
You’d struggle to call the Subaru handsome, but its boxy proportions and rugged styling cues give it a certain no-nonsense appeal. It got a light update in 2016, bringing new bumpers and lights, as well as some chrome trim details. It’s a similar story inside, where the Subaru benefits from tough build quality but dated looks. On the plus side there’s plenty of space for occupants, while the boot will swallow a generous 505-litres of luggage.
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There’s a choice of three engines – two petrol and one diesel. Both have a 2.0-litre capacity and feature Subaru’s trademark flat-four ‘boxer’ layout, and the Forester is available with manual gears or - especially unusual in the SUV sector – a constantly variable transmission (CVT) auto called Lineartronic.
All models get Subaru’s symmetrical four-wheel drive system that provides confidence-inspiring all-weather grip. It also gives the Forester excellent off-road ability, and few rivals in this class are as accomplished in the rough stuff. There’s no cut-price two-wheel drive version either, perhaps because Subaru is honest about its chances of attracting aspirational lifestyle types to the Forester model.
The available trim levels are different according to fuel choice. Petrol versions are available in the XE and XE Premium guises, while flagship XT trim is reserved for the turbocharged petrol engine. Go for diesel and you can choose between X, XC and XC Premium models. All versions get air-conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control and heated seats.
Engines, performance and drive
The Forester has never been as sharp to drive as rivals and that remains true for the updated model. Permanent four-wheel-drive system ensures the car has very high levels of grip but the steering is completely lifeless. The ride is firm and a little jittery on cars with 17-inch alloys, but body roll isn’t too pronounced.
The manual gearbox is sweet, but the CVT does blunt performance somewhat - even though Subaru has added ‘virtual’ stepped ratios you can select from steering-wheel-mounted paddles. This Lineartronic transmission also comes with Subaru’s X Mode system that aids traction off-road and adds a hill descent function. As a result the Forester is extremely capable on loose ground, and will leave many rivals trailing in its wake.
The standard 2.0-litre petrol is smooth but a little gutless, so buyers craving performance will be better off with the turbocharged version. It’s only available in flagship XT guise and mated to a Lineartronic gearbox, but it claims 0-62mph in just 7.5 seconds. While it looks quick on paper, it feels laboured and rather underpowered in reality.
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For most buyers the 2.0-litre diesel will be the best bet. It’s surprisingly refined, plus with plenty of torque it’s a punchy performer. All engines get Subaru’s SI-Drive set-up that allows you to select from up to three different levels of throttle response.
Thanks to their ‘boxer’ configuration, all the Forester engines have a distinctive sound, and all are quite smooth, if a little noisy. The petrol is the quietest, especially with the CVT option.
It’s a 2.0-litre unit that makes 148bhp and 198Nm, which is enough to take the Forester from 0-62mph in 10.6 seconds, or 11.8 with the Lineartronic gearbox. Maximum speed is 118mph, or 119mph with CVT.
The turbocharged version takes power up to 237bhp and torque to 350Nm, so as well as the range-leading 0-62mph of 7.5 seconds time you get a 137mph top speed.
The 2.0-litre diesel engine gets 145bhp and 350Nm it provides 0 to 62mph acceleration in 9.9 seconds, in both manual and CVT forms. Maximum speeds are 117mph and 118mph respectively.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
All three engines in the Subaru Forester line-up come with stop-start technology, but it’s not enough to keep the mpg figures abreast of best-in-class rivals.
The 2.0-litre petrol can be had with manual or CVT gearboxes, the latter improving consumption marginally to 43.5mpg on the combined cycle – compared to the manual version’s 40.9mpg. The CVT will also save you money on road tax, or your company car tax bills. Hooked up to the normally aspirated 2.0 petrol it cuts CO2 emissions from 140g/km with manual gears to 129g/km.
The 2.0-litre turbo petrol is only available with a CVT and returns just 33.2mpg on the combined cycle, which isn’t a great trade-off for the extra power on offer. It's expensive to buy, too, and won’t look that attractive to company car buyers either, with a C02 figure of 161g/km.
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The diesel predictably offers the best fuel economy of 49.6mpg, with CO2 emissions of 150g/km, and while it isn’t ultimately as fast, it develops the same 350Nm of torque as the petrol turbo. That makes it the best compromise between all-round driveability and running cost.
However, keep in mind that while fuel economy isn’t too bad when driven smoothly, we found an enthusiastic approach caused the Forester’s mpg to suffer markedly more than its rivals.
Insurance group ratings for the Subaru Forester range from group 23 for the normally aspirated 2.0 petrol model in lowest spec, to group 34 for the turbocharged XT version.
A loyal – if small – brand following here in the UK means residual values for the Forester are average for the class. Unsurprisingly it’s the diesel models that perform the best, with the experts at CAP predicting the 2.0 D X will hold onto 45 percent of its new value after three years and 36,000 miles.
Petrol models will fare a little worse, but not much, and CAP reckons total cost of ownership (including all running costs and depreciation losses over the three year/36,000 mile model) will range from a little under 18k for the 2.0 D X to a shade less than £24k for the 2.0 XT petrol turbo.
Interior, design and technology
Subaru prides itself on its engineering pedigree, which means that form often follows function. The Forester doesn’t stand out from its rivals, but it’s not a bad looking car. Its curvaceous bumpers, swept-back headlights and gently sloping roofline soften the bluff shape of its predecessor, and also help to cut aerodynamic drag.
Subaru gave the Forester a mid-life nip and tuck in 2016, to keep it looking fresh alongside more modern rivals. All cars got a redesigned grille, updated headlights and some chrome trim on the bumpers. A giant bonnet scoop used to mark out the Turbo model in the 1990s, but that is no more. Instead, all cars have a creased, aluminium bonnet, while top-spec cars have large but purely cosmetic gill vents in their front bumpers and 18-inch alloys.
The interiors of all cars are very similar to the Subaru XV. That means build quality is good, but it can’t match premium rivals for upmarket appeal. Not only does the design look a little dated, there are very few soft touch materials to help lift the ambience.
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Still, there are no complaints concerning the amount of standard kit, with all models getting air-conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity, heated seats and cruise control. XC and XE versions add climate control, a rear view camera, powered seats and xenon headlamps, while upgrading to Premium brings leather trim and sat-nav.
The X Mode is a useful bit of kit on automatic models, as it distributes torque evenly between all four wheels to prevent wheel-spin on loose or slippery surfaces. It only operates at low speeds as it disengages automatically above 25mph, but it could make all the difference on the wet grass car park at the pony club.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The updated Subaru Forester is fitted with a new 7.0-inch touchscreen, which is far more responsive than the old system.
The standard audio set-up is a six-speaker system with DAB radio and single CD player. There’s a voice command system on all models but the base 2.0 DX diesel, while all models feature steering wheel controls to supplement the touchscreen.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
The latest Forester is also the largest. The A-pillars are further forward than before, by 200mm, which gives extra space in the front.
In the rear, the floor has been lowered to create more space for feet, while elbow and shoulder room is good in the front and back.
All cars feature three power points and a narrow but deep centre cubbyhole, plus two good-sized cup-holders between the front seats.
From a driver’s point of view it’s easy to get comfortable thanks to a rake and reach adjustable wheel, and very adjustable seats. A high driving position means the forward visibility is excellent, and the mirrors are now mounted on the doors, which reduces the front blind spot. As most models come with a reversing camera you’ll have no qualms about backing up either.
There’s only the one five-door bodystyle in the Forester line-up, and just the five seats on offer.
The Forester measures up at 4,595mm long x 1,795mm wide x 1,735mm high. That compares to the 4,524mm x 1,838mm x 1,689mm Ford Kuga and the 4,426mm x 1,809mm x 1,703mm Volkswagen Tiguan.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
With a slightly lengthened wheelbase compared to the last model, and that high boxy roof, there’s plenty of room for grown-ups in the back of the Forester. That said, the rear bench is designed to seat three adults, but in truth they’ll be a little cramped.
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Isofix child seat mountings are standard, as you would expect, and a nice feature is the one-touch seat folding mechanism for the 60:40 split rear seat. The seats don’t lie totally flat, but there’s a carpet flap to cover the gap between the boot floor and the folded seatbacks.
The boot has a low, flat lip, making it easy to load, and its 505-litre capacity is similar to the Mazda CX-5 and quite a lot bigger than the Ford Kuga’s 406 litres. Top-spec XT models get a powered tailgate, while folding the rear seats down liberates a healthy 1,564-litres of space. There’s a space-saver spare wheel under the boot floor.
All versions of the Forester should make pretty good tow cars, with a braked trailer weight limit of 2,000kgs for everything except the manual 2.0-litre non-turbo, which can pull 1,800kgs.
Reliability and Safety
The Forester has a reputation for being thoroughly engineered, well built and extremely reliable. A lot of the technology is already well proven, and the engines are carried over or adapted from other models already on sale.
This is reflected in the Forester's brilliant 8th place finish in our Driver Power 2016 satisfaction survey. It finished sixth for reliability and eighth for build quality, though running costs and in-car tech were both blots on the otherwise exemplary score sheet. The brand scored an decent 10th place overall, up two places on 2015.
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All Foresters have a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating, while the excellent visibility afforded by the high driving position and superb grip from the four-wheel-drive system, should help you stay out of trouble in the first place.
For the record though, the Euro NCAP test scores were 91 percent for both Adult and Child Occupant safety, while Pedestrian Safety scored 73 percent and the Safety Assist technology score was 86 percent – not bad for a car tested back in 2012.
Included in the standard Forester spec are electronic stability control and an impressive tally of eight airbags, including knee bags for the driver and front seat passenger. However, you can’t add the autonomous emergency braking and adaptive cruise control systems that recently debuted on the new Outback, which is a pity.
The Subaru Forester is well served on the warranty front, coming with the brand’s standard five-year/100,000 mile cover. That’s the same cover as Toyota, and not far off the warranty leaders Hyundai and Kia.
With no fixed pricing plan for servicing supported by the manufacturer, the Forester’s servicing cost will be set by local dealer rates. Service intervals are set at 12,000 miles.