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What we liked
>> Same redeeming features, refined
>> Smart pricing, especially for turbo models
>> Slightly bigger is a lot better
Not so much
>> Some aspects of exterior styling
>> ...same for interior
>> No diesel in (near) sight
Overall rating: 4.0/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 4.0/5.0
Behind the wheel: 3.5/5.0
About our ratings
Subaru claims it pioneered the compact SUV when it introduced the Forester in 1997. Now fending off a number of rivals with a similar formula, the compact wagon with all-wheel drive has more than held its own in the segment and become the company's top-selling model in markets including Australia and Japan.
For its third generation, Forester has a new look, bigger dimensions, powertrain and chassis refinements and revised pricing --all designed to maintain the versatile wagon's popularity. Though still based on the same platform as the Impreza, this is the most differentiated Forester model yet.
Among Forester's fans, which include singles, couples and families, and retirees, Subaru says it has chosen one target market for the new model: the "young active Australian family", usually "keenly focussed on the growth and protection of the children".
Thus the Forester is now bigger and safer. Indeed, the new model is more spacious, especially for rear passengers, and Subaru has jumped ANCAP's call for stability control by 2009, including it as standard on all MY09 Forester models.
Last year Subaru Australia averaged 1000 sales of the Forester per month. The company anticipates a 10 per cent incremental increase for the new model, with a focus on moving more turbocharged Foresters. Matching contenders on size and leading others on fit and price, we figure it's a safe bet.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
The Forester range starts with the naturally-aspirated 2.5-litre X model, now priced at $30,490, or $1500 less than the outgoing version. The X model gets Subaru's full safety suite (see below), aircon, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, single CD player with MP3/iPod compatibility and audio controls on the steering wheel, rear cargo blind and roof rails. It rolls on 16-inch steel rims.
Priced at $33,990, the mid-spec XS model, adds 16-inch alloy wheels, foglights, body coloured mirrors and metallic door handles, privacy glass to the rear, woodgrain interior trim, sound system upgrade and climate control.
Both the XS and XS Premium are now $1000 less. The XS Premium starts at $37,490 and gains leather upholstery, leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear shift knob, eight-way power adjustable driver's seat and sunroof. Sat-nav is available for the XS Premium model, for $2990.
The turbocharged models start at $38,990 for the XT and the XT Premium starts at $44,990. Both come with 17-inch alloy wheels, integrated bonnet scoop and engine cover, roof spoiler, xenon headlights with washers, brushed metal instrument panel finish, leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear shift knob and privacy glass.
The XT is now $2000 less than the outgoing version, or $2500 less for the auto equivalent. The new Premium model, starting at $44,990, is $2490 cheaper and now comes with sat-nav as standard, in addition to the Premium's leather upholstery, power adjustable driver's seat and sunroof.
Both the naturally-aspirated and turbo Forester models come standard with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, for an additional $2000.
All models come with a full-size spare wheel.
Forester carries-over the 2.5-litre boxer four-cylinder for the X and XS models, and turbocharged 2.5-litre engine for the XT, but both powerplants have been refined for the MY09 range. The SOHC naturally-aspirated engine has improved power (up by 5kW to 126kW) and torque (by 3Nm to 229Nm) while the twin-cam turbocharged unit's torque is now best at 2800rpm -- 800rpm earlier than the previous model.
The naturally-aspirated engine now uses the turbocharged unit's active valve-lift system, while the turbocharged engine gets a new intercooler and the turbocharger's turbine wheel and compressor impellor shape have been redesigned. The MY09 rework included new intake port and camshaft designs for both engine variants.
Fuel consumption is better in both cases: the naturally-aspirated 2.5-litre now uses 9.3L/100km with the five-speed manual or 9.6L/100km for the four-speed auto model. The turbocharged version uses 10.5L/100km when matched to either manual or auto transmission.
All automatic models now come with the 'Sportshift' feature -- previously offered only for the turbocharged Foresters.
Subaru says application of its Dynamic Chassis Control Concept -- as used by Impreza (more here) and implementing the Liberty-based double wishbone rear suspension -- helps the Forester's ride comfort and steering response.
The Forester's new structure scores well in crash testing. Subaru says the Forester uses the latest generation of its chassis concept, described as a "reinforcement system that cocoons the passenger cabin with a series of steel rings".
Like many manufacturers, Subaru says the structure benefits from the use of a large proportion of ultra high and high tensile steels in its construction. The design also incorporates a rear sub-structure placed to interact at the bumper height of 'normal' cars. The company says this better transmits energy effectively to the main chassis components during a rear end collision, compressing gradually -- important given the Forester's short rear overhang.
Brakes are discs all-round with antilock braking standard. See more in SAFETY below
Forester's effective cargo width has increased thanks to the rear suspension which intrudes less into the rear load space. Cabin dimensions and passenger room have increased, availed by a 90mm longer wheelbase.
Forester's body is also wider than the model it replaces, by 60mm (to 1795mm), and 75mm longer (to 4560mm), although rear overhang is shorter. It's not as stubby and easy to park as, say, Jeep Patriot (at 4408mm), but nor is it as long as Mazda CX-7 (4680mm).
New Forester gains 20mm higher ground clearance, now at 220mm making it one of the best in class. Figures for approach (22.9 degrees), departure (25.5) and breakover (20.8) angles compare most closely to the likes of Mitsubishi Outlander (22; 21; 19) and Honda CR-V (28; 32; 18). Follow our car comparator at the link, below.
Like the Impreza the Forester moves to framed doors for better noise and vibration control. The doors also swing wider than the outgoing model (again, like Impreza) to aid access.
Cabin enhancements include a new centre console with sliding armrest, a centre armrest with cupholders for the rear, and redesigned seats with increased lower back support and reclining (60:40 split-fold) backrest for the rear.
New Forester comes with telescopic and height adjustable steering on all models.
Subaru has made the Forester safer. Stability control is standard for all models, and the company says that mounting the engine and transmission lower in the chassis has reduced the risk of rollover with the reduced centre of gravity and benefits to roadholding.
Notably, Forester's pedestrian safety rating has jumped to a three-star (of a possible four) rating from ANCAP; up from just one for the previous model. The MY09 Forester has a five-star ANCAP occupant safety rating.
Dual front airbags, side airbags and head-protecting side curtain airbags are standard equipment. Antilock brake system (ABS) and electronic brake distribution (EBD) also come as standard fit, forming part of Subaru's Vehicle Dynamic Control (stability control) system.
Manual Forester models come with hill start assist as standard.
Brakes have been uprated for a significant reduction in stopping distances. Subaru says the braking distance from 100km/h is reduced from 48 to 41 metres on dry roads and from 52.3 to 43.5 metres in wet conditions.
Front seatbelts are pretensioner-type. All (three) rear places are provided with a three-point sash belt.
On price and fit, rivals are mainly compatriots in Mitsubishi with Outlander, Nissan X-TRAIL and Dualis, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX7 and Subaru's own Outback. Aside from the upcoming turbodiesel Outback, none of the Japanese manufacturers offer a small diesel-powered softroader.
Stocks of the Mazda Tribute are all-but gone, and its cousin-under-the-skin Ford Escape is well due for replacement but compares on price and space -- though both the Mazda and Ford V6s are thirsty! The rougher but not much readier SsangYong Actyon SUV is also up for replacement and is currently loaded for run-out sales.
We like the Jeep Patriot and Compass, and they compare well, especially on price and function. Land Rover Freelander is probably the most 'off-roadable' of these small softroaders, but near-$15K more.
If you can wait, the upcoming Renault Koleos (Oct 2008) and VW Tiguan (May 2008) will also join the C-SUV segment's hefty fray. Both makers have said they will work hard to match Forester's pricing. VW's pricing has already been announced (more here) and is hot...
See our preconfigured car comparator here
ON THE ROAD
Subaru says the turbocharged Forester is for those Dads relegated to a family wagon when they'd really prefer the WRX. It sure has enough vigour to make family hauling duties a little more interesting, and won't disappoint on long hauls requiring punch for highway driving and overtaking.
The turbocharged model's engine is very flexible with minimal lag and good urge off the line, and decent tractability mid-range. We'd opt for the blown model over the naturally-aspirated version, despite the consumption and price premium.
That's largely because the non-turbo'd 2.5-litre is so average -- not a bad thing -- by comparison. Delivery is smooth but sedate; 'flattened' for want of the relatively impressive consumption figures for both the manual and auto versions, which are well above class average barring turbodiesel rivals.
The naturally-aspirated engine gets a little noisy under load, however, despite efforts to quieten the unit.
We drove both the naturally-aspirated and turbocharged models with the four-speed automatic and found the transmission well-behaved when using its self-shift Sportshift mode.
When left to its own devices the unit is quick to shift down from top when required but its few ratios are long-legged and it can be slow to wind things up from stationary. A five-speed version is more likely to arrive when the (far-off) turbodiesel Forester is offered.
Steering is lightweight and dull with no discernible change of weight at any speeds, which becomes unsettling when at high speeds on winding roads. Of course the wagon is then easy to manoeuvre in the city and carparks, and a heavier feel would likely bother the many, ahem, 'yummy mummies' convinced they need an SUV for the school run.
So might the new Forester's bigger dimensions, although the resize has enabled a more spacious cabin with good passenger room for adults up front and back, and decent legroom for rear passengers. There's lots of room for growing children with good-sized seating and plenty of headroom through to the rear.
The new model maintains the predecessor's low, easy-access rear cargo space and we like the addition of the reclining backrest for rear passengers. Seating is good all 'round and the interior trim options generally attractive -- a half-step up on Impreza. That said, new Forester's (and Impreza's, and Tribeca's...) quirky dash styling takes a little getting used to. Instrumentation and controls are well positioned, however.
Ride is much improved with more absorbency to deal with rough stuff but its softness can turn 'floaty' over undulations. Forester remains controlled and stable, however, with minimal body roll and a good sense of grip when pushed.
With its segment-leading safety credentials, 'car-like' handling and quiet ride comfort, and decent performance especially from the turbocharged model, Forester will stay king of the yard. The extra equipment at Forester's revised pricing is, quite simply, the deal clincher.
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