We’re already familiar with the Forester, Subaru’s take on the junior SUV market. It grew in stature and capacity as it morphed from last-gen to current model, but it lacked one crucial element: diesel power. Now it’s here, in the form of Subaru’s brilliant – and unique – 2.0-litre flat four. Does this new body/engine combo mean the Forester can now take on the established RAV4/CR-V herd – or even the Ford Kuga latecomer?
Seems an obvious engine for the Subaru Forester. Why’d it take so long?
Subaru could easily have bought in a VW turbodiesel, as Mitsubishi did for the Outlander – especially as a diesel variant is only relevant for the European market. But that didn’t satisfy the engineering minds at Subaru. The result is this 145bhp turbodiesel boxer, launched last February in the Legacy.
It isn’t based on Subaru’s petrol engine block, and is much more compact though 45kg heavier – which Subaru turns to its advantage by citing that it lowers the Forester’s centre of gravity, to the benefit of handling. The horizontally opposed cylinders reduce friction and vibration, compared with an in-line engine. It also features common-rail injection and a variable-vane turbocharger.
Is it any good?
There was a clue in the intro. This engine is exceptionally refined, barely audible at tickover, and it revs with a smooth and satisfying thrum. Unlike some turbodiesels, its power delivery is very even – there’s no all-or-nothing low-rev punch that tails out all too quickly. This engine metes out its power across a broader band, landing softly at the 5000rpm red line (where it’s still smooth and couth). It’s at its best in the mid-range, where it’s easily capable of hustling the weighty Scoob, and actually rewards judicious use of the new six-speed manual gearbox.
There’s little drama on tap, but the fact that it results in best-in-class emissions and fuel economy makes it extremely impressive.
Click 'Next' below to read more of our Subaru Forester diesel first drive
So is this a great road car, then?
Well, perhaps great is too strong a word. The Forester diesel certainly doesn’t lack in flexibility, though its even delivery might mean you’ll find it short on outright thrills. The gearshift is a bit sticky too, though feels as if it might loosen up with some mileage.
No, the problem – and this might come as a surprise – concerns the handling. Set off at moderate pace and you’ll enjoy a cushioned ride but as soon as you turn up the wick it reveals itself to be irritatingly underdamped. That makes for turbulent times on bumpy country lanes – a place where Subaru’s target horsey set will spend much time.
That turbulence extends to a wayward feel when you corner with enthusiasm. The Forester’s big body – pretty much Legacy-big, these days – just doesn’t feel tied down, and the steering (electrically assisted now) seriously lacks feels and initial bite.
Yes, you can get the Forester to turn-in with a little enthusiasm, and it’s nice to feel the four-wheel drive working its magic as you accelerate out of bends, but Subaru really needs to attend to the steering and damping if it’s to maintain its position as a maker of cars that satisfy enthusiastic drivers. It’s easily outpointed in this department by the Kuga, Tiguan, 4007… I could go on.
Of course, you’d expect the Forester to carry on when the going gets rough. Farm tracks and rutted slipways posed no problem during our test, but we didn’t spot any muddy gymkhana fields on the route.
Any good inside?
It’s certainly spacious. A quick comparison with the last-gen Forester revealed a much more mature and capacious interior, more in line with the RAV4’s. This is no longer just a jacked-up hatchback.
As if to ram that point home, Subaru might have tailored a unique dashboard, but instead we get the scratchy plastic effort from the Impreza. In fact, hard plastics dominate throughout, though the equipment level is decent, with heated seats and climate control featuring on even the cheapest (£20,295) 2.0D X model.
There isn’t much in the way of surprise and delight. The rear seats recline, and there’s a big glass sunroof on the £22,495 D XC and excellent sat-nav for the top £25,495 D XSn. But it’s all a bit generic and characterless, as is the styling outside too. You don’t even get frameless windows any more. Subaru, where’s your mojo gone? One look at the Ford Kuga (slick styling, chunky interior) or the Peugeot 4007 (seven seats, gin-terrace tailgate) shows you that variety and character are what buyers look for in this sector, and Subaru’s not providing.
I’ve always been a bit of a Subaru fan – and I’m not simply talking about nut-job Impreza Turbos. The brand’s quiet individuality is subtly appealing and a Boxer diesel fits right in with Subaru’s identity. The problem here is that’s there’s not much about the rest of the Forester that’s especially Subaru. Take away the engine and it’s any old SUV. Yes, I’m sure its four-wheel drivetrain is well-proven but it fails to disguise a lack of thorough development in the handling. Stick with struts, Subaru – that new multilink rear end does you no favours here.
The original Forester was exactly that: original. Small by today’s standards though. Subaru is hoping some of the early car’s buyers, put off by the lack of diesel come replacement, might now come back. Problem is, there’s much more choice now, and the Forester fails to stand out.
If, like me, you think Subarus are all about character and decent dynamics as well as practicality and thoughtful engineering, you’d better look elsewhere. Despite its excellent – and appropriate – engine, the Forester diesel disappoints.
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