Exactly which vehicle - or even brand - marked the advent of the modern SUV is a contentious issue, but with the Leone four-wheel drive wagon of 1972, Subaru certainly has a stake in some of the earliest models that combined car-like properties with more all-terrain ability.
Fast-forward 46 years and the Japanese car maker is still specialising in SUVs with genuine off-road promise, and the Forester is very much its standard-bearer in that regard. Now in its fifth-generation, the 2019 model arrives with a pared-back range, but more technology and the company’s advanced Global Platform as its basis.
First drive: 2019 Subaru Forester review
Compared with the previous line-up, five variants have been dropped from the Forester range including the $30,240 entry 2.0i-L. In its place, the new 2.5i costs $3250 more at $33,490, but it has an automatic transmission as standard instead of the old 2.0-litre’s manual, along with a larger, more powerful engine and a host of technological upgrades.
An engine revision has made the 2.5-litre flat four more efficient, with 7.4 litres of fuel per 100km being the factory claim – that’s an improvement of 8.6 percent when compared to the outgoing 2.5, but the previous-generation’s more frugal 2.0-litre diesel - which needed as little as 5.9L/100km - has been discontinued.
With a deliberate focus on meaningful off-road ability, one of the Subaru’s closest rivals is the Jeep Cherokee which starts from $35,950 or $41,450 for the cheapest four-wheel drive version, while Nissan’s X-Trail kicks off from $27,990 or $32,490 for the more capable 4WD version.
A three-year warranty is still the best Subaru can do while many other brands go to five years and beyond, but there’s a capped price servicing offer to sweeten the deal.
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Subaru is proud of its policy that leaves nothing for the options list and, in short, everything is a standard feature. If you want leather upholstery, you must buy the range-topping 2.5i-S, while standard-issue satellite navigation starts in the 2.5i-Premium, however the company’s unique EyeSight suite of driver assistance systems is standard on all variants. Even the range of nine metallic and pearlescent paints doesn’t attract an extra charge.
With the range revision, just one engine – the 2.5-litre 136kW/239Nm non-turbo flat four petrol – is available, as is the automatic CVT. All versions are permanent four-wheel drive and only equipment levels differentiate the greatly simplified line-up.
Other notable highlights include three colour displays, LED headlights and tail lights, autonomous emergency braking and a number of clever convenience features to enhance the Forester’s practical applications both on and off the road.
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It might be the largest SUV in the Subaru range, but the Forester aligns in size with some other SUVs in the middle of the pack. Think Mazda CX-5 and Ford Escape dimensions. But compared with the previous model, the Forester has boosted the useful spaces.
The second row of seating is bigger in every direction and cavernous even with the front seats adjusted back far enough for generous room in the front row. Headroom is bountiful all round. There’s not quite enough room for a third row of seating but the boot is now more practical.
Its load opening now measures 1258mm wide between the tail lights and the widest point of the luggage area is up to 1300mm – enough for a golf bag’s length says Subaru. With the rear seats in place the boot accommodates 498 litres of stuff but expands to 1768 litres with the 40/60-split seats folded. We particularly like simple touches like a flat area at the corner of the rear seats, which allows a person to stand safely when loading the roof storage area.
Subaru clearly understands the value Australian buyers place on safety features and even entry versions of the Forester are well appointed. The company’s trademark EyeSight suite is standard for all variants which brings adaptive cruise control, AEB, lane keep assistance, and lane departure warning.
There’s also a reversing camera and ISOFIX anchor points for two child seats as standard, but you’ll have to step up to the Premium or S variants to gain reverse automatic braking and a front and side view monitor, while adaptive headlights are fitted to all versions except the entry 2.5i.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the new Forester is provided for all but the base 2.5i and introduces a facial recognition system. When boarding the car, a camera concealed in the centre of the dash identifies the driver’s face and automatically sets a number of parameters to the user’s pre-sets. Climate control, customised displays, seat and mirror positions are all adjusted simply by looking forward.
But there are added safety benefits too. The camera continues to monitor the driver during a journey and if it recognises the tell-tale signs of drowsiness or distraction, the car will issue audible and visual warnings. Some other systems rely solely on steering inputs to determine a sleepy driver, but the Subaru approach is unique.
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After only a short time in the Forester, the mid-sized SUV quickly presents itself as the kind of car you could throw a few tins of beans into, a swag on the roof and drive around Australia. There is a confidence to the ride which feels assuring and comfortable but purposeful.
And on that extended journey there would be few complaints from any of the occupants. Seating is ergonomically well finished for all four main spots (putting someone in the middle rear pew might be asking a bit much on extended trips) and there are enough comfort features for the entire family. A high-quality stereo by Harman Kardon and smartphone mirroring are highlights, while rear air vents and a pair of USB sockets for rear occupants are welcome arrivals for the 2019 model.
Even on coarse surfaces and unsealed tracks, the Forester is composed and quiet with a nature that feels as though it was designed specifically for Australian conditions.
ON THE ROAD
Sadly we weren’t given an opportunity to test the Forester’s off-road prowess, which is a shame because, in the previous generation, it was surprisingly good. Subaru’s X-Mode provides the optimum grip levels when the going gets tough, coupled with a clever transmission system and a lofty ground clearance of 220mm, but we can only speculate just how far off the beaten track you can go.
On-road behaviour, however, is up to standard and although we didn’t find any bends to push dynamic capability to the limits, communication from the steering and chassis is above average for the segment. All too often a manufacturer will sacrifice driver reward for ease of use of comfort, but the Forester finds an excellent balance.
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Until an unconfirmed XT, GT or STI version of the Forester arrives, the 2.5-litre is as sporty as you can get, but it’s probably the weakest link in the driving enjoyment stakes. 136kW can be described as ‘adequate’ but can get a little frustrating if the car is heavily laden or you need to suddenly overtake at highway speed. We like the general operation of the CVT transmission, which is one of the finest when it comes to the continuously variable principle.
If you miss the stepped ratios of a conventional automatic, then the Subaru’s gear shift paddles on the steering allow you to move through several pre-set ratios to add some driver involvement – or simply to keep the engine spinning fast when you need to work it hard.
On a section of varying unsealed surfaces, the Subaru Forester’s secure handling works to keep everything facing the right direction, and the sense of confidence imparted by the ride continues even when grip levels drop off or the road gets truly choppy.
We were only given the opportunity to sample the Premium and S variants, which provide an identical driving experience (and likely the same as the two most affordable versions), with only the leather interior, sunroof and slightly more convenient X-Mode operation setting the S apart from the Premium.
From the outside, the 2019 Subaru Forester appears to have been given not a major overhaul but a mid-life facelift, but it’s actually a completely new vehicle. Subaru’s evolutionary approach is understandable though considering the Foresters did everything so consistently well in previous generations: it would simply be unwise to shake up the recipe to any great degree.
The Forester manages to be charming and likeable without trying too hard, and its combination of unpretentious styling, unquestionable practicality and a compelling value package will no doubt continue to appeal to not only the vocal base of Australian Forester fans.
But with a marked upgrade in technology to align it with competitors in classes above, it’s likely to deservedly attract even more attention from SUV shoppers in general.