Most unibody SUVs these days are better described as raised hatchbacks or glorified crossovers. Point them in the direction of gravel paths or muddy strips and watch as beads of sweat build up on their grilles.
Almost all lack any real off-road credentials and frankly, 99 per cent of buyers won’t be losing any sleep over it. SUVs are sending traditional sedans the way of the dodo bird because their practical and ride above everyone else in traffic.
Subaru is a brand that has built its reputation on its symmetrical all-wheel drive system (SAWD). The drivetrain is as synonymous with the marque as boxer engines and turbocharged rallying monsters.
It’s undeniably one of the more adept; or least marketed as such, all-wheel drive systems. So how capable would a Subaru SUV with SAWD be off the beaten path and would it lose any of its SUV qualities? That’s the question posed towards the all-new Forester.
First things first, it’s an all-new model built on Subaru’s new global platform that delivers increased chassis rigidity and higher crash safety. Even the engine is a new unit. The 2.0-litre EJ20 from the discontinued model has been replaced by a new FB20 mill with identical displacement and the addition of direct injection. Power output is 156hp and 196Nm of torque that is channeled to all four wheels via a CVT.
The FB20 engine brings lower emissions and improved fuel economy to the table and although it loses a couple of Nm of torque over the EJ20, the overall torque band is spread wider for a more usable band.
We sampled the flagship Forester EyeSight. That’s Subaru speak for its active safety system that runs on a stereoscopic camera setup that functions as the eyes for all active safety features comprising autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warnings and adaptive cruise control. No radar whatsoever is utilised.
The day started with a quick hop over to Most Fun Gym (MFG) in Damansara to showcase the revamped X-Mode off-road system on the Forester. Part of the updates include a new Dirt/Snow mode together with a Mud and Deep Snow setting. As always, the setting tweaks the powertrain and SAWD maps to provide maximum traction on all surfaces.
A little disclaimer about the venue before the impressions come in; MFG is first and foremost a motocross training ground. Therefore, the paths are tight, narrow and turns sharp to cater for bikes.
Riding on road tyres, the Forester hardly broke a sweat climbing some challengingly-angled inclines, even entering tripod mode and still ascending the slopes with relative ease. Hill descent control ensured the Forester descended as easily as it headed up.
A tight switchback preluded the path to descend back to ground level and being shorter as well as possessing a passenger car-like turning radius meant no three-point turns for the Forester to make it through. This would have been a real obstacle for something longer like a pick-up truck. Best of both worlds in this scenario.
Now that the Forester affirmed its off-road credentials, the acid test of actually still delivering as an urban SUV was up. That comprised a large chunk of highway driving towards the east coast.
EyeSight proved its worth on the drive with the adaptive cruise control maintaining a safe distance from the car in front. Subaru states its cruise control operates from 0-180kph, allowing it to stay active even in stop-go traffic. If the car in front stops, the Forester comes to a halt as well and when the car ahead moves, a mild tap on the accelerator will get the Forester moving whilst maintain a safe distance. Adaptive cruise control in stop-go traffic is the most useful function as some systems are disabled once the car comes to a complete stop.
It has to be reaffirmed that Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT is among the better ones on the market. In the new Forester, there’s an extra virtual ratio for seven gears to exploit the wider torque band. Flipping between the regular or sport driving modes also results in some urgency injected into the latter. Paddle shifters are present if you find the need for them.
The ride is unremarkable but in something that’ll spend most of its time in an urban environment, that’s actually a boon. Jarring intrusions from undulations on the road are sufficiently suppressed and high speeds on the highway don’t result in that split second of floating if the surface dips a little. Damping is as close to the middle ground of comfort and firm enough to make the most of the SAWD.
Inside, the cabin isn’t winning any obscure title like “most cubby holes” or “most USB ports” but instead it perfectly balances every necessary aspect asked of an SUV to deliver them all in generous quantities. There’s also a side-view camera to navigate those tight spots.
The Forester doesn’t ace one particular factor but is a welcome jack of all trades. Cabin room is ample, you’ll never find yourself lamenting the lack of storage bins and cubby holes nor will you claim that cargo space is teeny.
In a segment dominated by the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5, the Forester can comfortably lay claim to being the best-of-the-rest but with that extra ace up its sleeve in the form of some actual off-road credentials. The integration of active safety just widens the gap over the rest of the chasing pack.