IN A Sunday afternoon bar squabble about who invented the SUV, you might wander home victorious suggesting it was in fact Subaru that kicked off the revolution with its Leone four-wheel drive wagon. It would be many years until the market would grow to the self-sustaining chain reaction it is today with SUV sales overtaking passenger models last year, but 46 years on, Subaru is still very much in the game with this, the 2019 Forester.
As a spiritual successor to the 1972 Scoobie, the all new Forester arrives on the company’s Global Platform to fight it out with all the main players that have since jumped aboard the high-riding wagon bandwagon. But it’ll need more than its status as one of the longest-running names in the segment to succeed among fearsomely strong competition.
WHAT IS IT?
This is the fifth-generation of Subaru’s most hardened off-roader. While other, more car-like models in the brand’s line-up offer permanent all-wheel drive and wagon practicality, the Forester is the most generous with space and ground clearance.
For the 2019 version, the range has been pared back from nine variants to just four, with 2.5-litre four-cylinder power your only option, as is an automatic CVT gearbox. Technology gets a significant boost with more driver assistance systems and innovative driver recognition added to the model.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT
For many SUV owners, the basic advantages of large cargo spaces, easy loading of children and things, and an elevated view of surroundings are enough to seal the deal, but for a smaller audience, genuine off-road ability is a must have.
And that’s where Subaru pitches its Forester in the market. With clever electronics to make the most of traction on and off-the road, the Forester keeps the promise of adventure that others can’t. Bundle in some unique technological features and, on paper, the 2019 Forester appears to have an unmatched set of credentials.
THE WHEELS REVIEW
MEETING the 2019 Subaru Forester for the first time feels a bit like catching up with an old pal. Its styling won’t make you swoon like a Pininfarina-penned coupe and there’s no promise of buttock-clenching performance. But there’s a sense of familiarity and dependability that’s somehow more valuable, and completely absent in some more ostentatious models, even though this Forester is all-new.
For the fifth-generation, the Forester is built on the company’s new Global Platform, which supports electrification and will soon herald the first hybrid Forester on red dirt, but before then, the range has been pared back. In its previous generation, the Forester was on offer with an atmo 2.0-litre as well as turbo petrol and diesel versions coupled to a manual gearbox in some cases. For now though, the 2019 version is strictly a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated affair bolted to a CVT auto.
The 2.5i and 2.5i-L open proceedings with respective pricetags of $33,490 and 35,490, but for our local introduction to the range only the 2.5i Premium and 2.5i-S were in attendance, showing off their more generous equipment.
Headlining the technological upgrade is a new Driver Monitoring System, which uses a camera to scan the driver’s face. Not only can the system recognise up to three different users and set all your preferences including seat position and favourite radio station, it also continuously monitors the driver for drowsiness and distraction. Reach down for your phone or start to nod and the Forester slaps you on the wrist with audible and visual alarms.
The new system joins Subaru’s proprietary EyeSight stereoscopic camera technology, which is now standard range-wide, and enables autonomous emergency braking as well as a host of other driver assistance systems.
While some SUVs may talk the off-road talk with pumped arches and raised ride height, but fail to deliver the walk, the Forester has always been one of the leaders in genuine all-terrain ability. Crushingly though, we were deprived of a chance to test that reputation with the drive route encountering little more challenging than slippery but smooth gravel.
There was no need to engage any of the Forester’s get-out-of-muddy-jail passes including the X-Mode feature, and its permanent symmetrical four-wheel drive system only manifested itself when we got a bit deep into corners with the enthusiasm dialled round to Molly Taylor. Yes, it will oversteer but it won’t make you a rally god. In adverse weather conditions the Forester will cradle you in its palm on-road but we would have loved to fully test its nomadic nature.
For hitting the long black-top though, the Forester is stoic and a loyal companion. Its 136kW is adequate for cruising but overtaking had us fantasising about forced induction and a variant that wears the coveted STI badge. We would settle for a return of the XT.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the 2.5-litre atmo boxer four is a carry-over, but Subaru says otherwise. According to its maker, 90 percent of its components have been ‘revised’ with everything from the block, head, crank, con-rods, pistons, valvetrain and exhaust, to the engine management, injectors, inlet manifold and spark plugs modified. Even the air filter is new. Sounds significant doesn’t it? But with a power increase of 10kW and efficiency gain of 8.6 percent, you be the judge.
Read next: 2019 Subaru Forester pricing and features
The new Forester’s cruising ability is a strength, however, with a ride quality that walks a line between smooth and comfortable, but alert and confident. It’s paired with low cabin noise levels and a view of surroundings that is equalled by few. Even the visibility from the back seat is excellent, which will keep the whole family happy on tour.
Its CVT does a half decent job at masquerading as a conventional auto with synthesised steps and is inoffensive at low rpm. A compelling range of practical features seal the Forester’s value equation with cavernous occupant space especially in the second row, a 498-litre boot, which has widened to 1300mm and fresh new infotainment set with up to an 8.0-inch touchscreen.
Unless you parked the 2019 Forester next to an example of the previous generation, you might not believe much has changed, but that familiar face hides a significant technological evolution while maintaining a friendly warmth like the old man of the woods.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
In today’s modern and frighteningly competitive market, SUVs are becoming very good at doing more than just the job of an SUV. If you’re looking for something that will accommodate the kids, dog and shopping for the day-to-day but then sets Nurburgring lap records on the weekend, then the Forester is not the car for you.
Read next: Subaru Australia keen for hybrids
If, however, you’re keen for something that ticks all the practicality boxes but adds in a hearty dose of all-terrain extras, the Subaru is still throwing punches in the go-anywhere fraternity. On road-behaviour is benign and friendly but it’s just a shame we didn’t get a chance to reaffirm that the Forester is an authority off the beaten trail too.
PLUS: Innovative safety systems; excellent visibility; cabin comfort
MINUS: No performance hero; wheezy overtaking ability; jury’s out on all-terrain
Model: Subaru Forester 2.5i-Premium
Engine: 2498cc flat-4, dohc, 16v
Max power: 136kW @ 5800rpm
Max torque: 239Nm @ 4400rpm
0-100km/h: 8.0s (estimated)