Car reviews - Subaru - Forester - 2.5i-S
Great practicality, ace visibility, superb multimedia system, deceptively good drivetrain, supple ride comfort, mastery over unsealed roads
Room for improvement
Sunroof robs rear headroom, perch-like seats, glitchy powered tailgate, not fun to drive fast
Subaru’s return to form continues apace as new Forester nudges segment benchmark
4 Feb 2019
ONCE a quirky and segment-defining pioneer of the compact SUV genre, the Subaru Forester has recently been through a couple of comparatively uninspiring generations. Solid all-rounders but nothing special.
None of these harmed sales in any way, perhaps in part to the brand’s sterling reputation for sturdiness and safety – plus an enviable level of customer loyalty – but mostly due to the global rise in SUV popularity.
For the latest fifth-generation Forester, Subaru seemingly traced over the design of the outgoing model, then applied its latest thinking in the areas of drivetrain, chassis, safety and multimedia.
The spacious, airy cabin and comfortable ride remain present and correct, as do boxer flat-four engines, standard all-wheel drive and confidence to tackle some rugged terrain. Everything has received meaningful improvements, and criticisms of previous generations have been addressed in a big way.
Don’t let the looks deceive you; the Forester has taken a massive leap forward.
Price and equipment
The fifth-generation Forester landed in Australia with a starting price of $33,490 plus on-road costs for the 2.5i, more than $3000 higher than the previous generation that had a smaller 2.0-litre petrol engine and a manual transmission … but nobody bought that version.
We’re in the top-pec 2.5i-S, listed at $41,490 plus on-roads. It’s $1750 more expensive than its equivalent predecessor, but that’s the price of progress. The diesel and turbo-petrol have been dropped from the range, and it looks as though Subaru will fill these gaps with electrified variants at some point.
A big headline for the new Forester is a big step up in standard safety equipment and the technology behind it. Subaru’s EyeSight dual-camera active safety system delivers enables autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking and lane-keep assist.
Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert are also present and correct, along with dusk-sensing adaptive LED headlights, tyre pressure monitoring, a reversing camera and Subaru’s X Mode all-terrain drive mode selector. We’re still talking about the base model here.
The flagship 2.5i-S as tested here has the hyped Driver Monitoring System (DMS) that uses a driver-facing facial recognition camera to monitor distraction and drowsiness, as well as a gimmickier driver profile system that can store driver preferences for climate control and seat/mirror positioning then restore them by recognising their face when they enter the car.
Subaru also includes reverse automatic braking plus front- and side-view cameras at this trim level.
An 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen with satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring, DAB+ digital radio reception and Bluetooth is hooked up to a nine-speaker Harman-Kardon premium sound system.
There’s full leather upholstery, electric front seat adjustment, dual-zone climate control, an electric sunroof, electric-folding rear seats, a powered tailgate, dual USB centre console ports, LED daytime running lights, LED front fog lights, alloy pedals and a full-size spare wheel.
Marking the 2.5i-S out as a top-grade variant are 18-inch wheels, chrome window sills, roof rails and side cladding and silver-painted door mirrors that are heated, power-adjustable and auto-folding.
Compared with the top-spec variants of most rivals, which are around $3000 more expensive, there is some headroom for Subaru to add more equipment, such as heated and cooled seats or alternative drivetrain options. Especially considering models such as the Mazda CX-5 and Volkswagen Tiguan can stretch beyond the $50,000 mark.
But if you want front parking sensors, that’s a dealer-fit accessory, costing almost $600.
Subaru has really raised its interior game of late, and the Forester is no exception. Where previous efforts felt rather cheap, boring, plasticky and dated from day one, we admired our test vehicle’s cabin for its modern and relatively upmarket feel.
There is plenty of contrast-stitched squishy trim, with interesting alternative textures to the ubiquitous faux leather, judicious use of high-gloss and metallic-look finishes and just enough logically grouped, clearly labelled and chunky-feeling switchgear, all wrapped up with typical Subaru solidity.
In fact, it takes some seriously searching fingers to find hard plastics in this cabin – at least up front, as rear occupants are subjected to more. Only the rotary controls let the side down with their unconvincing action, especially compared with the beautiful tactility in this area achieved by the likes of Mazda.
Our main visual gripe was the honeycomb-patterned silver trim strip across the centre of the dash that was one texture too many and reminded us of tragically chintzy up-spec variants of the dearly departed Holden Cruze. What an unfortunate comparison. There’s something about the grain of the leather on the steering wheel that feels a bit old-school as well, although the quality and suppleness of leather on the seats is good for this segment.
The big, glossy 8.0-inch touchscreen is excellent. The logical layout, ease-of-use, depth of functionality and the way the Subaru interface integrates with Apple CarPlay are all impressive. Where some multimedia systems can conflict with CarPlay, the Forester’s various shortcut icons and buttons lead to the relevant CarPlay screen. When accessing non-CarPlay functions, a small icon in the screen’s top-right displays current track information. It’s brilliant.
Some may question the screen count in recent Subarus, with another 6.3-inch unit placed within a cowling atop the dash, but we especially appreciated the fact this extra visual real estate enables multiple camera views to be shown simultaneously. For example, while the big main unit displays the reversing camera, the upper screen can show the kerb camera. There’s now no excuse for dinged alloys.
Having all these extra screens – as well as the traditional instrument panel display – also enables multiple information sources to be displayed in at-a-glance format, rather than forcing the driver to scroll through menus.
For us, the jury is out on the facial recognition Driver Monitoring System. It’s incredibly sensitive to pulling up on driver distraction. Glance too long at a billboard and it’ll quickly admonish you for doing so with a chime and visual reminder to “keep your eyes on the road”.
This is a good thing, but we found the driver recognition hit and miss, with positive identification happening one in three times at best. However, moving the driver’s seat automatically while someone is trying to get into the back or secure a child into their harness, is not such a good idea.
Visibility is nothing short of amazing. The big, deep windows seem bigger and deeper than ever, providing a great view out and down. Subaru has also placed the door mirrors perfectly, fairly low and behind a front quarterlight to minimise the blind-spot large modern mirrors regularly cause.
All this glass area could lead to the cabin heating up rapidly in sunny weather, but the Forester’s powerful air-con gets temperatures down – and keeps them down – with amazing speed. Usually this kind of performance is reserved for something with a LandCruiser badge. Even better, the climate control system is genuinely set and forget as we never found ourselves twiddling with the controls during a journey.
Subaru seems to have emulated the Mazda CX-5 in that the Forester’s front seats are a bit perch-like, with squabs that feel as though they are angled forward and tipping occupants toward the dashboard. It can be overcome to some extent by raising the thigh support, but we found this could result in uncomfortable pressure behind the knees.
Considering the tall, airy feel of the Forester’s cabin, rear headroom in the sunroof-equipped variant tested here was surprisingly lacking. A six-foot passenger’s head will brush the ceiling if they sit upright and the rear seat bases feel short, unsupportive and perch-like.
At the same time, they have huge amounts of legroom even when sitting behind a similarly lofty driver or front passenger. And their own set of floor- and knee-level air-con vents, which is handy.
Subaru has packed a fair bit of storage into the Forester. A big smartphone tray under the centre console is conveniently located beside a pair of USB ports, 12V socket and auxiliary audio input and there is a removeable coin tray along with another 12V outlet in the large centre armrest bin and, between that and a pair of cup-holders (slightly too deep as they knock the lids of smaller takeaway coffee cups), is a narrow tray suitable for stashing sunglasses, keys or a second phone.
The door bins are big and well-designed for holding large drinks bottles, while the door pulls themselves can double as additional oddment storage and there’s a glasses case is located in the ceiling. The glovebox is huge and removing the substantial user guide would liberate even more space. A large flat area of dashboard in front of the upper screens could also accommodate a notepad or some such.
In the back are some unusual two-tiered map pockets with little stitched dividers for securing smartphones and other small objects. It’s a thoughtful touch. Another pair of cup-holders are revealed by lowering the central armrest and the door bins are at least as generous in size as those in the front, while the door pulls again are big enough to store stuff.
The boot has four tie-down points, a 12V power outlet and powered remote releases for both sides of the split-folding rear bench and a decent-sized underfloor storage compartment above the full-size spare wheel.
At 498 litres under the cargo blind with the rear seats up, this is a competitively big, sensibly shaped and flat-floored cargo space. Folding the rear seats expands it to a serious 1768L of room that eclipses even the cavernous VW Tiguan.
However, the powered tailgate automatically started closing onto people loading the cargo area more than once. It could have been a glitch on our car, but it’s not exactly safe for that to happen and it was quite alarming as we had a small child with us on one of the two occasions.
On the move, engine noise is impressively absent and road roar well-suppressed, even on the coarsest of coarse-chip country lanes. Perhaps because of this, we noticed a lot of wind noise during our week with the Forester. No matter, the nine-speaker Harmon-Kardon premium audio system – with bass bin in the boot – more than made up for any unpleasant external sounds.
We wish Subaru’s EyeSight system wouldn’t beep every time it detected a car in front, though we appreciate the usefulness of subtle chimes that remind you the car in front has moved away when in traffic or that the subtle and effective lane-keep assist has turned off due to inadequate line markings.
Despite being able to accurately adjust vehicle speed to match that of traffic in front, the Forester’s adaptive cruise is not great at preventing the car from running away down hills and the shortest follow distance setting does place the car a bit antisocially close to the one in front. But overall, EyeSight remains a deeply impressive technology suite.
Engine and transmission
A groan from the motoring world reverberated around the globe when Subaru announced it would continue powering the Forester with a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine, backed by a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). This was followed by a gasp when it was confirmed that no turbo-petrol or diesel options would be available.
Developing 136kW of power at 5800rpm and 239Nm of torque at 4400rpm, this engine is no great shakes on paper. Despite shifting to direct fuel injection and sharing only 10 per cent of its predecessor’s components, it produces just 10kW and 4Nm more than before. Official combined-cycle fuel consumption is down almost 10 per cent, though, at 7.4 litres per 100km.
It has more work to do, too, needing to shift between 15 and 25kg more mass in this longer, wider new Forester.
Fear not, for it feels much more than adequate from behind the wheel and pleasingly responsive to throttle inputs. These are great qualities for urban and suburban driving because the Forester can confidently zip out of busy junctions and carve into traffic gaps with a gentle prod of the accelerator.
Asked to accelerate to higher speeds, a slight flat spot between 2500 and 4000 rpm typical of Subaru boxer engines is present and correct, but from around 4500rpm the Forester gathers pace well.
Unlike some rivals, this is not to detriment of cabin noise or refinement because this engine likes to rev, feeling free-spinning and smooth when asked to do so – and quiet with it. All the while, Subaru’s latest CVT really makes an excellent argument for this oft-maligned type of transmission.
Similarly, revving the engine out using the simulated stepped manual ratios is more of a pleasure in the Forester than most competitors, and the Subaru CVT’s ability to mimic real cog swaps is getting better all the time. That said, we can think of only a few scenarios – such as to elicit engine braking on steep descents or off-roading – where you’d really want to do so as even during our dynamic twisty road test, the CVT did a great job when left to its own devices.
Our Forester averaged 9.0L/100km during our week with it, consisting of local suburban runs, a motorway trip, dynamic country road driving and a spot of off-roading. That’s a long way off the official combined figure, but close to the urban test result of 9.3L/100km. But a long motorway trip returned a jaw-dropping 5.6L/100km with the aircon working hard to quell the heat of late spring in Southeast Queensland. When you consider the official extra urban figure is 6.3L/100km, this is an impressive result that puts the Subaru into diesel-like efficiency territory on a run.
Ride and handling
Subaru has clearly biased the Forester toward comfort, providing a lovely mobile loungeroom feel on the majority of journeys (if only the seats were commensurately comfy). The steering is wonderfully smooth and precise, too, making most trips an easy-flowing pleasure and urban manoeuvring a cinch.
Brakes have long been a Forester bugbear of ours, and Subaru has clearly made improvements in this area. That said, they’re still not the SUV segment’s most confidence-inspiring stoppers.
Tackle a fast and twisty road and it comes undone a little, bobbing over crests, leaning more through corners than we’d like and lacking any real sense of connection when pushed. Grip levels are pretty good, and though its limits are not high, the Forester at least feels stable, predictable and safe. Its composure on bumpy corner surfaces is particularly impressive, a quality that shines on unsealed roads.
On that note, we’re pleased to report that the Forester still drives beautifully on gravel and even tackles some trickier terrain easily enough as to feel like cheating. When provoked, the stability systems were nothing short of sensational in the way they responded and restored control on loose surfaces. The braking performance on gravel made more sense than bitumen as well.
You really could spend all day driving on unsealed roads in this car, where it remains quiet, controlled, surefooted and at peace with its surroundings. Subaru’s X-Mode off-road system is designed for low-speed work on surfaces where grip and traction levels are limited. We came away impressed, particularly the amazing smoothness of the hill descent control function.
If genuine everyday ride comfort and unshakeable rough-road confidence was Subaru’s brief, then it has delivered, as the Forester is not a car that rewards or encourages swift back-road progress.
We can recommend the Outback if you enjoy twisty road driving but still want a practical, spacious Subaru with gravel-road smarts.
Safety and servicing
ANCAP is yet to publish a crash-test rating for the fifth-generation Forester, though the previous three iterations all scored a full five stars at the time they were tested.
From January 1, 2019, all Subaru models come with five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, which has been reflected by an extension of the brand’s capped-price servicing program from three to five years.
Maintenance intervals are every 12 months or 12,500km. Subaru sells a pre-paid servicing plan costing $1277.23 for the first three years (about $426 per year) or $2388.34 for five years (about $477 per year as it includes a major service at 48 months or 50,000km). Prices are correct at time of writing.
The fifth-gen Forester might be a little too recognisable on the outside, but it’s a clean-sheet redesign from within and it’s the same story for its oily bits. And, during the course of our week with it, we started to notice that the new version’s proportions are more attractive than its otherwise superficially identical predecessor.
As a result, it’s a damn fine car and now vies with the segment’s very best, whereas the fourth-gen model struggled to qualify for our top five mid-size SUVs even when it was new.
The Forester remains a solid all-rounder – if you don’t include enjoyment of thrashing along curvy country roads in your selection criteria – and its absolute mastery of unsealed roads is a genuine unique selling point.
Add to this fantastic safety and connectivity systems, a drivetrain that is responsive, smooth and refined plus a roomy cabin with lots of storage and there’s a lot to like here.
Honda CR-V VTi-LX (from $44,290 plus on-road costs)
From a fit-for-purpose perspective the CR-V gives the Forester a real run for its money, but the Honda is more expensive and loses points for not making all the safety tech available on less expensive variants.
Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 petrol AWD (from $44,470 plus on-road costs)
Australia’s most popular SUV, full stop. And justifiably so. It looks the part, drives well and is competitively priced. Not as practical as the Forester, but at least it now comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
VW Tiguan 132TSI Comfortline AWD automatic (from $41,990 plus on-road costs
Fantastic to drive, with a classy, spacious and cleverly practical interior. But the Tiguan can get expensive quickly in terms of options if you want to match the Subaru’s comprehensive kit list.
Holden Equinox LTZ AWD (from $44,290 plus on-road costs)
It may pack a class-leading engine and transmission combination, plus massive boot capacity an innovative seat-vibrating obstacle alert, but the Equinox is otherwise nothing special. Pricing is ambitious, too, but you’ll never pay sticker on this slow seller.
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Model release date: 1 September 2018
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