► New auto ’box for diesel Foresters
► CVT with seven stepped ‘gears’
► Interior now slightly less dreary
Back in the ’90s Subaru was ahead of the curve. These days quasi off-roaders with high-set seats are all the rage but the original part-estate car, part-SUV Forester was a crossover before the term was invented. Prescient, eh?
In the intervening years the once-quirky Forester’s been gradually raised up and watered down into a more generic soft-roader (albeit one that’s more Countryfile than lifestyle), yet it’s still a niche player in the ever-broadening SUV market. Can a few tweaks for 2015 widen its appeal?
What’s new for 2015?
When CAR first drove the current-gen Forester at launch in 2013 there was no auto gearbox option if you wanted a diesel engine. Now that’s been put right, with Subaru hooking the derv motor up to the ‘Lineartronic’ CVT previously only available for petrol Foresters.
The diesel motor itself (a four-cylinder boxer, naturally) has also had a light going over, for a modest improvement in CO2 emissions. Along with an altered injection system there are new glow plugs to make it speedier to warm up from cold, while conversely a new radiator and oil cooler chill it more efficiently when working hard.
As before, there’s one diesel and two petrol engines (all of them flat-fours) and all Foresters are still four-wheel-drive. No front-drive fakery here.
Which Subaru Forester’s being tested here?
That new diesel Lineartronic auto, in top XC Premium trim. The plushest grade available for diesel Foresters, it provides heated leather seats to sit on and as many toys to play with as you’ll ever need.
At the time of writing, you’ll pay around £1500 more for the Lineartronic transmission than the standard manual (and get through a little bit more fuel, at 46.3mpg versus the manual’s 49.6mpg).
Is the interior still a bit plasticky?
’Fraid so. The steering wheel shroud, for instance, looks like it’s made of reconstituted Duplo, although it also feels like it’ll outlast time itself. Things have improved a little, though. Big news for 2015 is a shiny new factory-fit touchscreen, standard across most of the range and replacing the old dealer-fit Pioneer unit.
It blends in with a new gloss-black plastic finish for the centre console (which helps the dash look a good 10 years younger than before) but there’s a bit of a mismatch between the new screen and the Forester’s other two smaller digital displays. With one on top of the dash and the other in the centre of the instrument panel competing for your attention, it’s difficult to know where to look sometimes.
The interior’s ergonomic weirdness is summed up by the biggest button on the dash: a 'Memory Height’ switch for choosing how high to raise the electrically operated tailgate. Odd.
What’s it like to drive?
Not bad, actually. It’s hardly a driving experience to treasure, but the Forester handles tidily and can maintain your interest better than most of its rivals. Softly sprung, it scores extra points for riding sweetly (aided and abetted by its tall-sidewalled 225/60 R17 Yokohamas) yet managing to avoid wallowy body roll.
The boxer diesel manages to be mildly charismatic – it’s quite revvy for a derv – and the CVT auto actually does a very good impression of a conventional gearbox, with seven stepped ‘speeds’ mimicking natural feeling shifts and avoiding the ‘variable-noise, constant-speed’ feel you’d often suffer in a belt-driven 'box. There’s even a pair of paddles behind the wheel to swap between the ratio steps yourself, and very well they work too. The transmission incorporates a hill-descent mode for off-road work, something the Forester will gamely turn its hand to. It’s not a Land Rover – get overconfident and you will get stuck, eventually – but it’ll get you far further than a RAV4 or a Sportage, for instance.
With that boxy body, the Forester's got to be pretty practical?
There’s loads of room in the back even behind the tallest of drivers, and our test car’s big, powered sunroof made it feel all the more spacious. The boot’s as flat as it is big, with stowage space for the parcel shelf beneath next to the spare wheel, the seatbelts are kept in guide channels so they don’t get caught when you’re flipping the seats up and down, and the doors have a seal along their bottom edge to help avoid getting mud on your trousers. It’s all been thought through.
We like the Subaru Forester. It’s an SUV with an alternative vibe, that’s as practical as it is pretension-free.
It’s let down by typical Subaru shortcomings: a robust but cheap interior, and the impression they spent most of the budget on engineering and arranged the cabin plastics at the last minute. But in some ways that’s part of its charm.