Subaru Forester: Sequels just getting better

The new Subaru Forester has reached New Zealand. Does it deliver an Oscar-winning performance?


LOTS of Subarus are sold in Central Otago; the region has the country’s highest new and used ownership count. Lots of blockbuster films are made in the area too.

So, anyway, when releasing a new Subby. in this region, why not make a movie? 

The outcome of the local distributor’s lights, camera and action effort was a 15-minute vignette shown to media last night in Arrowtown’s boutique movie theatre.

Not quite a Hollywood blockbuster, perhaps. Utterly unlikely to reach general release, either.

It’ll also be the one NZ big screen production that the beardy film buff bloke on your pub quiz team whose command of movie minutiae is such he would know that OJ Simpson was considered for Arnie’s role in The Terminator would be stumped to name. In fact, I’d guarantee he couldn’t. Because it didn’t seem to have a title.

‘Forester III’ would do nicely. The car, after all, was the star, with Subaru NZ staff talking up its strengths. A lot of footage showing the model doing what it has traditionally done best, tackling tough country.

The locations were the terrain we’d been on just hours before, in the form of a man-made off-road circuit at Highlands Park racing circuit, and the 100 percent natural landscape we’d tackle the next day. High country at Bendigo Station, an immensely diverse 12,000 hectare merino sheep farm and vineyard, home of Shrek, the nation’s most famous runaway sheep.

Take a bow Subaru boss Wall Dumper and your team. I’ve been to thousands of car launches, but never before one where they introduced the product in a way I reckon even local identity Sam Neill would have applauded.

Expect to see a lot of Forester. It’s a car that proves that sometimes sequels can be even better than the original. The aim is for it to match, if not beat, the commanding sales rate achieved by the Kiwi-favoured Outback was certainly something new.

That’s because medium crossover and SUV segment is a fast-paced zone, accounting for 40 percent of the market – that’s 24,000 vehicles last years - and growing, but Subaru knows quite a few of the choices are less well adapted to taking on the full challenges offered by a country in which one third of the roads are unsealed.

They nonetheless accept this generation model has some catching up to do. Even though the outgoing edition was just six years in production, it was nonetheless the brand’s oldest car when time was called and looking increasingly out of sorts with class trends and technology expectation. It felt the squeeze from within the family when the XV arrived; the final year was hard going.

Expectation is that even though there’s no manual gearbox, no diesel and no turbo petrol in the line-up, the new will reconquer that lost ground with alacrity.

Thought is that it will make particular impact in a family SUV role that, the brand admits, the previous edition did not impress strongly. Basically, they suggest, the old car suffered from being mis-identified as a station wagon.

We see the new variant in Sport, Sport Plus and Premium editions that have smartened up in look, performance, smarts – including one driver-monitoring assist that is unique in the class – while retaining its trad advantages (notably full-time four-wheel drive) and maintaining price parity with all major rivals.

In asking $39,990, $44,990 and $47,990 respectively, the price span sees the entry car in fact holds the RRP that attached to its immediate predecessor, a far more basic car. It positions against a number of front-drive crossovers.

The Sport Plus and Premium, which swap from 17-inch rims to 18s and take in-built sat nav (though all can run mapping through Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) also pitch comfortably against a wide count of alternates, though more in all-paw.

This is the third vehicle to come off Subaru’s modular global platform which debuted on the Impreza and has since been adopted by the XV. The new underpinning has delivered better torsional rigidity and improved ride and handling on those cars, which also benefit from larger cabins.

The new model also delivers a key powertrain update, introducing a 2.5-litre Boxer four-cylinder making 136kW at 5800rpm and 239Nm of torque at 4400rpm.

Yes, Subaru has had a normally-aspirated engine of this capacity previously, but the engine here now is claimed to be 90 percent new on the old one. Updating to direct injection (the old engine was in-port injection) allows an increase in power and torque from 126kW and 235Nm. A new 2.0-litre four-cylinder hybrid – aptly called e-Boxer – is also set to come out soon and SNZ is interested. The powertrain seems likely to share with the XV, so the brand is hinting at a dual release, potentially next year.

Familiarity remains the them with the Lineartronic constantly variable transmission, also a sole choice because that’s just how Subaru rolls now. (To petition for a return to ‘proper’ gearboxes, write to …)

It’s not the same as the old gearless unit, in now having seven simulated gears, depending on the driving mode. Again, that brings it in line with other new-release Subarus.

There have been changes to the steering system and the suspension and the X-Mode off-road aide. The latter now offers a two-stage set-up covering snow/dirt and deep snow/mud. Ground clearance remains at 220mm with towing weights the same too, at 1500kg braked.

As in other recently-released Subarus, the model adopts the brand’s latest 8.0-inch infotainment unit with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The styling is clearly derivative, too.

Anything truly new? Actually, yes.

It’s also the first Subaru to show off a Driver Monitoring System. Using a camera and facial recognition software the system keeps an eye on the driver and warns them with a double-bleep if they’re becoming distracted – if they look away for two seconds or more – or showing signs of fatigue (I found it would react without fail simply when I feigned falling asleep when I dropped my head, looking toward my lap). And, no, it doesn't seem to matter if you're wearing sunglasses.

There’s another element. Once your driving position has been programmed (and you've input your name), the car also acknowledges named drivers and automatically adjust the seats, mirrors and the air-conditioning system to suit that individual. According to Subaru, this is a first for a car at this price point. I certainly cannot think of any other.

Both the Sport Plus and Premium have DMS but all take EyeSight, still the best budget setup out there, and Subaru Japan has standardised autonomous emergency braking, reverse automatic braking, rear vehicle detection (which monitors for oncoming traffic when you’re reversing out of a parking space), as well as lane departure warning and assist and pre-collision braking which works if the system detects a vehicle in front and the driver has accidentally stepped on the accelerator.

ABS, traction and stability controls rain-sensing wipers, reversing camera and sensors also feature, of course.

There’s no NCAP rating yet but having a structure that has the highest crash rating in its home market of Japan abets belief that the new car will exceed the performance of the old points to a five-star rating.

Subaru aces designs that, even when largely new, remain familiar. This one follows that formula. It’s been brought up to speed with all the latest cues, but in retaining a boxy shape and strong edges keeps on cue with the first and second gen cars. This means that, overall, it’s still more about function than flair, of course, but that has hardly inhibited the old so why would it hurt the new.

Basically, being the same size as before but with an extra 35mm in the wheelbase is a double win, in that it’s still a relatively compact car in exterior dimension, so won’t be hard to park. Yet it has much improved interior space, especially for leg and headroom, though shoulder room isn’t bad, either.

The boot has enlarged to provide between 498 and 1768 litres of space with the 60:40 split-fold seats lowered and is accessed via a power tailgate in the flagship. The load floor seems to be higher – which might frustrate canine owners (whose loyalty to this model is legend); they’ll be lifting in small to medium pooches from now on. But at least it covers a full-sized spare, a rarity these days in this class.

Switching to this new platform has allowed Subaru to refit the entire cabin with higher- quality materials and plastics than have ever been seen in the outgoing model. There is a plusher ambience and more supportive seats, as well as an intuitive dash layout and a big central touchscreen. The family link between it and the XV and the Outback is restored.

The driver assists mainly operate from buttons located on the lower dash or the steering wheel; the interfaces are a bit messy and when you’ve got the active cruise operating along with the facial scanning, there are a lot of displays to consider. Warning sounds, too; you’d have thought the chime for when it senses you are dozing off would be far more strident than it turns out to be.

It gets new front seats, similar to those in the Outback, and an electric parking brake replaces the old manual-lift handbrake.

But, anyway, the driving. For the road work, basically one run in each direction through the Kawarau Gorge between Cromwell and Queenstown and for the dirt, an hour bumping around Highland’s off-road track and a morning exploring Bendigo, mainly the remains of the gold mining settlements established more than a century ago, with land owner John Perriam guiding the way.

The pukka off-roading was fantastic for the location – which, if not for heavy mist, would have offered spectacular views – and also because Foresters have a renowned off-seal prowess.

Nothing changes with this one; it tackled rutted, steep and – once the rain set in – increasingly slippery mud and schist tracks with confidence. When the Bridgestone Duellers did start to lose grip, we simply used the X-mode to enhance traction. There was just one occasion where the car couldn’t maintain forward momentum and it was on a tricky ascent. Fortunately, a quick reverse, a bit more throttle and we were through. I was impressed how well the suspension coped with the ruts, too. It is far more settled across these than many rivals, a tribute to the set-up’s elasticity.

How good is a petrol engine and CVT for tooling around in the muck? That’s an interesting question.

It’s fair to say this powerplant doesn’t feel as broad-chested as the sadly now defunct diesel does; it hasn’t as much torque and also delivers it higher in the rev range, between 3000 and 5500rpm. Doubtless most owners will never take the Forester into seriously sticky situations, a scenario which would really require low-down muscularity, not least when seeking to get unstuck. Still, as a Subaru owner, I know first-hand that this brand certainly doesn’t pay lip service to this kind of driving. They really are extremely proficient. So, even with what might outwardly seem the ‘wrong’ kind of mechanicals, it might well continue to have the ‘right’ stuff.

Even though it cannot easily be held back on a low gear - because it hasn’t got any (instead, all that retardation occurs by electronic means, mostly relying on a brilliant hill descent), I will say Subaru deserves credit for continuing to work at improving their CVT. This version definitely delivers more natural shifts – the ‘manual’ mode does a reasonable impression of a traditional automatic. It’s more reactive to throttle inputs and less noise, including hardly any of the dreaded drone, and fewer vibrations under load.

Pleasing levels of on-road engagement were evident on the twisting gorge road. Clearly, being a high-riding car – with more air under the floor than some rival models – and relatively large, it is not GT model.

Yet the new platform, revised suspension, new steering rack and the tried-and-tested all-wheel-drive system all provide positively enough that it can get away with having a pliant ride without being overly affected by body roll in corners. It has agility, but perhaps not to gold medal standard.

The steering could do with having a meatier feel though accuracy is decent enough and the brakes have also been enhanced and deliver greater stopping power than before. Also pleasing is the visibility, which improves as result of the A- and C-pillars now being thinner. The rear window is bigger, too.

Like its forebear and the next-size-up Outback, it’s a car that lends impression that there’s more reward from driving in an easy-going manner than really going for it.

That’s fine with me. On days like those we’ve just had, it was rewarding not having to rush.