FIRST DRIVE. 2019 Subaru Forester

September 28, 2018

Subaru’s refreshed SUV is more evolution than revolution, but still shows its prowess from track to trail.

  • Check out the original post on driving.ca HERE

 

“You’re crazy.”

This was the answer Subaru Canada’s PR and Marketing team apparently received upon enquiring whether a brace of new-for-2019 Foresters, driven by journalists no less, could make the off-road climb from the Apex Mountain Resort in Hedley, BC, to the peak of its neighbouring mountain some 7,200ft further up. One that, even two weeks ago, was still covered with six feet of snow.

Admittedly, ‘challenges’ such as this on media drives are taken with an herculean pinch of salt: what manufacturer in its right mind would set up its own product to fail, particularly one as incremental to the Japanese marque as the Forester has become. Subaru Canada for example is chasing its 7th straight year of record sales growth, an accolade that owes just as much to increased interest in compact SUVs (23% market share and counting) as it does to Forester’s hardcore fan base, which helped the fourth generation out-sell its three successful forebears combined. That our Premier-trimmed Forester test model will successfully make the ‘crazy’ climb seems a foregone conclusion.

I will admit to some concerns, however. For one thing, our route includes a dozen or so “difficult” rock formations, and despite boasting 8.7in of ground clearance and 20-plus degree approach and departure angles, the prospect of ripping the front bumper off Subaru’s $39K top trim level isn’t sitting particularly well. That, plus the fact that on the fabulously sinuous climb up Apex Mountain Road to the resort of the same name, the Forester’s newly direct-injected 2.5-litre Boxer flat-four seems completely outclassed.

 

Yes, you read that correctly. To simplify the product line-up, and with evidential customer disinterest across Canada and North America for the XT turbo and manual drivetrain, Subaru is only offering the new Forester with a 182hp, 176lb ft example of its flat-four, 90 per cent of which is all-new. Mated to that is an upgraded CVT (quiet down at the back), a unit designed to offer more usable torque across the power band to mimic a conventional automatic gearbox, and a further hike in fuel efficiency. Our genial hosts say it’s now down to 8.2l/100km.

Problem is, on these steep ascents and even with the loud pedal mashed, there just isn’t the required oomph available until we’re whistling past 4,000rpm. At this point there’s only a moderate surge of forward momentum and a high-pitched whine as the drivetrain registers its disapproval. It’s an uninspiring performance that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence for the other, considerably tougher hill climb waiting for us at the top.

 

” ‘Challenges’ such as this on media drives are taken with an herculean pinch of salt: what manufacturer in its right mind would set up its own product to fail.”

 

What makes this all the more galling is that, across an equally spectacular, though less undulating, stretch of twisting tarmac earlier in the day, the 2.5-litre CVT combo had proven perfectly capable. In our opening leg in the ‘Sport’ model – mostly cosmetic aside from ‘Sport #’ drive mode that offers barely tangible additional gusto under acceleration – the wider torque curve and solid, linear acceleration allowed us to keep the Forester on a bubble it had no right to be in. It’s sure-footed through the corners too, courtesy of the active torque vectoring automatically braking the front wheels under load to reduce understeer, plus precise and well-weighted steering, the heft of which builds progressively from lock-to-lock. There’s very little feel for the front end, granted, and enough roll to remind you that you’re hustling a near-two-ton SUV, but you’ll be surprised just how much confidence the front end provides.

 

Back at the Apex Mountain Resort and now in the top tier Premier model, our convoy, parka jackets at the ready, rolls out as the peak looms almost menacingly through our Forester’s panoramic sunroof. It’s the start of a 30-minute climb spent gingerly picking our way between jutting rocks, the occasional fallen redwood, and intermittent ‘90s on 9’ Sirius XFM coverage (James Hetfield generously insists he’ll keep us free from sin). Having bravely decided to ride pillion for the first leg, this gives me the chance to scan the rich undergrowth around us for brown bears – “If you see one, get out and pet them, it’ll be fine” – and savour the Premier’s interior.

Much like the blink-and-you’ll miss it exterior facelift, which has been applied with the gentlest of brushstrokes, most of the Forester’s cabin design will be familiar to established customers. There’s liberal use of ‘exclusive brown leather’ and chrome detailing, the latter of which can be swapped out for the funkier and slightly over-the-top orange detailing of the Sport package should you wish to pocket $4,500-worth of change over the Premier model.

 

“Our convoy, parka jackets at the ready, rolls out as the peak looms almost menacingly through our Forester’s panoramic sunroof.”

 

There’s also a dual-screen setup on the centre console linked with the multi-function steering wheel, a layout that’s simple and unobtrusive but one that already feels out of date. Only one of them is touchscreen too, and the 6.5in Multifunction Display can at times be a faff to navigate via one set of several toggles on the steering wheel: we lose an agonising 15 minutes setting up our profiles for the Eyesight driver-assist system, though admittedly, with the system now incorporating facial recognition software in an attempt to further reduce distracted driving, it’s tough to be too down on that. It’s a relief also that the Forester’s smooth ride has been accentuated by the stronger Subaru Global Platform at the base, a ride quality transitioned through the comfortable but largely lumbar-free seats.

 

If the cabin hasn’t exactly blown me away though, the drivetrain has once again started punching above its briefly consigned welterweight as we reach the mid-point of the climb. Even though we hit accent angles approaching 20-degrees during our climb – the on-board MFD even registers 21 at one point as we Hill Descent our way back down later on – the 2.5-litre Boxer is now back in its sweet spot, delivering solid banks of torque through the standard all-wheel drive system, keeping the wheels moving rather than scrambling over the soft shale.

Loose sediment soon turns into dust, mud and the occasional water jump as the snow-capped mountain range lurking almost ethereally as a shadow in the distance. And yet the Forester, still in normal driving mode despite mud and dirt ‘X-Mode’ being just the twist of a rotary dial away, continues plugging away gamely. Only a perilously close shave between some low-hanging bracken and our test model’s Jasper Green Metallic paint finish constitute ‘trouble’ as we make one final sprint up a 20-degree incline to reach the end of our ‘crazy’ climb. Even the bears seem to have buggered off.

 

Given the quite stunning 360-degree panorama awaiting our iPhone flashes at the top, I should be pleased that Subaru’s new drivetrain has turned its fortunes around so abruptly. And yet I can’t quite bring myself to give it a full thumbs up. While I doubt that most new/returning customers will spend their time perfecting their apex speeds and racing lines up the Apex Mountain Road, a daily commute up an abandoned ski slope seems even less likely. There’s plenty of poke, but question marks remain over the Boxer engine’s stamina when you really push on, and Subaru may well want to keep its turbo drivetrain in reserve for now.

I’m also a little saddened that the admittedly spacious and well-constructed cabin both looks and feels a little underwhelming, regardless of how much orange trim is thrown at the dashboard. But again, this probably won’t bother the established clientele too much.

And that’s just the point. While our Forester had a quite literal mountain to climb this afternoon, metaphorically, the new boy has anything but. Favouring an evolutionary rather than revolutionary overhaul for its golden goose is almost certain to pay dividends for Subaru, with customers requesting higher safety standards and driver assist systems, more cabin space, and a blend of comfort and practicality that works across a variety of road and off-road surfaces. Each of which has been delivered, and each of which, surely, will see the fifth generation improve upon an already impressive sales record. Anything else really would be crazy.

*Images courtesy of Subaru

 

Technical specifications

Engine: Flat-four, 2,498cc

Power: 182hp @ 5,800rpm

Torque: 176lb ft @ 4,400rpm

Transmission: ‘Lineartronic’ CVT; X-Mode (Dual Mode) four-wheel drive

Suspension: MacPherson (front); double wishbone (rear)

Brakes: Dual piston, 316 x 30mm

Wheels: 17 x 7in (front and rear)

Tyres: 225/60 R17 (front and rear)

Weight: 1,595kg (Premier); 1,602kg (Sport)

0-100kph: TBC

Top speed:TBC

Price: $27,995 (base); $39,495 (Premier)