Subaru’s Forester has been around for more than 20 years now, offering a practical and rugged leftfield choice long before soft SUVs became the norm.
Those 20 years have seen the Forester evolve across four generations but later this year this all-new fifth generation will go on sale in the UK.
Park the new and outgoing models side by side and you’d struggle to tell them apart but underneath the Forester is all-new.
It’s now built on the Subaru Global Platform and is significantly stronger and more rigid than the old model as well as being slightly bigger.
As well as a longer, wider and lower body, the new model brings a hybrid system to Subaru’s European line-up for the first time.
Subaru is working on a fully electric vehicle in partnership with Toyota but at the minute the Forester e-Boxer and its XV sibling are mild hybrids. That means an updated 148bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine and a 10kW electric motor integrated into the Lineartronic transmission.
The small motor is there to supplement the engine rather than offer all-electric running. It will run purely on the motor for short periods and at low speeds (1.6km and 40km/h) – in heavy urban traffic, for example – before recharging through the engine’s power.
It’s an improvement on the 2.0-litre in the current car. The hybrid motor gives an added slug of torque than aids acceleration and the power delivery is smooth, but the necessity of the CVT gearbox still gives the impression you’re making a lot of noise for not much return.
Our early drive of the car was designed to give a brief flavour of the new drivetrain and chassis, so proper driving impressions will have to wait. However, a few hours throwing the Forester around a combination of handling tracks and off-road trails reveals a similar but improved prospect to the outgoing model.
Driven far more enthusiastically than most owners ever will, it acquits itself adequately thanks to a low centre of gravity, revised suspension and that stiffer body. It’s certainly more stable and controlled than the current model so will cope well with sensible on-road driving but it’s still clearly a fairly large, tall and heavy SUV.
A few laps of a pretty tough off-road route reinforced why Subarus are a favourite in rural areas. Its high ground clearance and dual-mode X-Mode all-wheel-drive helping dispatch slippery climbs, mud holes and rutted tracks with ease few mainstream SUVs could match.
As well as the new drivetrain, Subaru puts a lot of emphasis on the new Forester’s safety credentials. The new platform is stronger and better than ever at protecting occupants but it also comes with a new version of Subaru’s Eyesight driver assist technology.
This uses a two-camera system to provide vehicle, pedestrian and cycle detection, forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking and lane keeping assist.
Enhancing this is rear vehicle detection. As well as blind spot warning and rear cross traffic alert, this will actively stop you changing lanes if it detects a fast-moving vehicle approaching and apply emergency reverse braking if you are about to reverse into something.
The Forester also introduces the faintly creepy and not entirely successful Driver Monitoring System. This uses an infrared camera to monitor the driver’s face for signs of distraction or fatigue and will, in theory sound a warning if you lose focus. It will also recognise up to five drivers and automatically adjust settings such as seat and mirror position when they get it. Our short test revealed that, despite what Subaru says, a pair of sunglasses are enough to confuse it.
Practical changes to the new model include a wider boot aperture, wider-opening rear doors, an improved internal step for access to the roof rails and reshaped door pillars to aid access. And despite the addition of the battery under the boot floor, the old car’s 530-litre capacity has been maintained.
The longer, lower and wider Forester offers improved interior space, with an extra 3cm of space between front and rear passengers and more shoulder room throughout.
As well as being more spacious, the interior is step up in quality over the old one. It’s not a revolutionary change but the dashboard layout has been simplified with a new touchscreen and ventilation controls. More significantly, the materials look and feel better. They’re still not class leading but they’re no longer the worst and everything feel built to last a lifetime.
That robustness is key to the Forester’s image and appeal. Not only does it feel like it will cope with a genuinely active, outdoorsy life but it has the mechanical abilities to back that up.
The e-Boxer drivetrain is hardly a revolution – official estimates are that it improves economy by 10 per cent and its performance is still decent rather than spectacular – but it and the rest of the changes mark a gradual but worthwhile improvement on the previous model.