THE new edition Subaru Forester is all about the engine. But then again Subaru always has been.
The Boxer engine with pistons that jab back and forth on a flat plane was revolutionary when it was introduced in 1966, making it stand out in an industry where in-line four-cylinder engines were the order of the day.
The Japanese manufacturer remained true to the technology, pairing the flat engine with its all-wheel drive systems and found increased success. The push-rod design evolved into a single overhead cam shaft unit and has served Subaru extremely well since the mid 1980s.
Now, after more than two decades, as Subaru strives for increased efficiency and performance, the engine has had a major overhaul with the Forester swapping the single-overhead cam shaft for naturally aspirated twin-cam cylinder heads.
While it is slightly more powerful, fuel consumption and responsiveness have improved to make the drive much more pleasurable.
The boxy shape of the Forester along with its deceptive height makes it much roomier on the inside than you would think. It can carry four adults in absolute comfort, five if it must, with ample leg room and storage.
The low cargo floor allows for easy loading and unloading with 949 litres available when the rear seats are in position and 1934 litres when they are folded courtesy of a one-touch electric button.
The console is well laid out and the instrumentation more than functional but despite Subaru's improvements, the plastic is still hard to the touch and the faux wood grain panels a bit iffy.
The front seats could do with a bit of side bolstering and just the single cup holder in the centre console is a bit impractical.
On the road
Performance has always been the Forester's drawcard and it is no surprise the XT Premium excels on the road.
Steering is light but responsive and the lower seating position helps the feeling of stability especially along twisty roads and in those tight corners. The gearbox is easy to negotiate with a clutch that has excellent balance allowing the change to take exactly when your foot is telling you it should.
Improved torque makes easy work of grumpy hills and with its high ground clearance and new dual range transfer case, light off-roading duties are also a cinch.
The all-wheel drive system gives good traction even in the wet but you do get the feeling that one more gear wouldn't go amiss.
What do you get?
Subaru's reputation for safety is beyond compare and the Forester comes equipped with six airbags, three-point seatbelts on all seats, ABS, EBD and stability and traction control as well.
Interior features include automatic sunroof, auto wipers and headlights, dual zone climate control, front and side demisters, steering wheel controls and an audio system with integrated Bluetooth hands-free functions, USB and iPod connectivity and satellite radio compatibility.
The Forester has just a 0.1% sales advantage over its nearest rival, the Toyota RAV4 ($36,990) with the Nissan X-Trail ($32,490), Suzuki Grand Vitara ($31,990), Honda CRV ($38,790), Kia Sportage ($35,490) and Volkswagen Tiguan ($36,490) nipping at their heels.
With its roomy interior, cargo capacity, excellent safety record and fair off-road capability, the Subaru Forester holds appeal across the generations. Despite tweaks, the engine is loud and the boxy shape also increases wind noise.
Changes to the engine have increased fuel efficiency to 10.5 litres per 100kmh – not amazing, but not the worst in its class either. Service costs are average with the chain-driven double overhead cams promising fewer maintenance needs than the belt-driven single overhead cam design it replaces and the Forester is backed by Subaru's three year/unlimited kilometre warranty.
Except for a few light touches on the grille and cheekbones, the Forester's shape remains pretty much unchanged. It is not terribly flashy but seems to have enough street cred to make it appealing. The kids loved the glass sunroof which even when closed allowed them to feel like they were driving in the clouds.
Australians have always had a love-affair with the Forester, turned on by a quality build, understated rugged looks and exceptional performance. It has been the best-selling compact SUV for the past three years with more than 15,000 sales since 1997 and 2011 is looking pretty rosy, too.
Model: Subaru Forester XT Premium.
Details: Five-door all-wheel drive compact SUV.
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, horizontally opposed four-cylinder generating maximum power of 169kW @ 5200rpm and peak torque of 320Nm @ 2800rpm.
Consumption: 10.5 litres/100km (combined average).
Performance: 0-100km in 7.1 seconds.
Bottom line: From $39,990.
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