Tested: Subaru’s Forester XT
What constitutes a sensible SUV? Vexing question, isn’t it?
In the year of 2013 most SUVs are hardly off- or even dirt-road capable. An uncomfortable truth, yes, but behind all the product promotion double-speak, it’s true: contemporary SUVs are mostly FWD, for one, and roll rather oversized wheels shod with low-profile tyres.
If you’re travelling along one of South Africa’s endless gravel roads, and an apocalyptic thunderstorm starts striking out ahead, well, these contemporary SUVs, FWD-only and far too many 19-inch wheeled, are a tad compromised when gravel turns to quagmire.
There is of course a terrific sense of marketing irony to all this. The SUV, in the late 1990s, was promoted as a less hardcore (more day-to-day driveable) 4×4 alternative, with all the aspirational appeal of the oft mentioned – yet vaguely defined – adventure lifestyle. Nowadays, SUVs are little more than FWD, high-riding station wagons. This notwithstanding, they remain boundlessly popular though.
As with most things (bar our opinion of boy bands), there are exceptions to the softening of the SUV. Most notable of these comes from Subaru in the form of its new fourth-generation Forester. Here is a nameplate which has endeared itself to South African customers since the late 1990s as an oddly styled, largely indestructible SUV; an SUV that commands fierce customer loyalty.
NOT PRETTY, BUT PRETTY TOUGH
Subaru is not a company which has ever sold cars by virtue of their design merits.
All Subarus have always looked a touch odd, like Toyotas with a touch more mongrel to them. Subaru’s unique selling point, though, is absolute customer/environmental proof engineering. No matter where you take your Forester it will manage to get you back to where you started from – and that’s quite an important, a point often missed by most SUV owners until it’s too late and there are no signal-bars on display in the left-hand corner of their smartphone.
Whereas other SUVs that boast AWD ability are mostly FWD configurations with an afterthought clutch-pack to shore-up traction, Foresters are properly AWD – stacking three differentials neatly in-line: front, middle and rear.
Admittedly, the Forester has never been styled with any consideration to design trends, but that’s a good thing; it’s enables engineers to reduce overhangs front and rear, making the most of the 220mm ground clearance, which despite Forester’s rather dowdy station wagon appearance, is more rock-gap clearance than a Toyota Fortuner…
So, it looks utilitarian, is quite capable when you unpack the specification sheet, but really: is Forester XT 2013 a sensible SUV?
BIT OF A DRAG
There is, of course, the issue of its drivetrain. Yes, permanent, proper, tri-differential all-wheel drive is good, but those differentials add weight, and driveline drag – which brings us rather pointedly to the Subaru Forester’s one lasting faultline: fuel consumption, something it’s rather too good at for its own good.
Foresters, even the naturally-aspirated ones, have always been bizarrely heavy on fuel considering their sedate performance. The new one, unfortunately, remains true to its heritage…
Subaru’s venerable 1998cc, turbocharged, flat-four powers the XT flagship we had on test. This engine is as indestructible as adamantium (much as the rest of the Forester), yet it also happens to be tragically keen on 95 unleaded. Subaru claim 8.5/100km, but even with the utmost restraint, we only managed 10.8/100km, at best.
peak outputs of 177kW and 350Nm ensure Forester XT’s swift enough, but the CVT transmission, despite all its packaging advantages (simpler and lighter), is just not as dynamically engaging as a dual-clutch gearing interface. On tar it leans a fair bit in corners, primarily due to those Bridgestone Dueler tyres, which offset their compromised high-speed tarmac cornering poise by enabling Forester XT’s to cruise with Swiss-levels of neutral stability on gravel tracks. That’s something I’ve always liked about Foresters: they get better as the road surface deteriorates, unlike most rival SUVs, which starts tramlining alarmingly on their low-profile 19-inch tyres as tarmac degenerates to gravel…
Inside XT’s fairly well equipped, but the interface and touch surfaces are all of the hard plastic variety; it’s not a joyous environment, but the build quality is of post-apocalyptic standard. Utility load space is hardly class leading at 488-litres, but that is the compromise resulting from a full-sized spare wheel (a necessity in South Africa) and a rear differential having to be housed in the rear third of the car.
OTHERS DO IT BETTER
As an answer to the opening question, then, is the Subaru Forester a sensible SUV?
Well, it has elements of all that we admire about Forester: the robust all-wheel drivetrain, styling dictated by approach/departure angle considerations (not design trends), sensible wheel/tyre combinations and mechanicals built for a millennial product lifecycle. These are all great things, but considering this is the fourth incarnation of Forester, one would expect evolution, and evolution, as Darwin proved to us, is adapting.
Forester, I am afraid, had not adapted. Its fuel-consumption figures have always been terrible, and this new one offers no diesel alternative in the range, which is a criminal oversight by Subaru’s product planners. There is something admirably honest about the robustness of Forester, unfortunately you need to plan a rather truncated adventure lifestyle experience is you own one, largely dictated by refuelling points, instead of Forester’s ability. And that does not make for a very sensible SUV ownership experience, now does it?
If Subaru was to market Forester as a turbodiesel, with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission; well, some SUV that would most definitely be. The problem for Forester XT is that Volvo already builds a rather sensible and stylish SUV, called the XC60 – and it’s cheaper.
Subaru Forester XT
177kW @ 5600rpm
350Nm @ 2400rpm
0-100kph in 7.6 secs, 210kph topspeed
8.5l/100km claimed (we got nothing under 10.8l/100km)