The Family Rocketship | Subaru Forester 2.0XT

BY Jonathan Lim

With the next generation of WRXes and STIs still at least a year or two away, it’s up to the 4th-generation Forester to uphold the turbocharged mantle in the Subaru stable.

It’s no secret that for the majority of us not blessed with the funds or talent to be a professional racer, or have the surnames Clarkson, Hammond and May, the best years of our motoring lives happen when we are young and single. To be able to pour most of our hard-earned into our beloved pet projects in the name of speed or style without having to worry about ‘pleasing the missus’ or ‘financial prudency’ or even *shudder* ‘children’…

The sad fact of life though, is that eventually your family will grow and grow, and your personal hot rod will have to make way for something less selfish. But what is the average enthusiast to do if he still wants some speed in his set of wheels, yet can only afford one car? Certainly, he could do far worse than the new Subaru Forester, available locally only with the top-of-the-range turbocharged engine.

The original Forester was one of the first vehicles in the crossover market, being essentially an Impreza on stilts. Yet thanks to its smaller wagon-like body, and compact boxer drivetrain, the Forester has always handled better than its taller SUV competition. With the 3rd-generation car though, the Forester grew in all dimensions, closer to its established rivals.

This new car continues where the 3rd-gen left off, with the XV now filling in the smaller crossover segment. As expected, the Forester has all the traits a buyer expects of an SUV (the assurance of full-time AWD, the sense of security from a high seating position, and all the space they could ever want for their non-existent ‘outdoorsy’ lifestyle), and some they won’t (a very surprising but welcome turn of speed — more on that later).

First off, let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, the Forester does feature a traditional two-box SUV profile that offers loads of room and practicality, but the 2.0XT version that we get does look like quite the minger. I know looks are subjective, but this Forester XT sadly follows in the over-styling of more recent Subaru models (I’m looking at you, XV and Legacy). The rim design is pretty ugly, and the brake ducts are not only unnecessary but completely fake to boot. Also, there’s no more traditional Subaru hood scoop. In comparison, here’s a picture of the simpler and more understated base model:

Happily though, things change once you get inside. Motorimage really have thrown almost everything but the kitchen sink into this car. Standard equipment includes cruise control, reverse camera (but curiously no parking sensors), a huuuuuge electric sunroof, electric tailgate, 440W Harman/Kardon sound system with USB, iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, and X-MODE off-road control system.

The dashboard’s design itself is functional rather than stylish. If you grew up mainly on Japanese interiors, this is no bad thing, with all the controls falling easily and logically to hand. With 8-way adjustable electric seats and a steering wheel that adjusts for rake and reach, ergonomics are decent but for one minor flaw: I found the pedals offset a bit too far to the left, making it a bit of a stretch braking with my right foot (conversely, it did make left-foot braking easier). Fit-and-finish and quality of materials used were a welcome surprise though, with nicely textured materials on all the main touch points.

The biggest plus point for the cabin though, is the amount of space available. Not only do the sunroof and generous glasshouse really light up the interior, but the car’s larger dimensions also mean passengers will never want for space, a far cry from the slightly cramped 2nd-gen version I very nearly persuaded my parents to buy (I was 14 then, and the word ‘turbo’ looked really good on paper). There’s also a lot of storage space available, the cupholders, glovebox and central storage bin in particular being absolutely massive. The latter, which houses the USB and AUX sockets, even has a little tray for you to put your phone and coins, although iPhone 5s and Samsung S3s and 4s might not actually fit. Boot capacity is slightly smaller than its main rivals at 505 litres, but the aperture has been widened and lowered for ease of use, and the folding rear seats drop down at the touch of a button.

On the move, the Forester leans more toward satisfying the family rather than the driver. The high ride height and high-profile tyres provide a reasonably cushy ride, even on rough ground. There’s a real sense that the dampers are doing their job, keeping wheel movement in check and allowing the body to remain more or less composed over sharper bumps. Naturally, speed humps are not an issue either.

The natural trade-off though, is in its ability to carve a corner. Despite how tall the Forester is, body roll is less prevalent than expected, no doubt thanks to the Boxer drivetrain’s low centre of gravity, but unless you really enjoy feeling a car at its limit no matter how easily reached it is (which I do), there’s not much reward to be gained from hustling it. The tyres are designed for low rolling resistance and hence give up very easily, running out of grip at even moderate speeds, while the electric steering, though light and easy to twirl at parking speeds, has a vague, non-linear response during the first few degrees of lock. On initial turn-in the steering feels overly light but after that it firms up, with nice weighting and progression through the rest of the turn.

So in stock form at least, you’ll probably want to slow down and take the corners nice and easy. But there’s no harm in that, because whatever speed you lose in the twisties, you can make up for on the straights — this engine packs a punch. The 2.0-litre flat four here is basiscally the same as the one found in the BRZ, except turbocharged to provide 240 bhp and 350 Nm. Obviously, the heavy SUV body does blunt performance, and you won’t feel the kick like in a WRX, but you still get very smooth power delivery, and a sustained surge all the way up to highway speeds. There’s no discernable turbo lag, and the engine is adequately quiet at cruising speeds. The downside? No Boxer burble! Oh, and the thirst. This car does encourage a heavy right foot and I happily obliged, resulting in an average economy figure of 8 km/l during my time with the car. Oops…

Contributing to the overall refinement is the Forester’s Lineartronic CVT gearbox. Because there are no actual cogs to swap, the driving experience is very smooth if you’re just pootling along, and thanks to the amount of torque on offer, you don’t need to put your foot down very long if you need a burst of speed so you rarely have to endure the “rubber band” effect typical of CVTs. But if the red mist descends, putting the drivetrain in Sport or Sport Sharp mode gives you eight virtual gears to play with, as well as sharpening the throttle response. It actually does a good job of replicating an eight-speed auto in most conditions, but slurs the shifts too much in manual mode to be truly engaging. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t yearn for a six-speed manual to go with the engine, but if you can restrain yourself appropriately, the Forester makes for a very effortless highway cruiser.

Like everything else out there, the Forester is not without its shortfalls. It fulfills the family wagon role just fine, but comes up a bit short to satisfy the keen driver. Maintenance costs will also undoubtedly be higher than others, not just with the fuel consumption, but also the complexity of the full-time AWD system. Since you’re reading this site though, chances are you’d be more than willing to pay more for the power, and you probably won’t be a stranger to car modifications; simply adding a lowering kit and wider sports tyres on aftermarket rims will do wonders for its handling and looks. And afford these mods you can, because here lies the Forester’s ace up its sleeve: at just $164,400 (at press time), it undercuts rivals like the Toyota Rav4 and Honda CR-V by up to $20,000! In fact, you could even look at the Forester as a properly viable performance alternative — there is literally nothing else on the new car market right now that can get close to it in terms of bhp per dollar (I calculated it). Could the Forester 2.0XT be appreciated as a jumbo-sized hot hatch? Well there’s an interesting thought. Just make sure the kids are strapped in first...