They may only have 1bhp, but that's all these angry little cars need...
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There has been ever since the first once came
along back in 1997. It’s been a car that has made no concession to the fickle
nature of automotive fashion. There’s something to admire in that – an honesty
of approach and philosophy, combined with a confidence that the firm behind it
knows exactly what sort of car it’s trying to build and pitches it just right
for the intended audience. Mostly, it must be said, a rural audience.
It does look bigger and more mainstream now, though.
Doesn’t it? This is the fourth generation and
it’s shifted focus, responding, we suspect, to research that shows that family
SUV sales have increased eight-fold in the last 16 years. So this one is now
35mm longer overall, 15mm wider and a touch taller. It’s still no looker –
Subaru hasn’t made the leap that has seen Kia reap rewards. But what Subaru has
is credibility in other areas, specifically off-road prowess.
Handy in the rough then?
It’s not just that all models have 4wd and know
how to use it, but that the thing feels so mechanically robust off-road. The
Boxer engines chunter away, and although the tyres may scrabble for grip on wet
grass and mud, the Forester never gives the faintest impression that it’ll give
up or wilt under the pressure. Far from it - it positively relishes getting
mucky. The same can’t be said for a Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5. But don’t think
that means the Subaru is free from gadgetry. Models with the Lineartronic
gearbox come with a button labeled X-Mode. Basically all this does is soften
the throttle response and engage hill descent mode. You can forget this because
you don’t want a Lineartronic gearbox anyway.
Because it’s a CVT automatic, and therefore
awful. OK, it’s tolerable in manual mode, but when so many rivals have
excellent autos, this isn’t good enough. That Subaru has chosen it as the sole
transmission for the 237bhp turbo petrol is a major disappointment.
Hang on, a 237bhp petrol, like the old Forester Turbo?
Well, yes. And no. Yes on paper, no in reality.
It has 258lb ft, direct injection, a twin scroll turbo and a claimed 0-60mph time
of 7.5secs, but the gearbox masks any alertness and response it might have and
it’s not tuneful enough. Put it this way, if you leave it in D the revs drop
way down, so when you get to a corner exit and want to call on the power you’ve
not only got to overcome the inertia of the engine and turbo, but a gearbox
currently insisting 1500rpm is the correct amount of revs, when you want it
bubbling away at 4500rpm.
How does the Turbo handle?
Let me stop you there, because it’s not called
the Turbo, it’s the 2.0XT – hardly an inspiringly sporty name. Nor does it
handle with the attitude and muscle you expect from a turbocharged Subaru.
Instead it’s quick and fluid, able to give an Evoque a run for its money, but
hardly the rally-eager device it used to be.
So you’d have the diesel?
Not to put too finer point on it, yes. From any
normal standpoint it’s the only one that makes sense. Don’t have the base
2.0-litre 148bhp non-turbo petrol. It’s not really man enough for the job. The
145bhp diesel, with 258lb ft of torque and a perfectly acceptable manual
gearbox, is in many ways just as enjoyable to drive. The engine’s laggy but
smooth and combines well with the softly sprung yet well controlled body. In
fact, body control is never less than exceptional for a car of this class, and
the suspension is amazingly quiet and supple no matter how hard you force it to
work. This means that things inside tend to stay where you put them. Handy if
that includes children, bales of hay, sheepdogs, mobile phones or, well, anything
And what’s the cabin like?
Plenty big enough, barely lux enough. There’s
now masses of room in the rear and the 505-litre boot (12.5 per cent bigger no
less) stretches to 1592 litres with the seats folded. The big panoramic roof is
worth optioning for the extra light it casts on the otherwise plain cabin.
Everything’s here, it’s well specced, just not that interesting. No rattles or
squeaks though, even when pounding across a field, which is worth remarking on
given the cheapness of the materials.
And an electric tailgate?
It does and it badly shouldn’t have one. It
doesn’t suit the car and it’s hopelessly, hopelessly slow.
What does it cost?
From £24,995 for a base diesel, up to £30,995
for the 2.0 XT. And there’s one more thing worth mentioning: economy. This has
traditionally been a Subaru weak point, but the new direct injection heads have
made a big difference. You might actually get 40-42mpg from the diesel (claimed
49.6mpg), and possibly 30mpg from the turbo petrol (claimed 33.2mpg). Key
rivals are the Freelander and Nissan X-Trail. This is a good, strong
alternative to either. And if the 2.0 XT had a better name, a manual gearbox
and an edgier attitude it would be a good, strong alternative to a whole bunch
of other stuff, from a Focus ST wagon to an Audi SQ5. But it doesn’t, and
that’s a shame.