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First Oz drive: Subaru evolves Forester

On the road: Based on the Impreza small car's underpinnings, the new Forester continues to feel more car-like than most of its rivals.

Looks familiar, feels familiar - the new Forester is true to Subaru's conservative tradition

28 Jun 2002

LOOKS can be deceptive - but not in the case of the second generation Subaru Forester, which has just gone on sale in Australia.

It looks similar to the wildly successful wagon it replaces and that's because it is a lot like the original, which debuted here in 1997 and has continued to sell in good numbers right up until the end of its life.

Considering that success, you can hardly blame Subaru for taking a conservative line on change for the Forester. Add in the company's evolutionary product development philosophy and the new vehicle was never going to break radical ground.

Underneath the revised five-door skin, the mechanical story is fundamentally familiar with plenty of improvements and refinements claimed throughout, rather than wholesale change.

Forester is based on the Impreza small car platform and suspension, which itself was substantially updated in 2000, while attached to that is a "boxer" four-cylinder engine driving a permanent four-wheel drive system via the choice of a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox.

It is in the engine bay that the new Forester's most important change has taken place, Subaru trading in the old 92kW/184Nm 2.0-litre four for the larger 2.5-litre already seen in the other members of the Subaru product family - the aforementioned Impreza, the Liberty medium car and the Outback cross-over wagon.

In Forester guise the single overhead camshaft unit produces 112kW at 5600rpm, which keeps it in the ballpark against the new Honda CR-V and Toyota's RAV4, the two class leaders in sales terms, while there is also a healthy 223Nm of torque produced at 3600rpm, again enough to be competitive with its rivals.

Combine that with a commendably low kerb weight rated about the same as the old base model at 1365kg for the manual and 1385kg for the auto, and the potential for improved performance is definitely there. Further up the model scale, Subaru is claiming kerb weight decreases as significant as 25kg.

That's thanks to the judicious use of aluminium in such areas as the bonnet, roof rails and front bumper beam. Yet Subaru is adamant crash performance has not been affected, claiming the car continues to be a four-star crash test performer.

Measure-for-measure the most significant changes to the new Forester are the 20mm wider front and rear track for added stability. Otherwise, it is all very close. The new car is slightly shorter, slightly higher, but has the same width wheelbase and 200mm ground clearance.

Changes to the exterior presentation include swapping from vertical to horizontal slats in the grille, the curiously shaped integrated headlights, a new hexagonal tailgate design and a slightly more curved look to the body panels. But overall it is exceedingly familiar.

Inside, shoulder width is up by 20mm, hip width by 10mm and headspace increases 4mm. Steering wheel height adjustment now extends to 40mm and the front seat slide range is increased by 58mm and extended to the rear by 13.5mm.

Significantly, considering the old car was somewhat cramped, rear passenger space is improved by 25mm and the rear passenger hip point moved back 15mm.

Interior changes include upgraded instrumentation and the Super Seat Lifter for the driver's seat borrowed from the Impreza, while both front seats fold flat.

Subaru Australia has renamed the range with the introduction of the new model. The base model is now the X, the Limited is replaced by the XS and a range-topping XS luxury pack is part of the launch line-up. What's missing is the turbocharged GT, which will be dubbed XT when it arrives in late 2003.

All models are boosted by a limited slip rear differential to aid off-road performance (although the manual version is still the only Forester that gets low range gearing), and electronic brakeforce distribution is added to the ABS, which is now standard across the range.

The X offers air-conditioning, AM/FM CD player, cruise control, dual front airbags and remote central locking, which are all features seen on the old base model.

The XS adds climate control air-conditioning, front foglights, six-stack CD player and 16-inch alloy wheels, all of which are added features over the old Limited. Self-levelling rear suspension is a feature which carries over.

Like the GT, the luxury pack adds dual front side airbags, monotone paint and leather interior. The sunroof, previously an option, is now standard.

Subaru Forester X $30,990
Subaru Forester X auto $32,990
Subaru Forester XS $34,490
Subaru Forester XS auto $36,490
Subaru Forester XS luxury pack $37,990
Subaru Forester XS luxury pack auto $39,990


PERHAPS it was the tight engine with just a little over 1700km on the odometer, or the automatic gearbox we sampled or a combination of both, but all those extra kilowatts and Newton-metres were just not evident in the Forester X driven on the launch program around Canberra.

There was no real shove from the engine and too much time spent with the throttle flat to the floor trying to build up the revs and velocity to conquer hills and make decisive passing moves.

Flicking the button to "power" mode prompted the gearbox to kick down a gear under acceleration, but the improvement was still only marginal. On some steep, dirty, rutted corners the car's progress was almost glacial - not something we expected at all.

We have learned, however, not to make concrete calls based on brief introduction drives. Watch out for our comprehensive "Super Test" on this website soon for our verdict based on extended driving over our regular route.

Much of the rest of the story is more positive. For all the revs having to be inflicted on it, the boxer seems smoother and quieter than any other iteration we have tested. In fact, it was tyre noise that was by far the most noticeable intrusion.

The Forester's on-road behaviour remains one of the most car-like of the compacts 4WDs. The steering is perhaps a tad light and loose for highway steering, but it is fine for around-town twirling.

The same level of remoteness applies to the ride and handling, a little more pillowy and roly-poly than the Impreza but to be expected considering the taller body and longer travel suspension.

The automatic Forester employs a computer controlled all-wheel drive system called active torque split, which is carried over from the previous generation. It usually favours the front wheels but some gravel road driving established that the system quickly transfers traction to the rear end when conditions get slippery, giving the car a pretty fail-safe feeling.

The interior is the place where you are more likely to realise this is definitively a new Forester. Quality of components and presentation is definitely up, with the new metal-look centre console and deep-set instrument cluster adding some class. Seats remain as comfortable and body-hugging as ever and the steering wheel is just the right size.

Being a Forester there's no shortage of storage bins and the like - up to 30 now, including an improved version of Subaru's flip-out cupholder in the centre console.

Despite the size increase inside, it is still squeezy in the back. Fitting one six-footer behind the other means one of them is going to feel the pinch in terms of legroom, although head and elbow room are certainly improved. But this is not a car for four adults to take a long trip in.

Not that Subaru has that in mind for most of the 650 Foresters it conservatively estimates it will sell per month.

It is in the suburbs that this versatile little wagon and its ilk are a big hit, and it's not hard to see generation II continuing the theme.

It may be a bit difficult to pick apart in the driving and the styling from its predecessor, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

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