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 really.
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.