Subaru’s heritage in Britain is indelibly linked to McRae, Burns and Mica Blue 555-sponsored Imprezas charging through the dank and muddy forests of Wales. But a lack of demand linked to high ownership costs and the unfavourable rate of the Yen means the iconic WRX STi rally replica is no longer sold in the UK. And nor is any other Impreza for that matter.
So with UK sales down 23% in 2012, Subaru is focusing on the ever-growing SUV market – and tasked with leading the transformation is the fourth-gen Forester. It must appeal to both Subaru’s traditional rural audience, and target the swarm of chic that gathers outside suburban schools each weekday.
Will cosmetic-caked mothers be impressed?
Probably not. The Subaru name doesn’t carry nearly enough cachet, and the styling doesn’t have the flair that’s made Sportage customers overlook the Kia badge. That, plus the fact the Forester’s rather plain cabin is a conglomerate of black plastics of varying degrees of quality, and the sole diesel engine isn’t offered with an auto ’box.
How does the Forester's engine range shape up?
It means 50% of sales will be one of the two petrol engines, either a naturally aspirated 148bhp 2.0-litre flat-four, or a 237bhp turbo version of the engine from the BRZ sports car. But before you get too excited, the Forester Turbo (boringly badged Forester XT) is available only with ‘Lineartronic’ CVT transmission. And if you don’t want the six-speed manual that’s standard with the base petrol, then it’s CVT for you too.
If you can shift gears yourself then stick with the world’s only ‘boxer’ diesel, which, despite permanent four-wheel drive, returns a good-for-the-class 156g/km and will easily achieve 40mpg. The downside is some old-school clatter when cold, a powerband narrower than UKIP policy, and sub-Kuga refinement.
But it’s a bargain?
Afraid not. You can have a diesel Forester X with a five-year warranty for a fiver under £25k, and another two grand gets you the XC with heated front seats, cruise control, auto lights and wipers, dual-zone climate control and a reversing camera, but that’s no match for the Koreans.
How's things behind the wheel?
The Forester is decent to drive though, with light and accurate steering, a nicely mechanical gearshift that apes the BRZ, plus good body control matched to compliant ride. And as with Foresters of yore, there’s an endearing honesty to it. Forget the stylised sloping rooflines and thick rear pillars of rivals – the Forester’s boxy body and upright shape results in an unusually light, airy and spacious interior. This is how 4x4s once were, before we all had ‘lifestyles’.
So, at CAR we like the new Forester. Yet, in a market that’s grown eightfold since the first Forester back in ’97, the trad approach means it’s destined to be niche. Farming folk can rest easy.