Subaru launch takes the rugged road
I don't know where we went - all I know is that the first half of the four-wheel-driving excursion began near the central Otago town of Cromwell, and after we'd bounced and crunched our way across a series of very rugged tracks we ended up high above Alexandra.
Click photo for more views of the 2013 Subaru Forester.
I do know that the second half traversed what is known as the Thomson Gorge Road, which winds its way through ancient goldmine workings and passes spots with such neat names as the Rise And Shine Valley.
It all reminded me of a comment once from one of my motoring journalism colleagues that you never go on a Subaru vehicle launch without getting the vehicles dirty.
And in this case, very dirty.
That's because this time the vehicle that was the subject of the media event was the brand-new fourth-generation Forester, a medium-sized SUV that is intended for lifestyle operations such as getting to remote locations for tramping, fishing or hunting.
Forester is a very important model for Subaru New Zealand, and the new vehicle enters a market segment that is experiencing extraordinary growth.
So far this year, the SUV market is up 35 per cent on last year, a period which in itself experienced major growth.
So with that as background, Subaru NZ boss Wal Dumper obviously instructed his staff to make sure the Forester's media launch was a good one that would show off the vehicle's capabilities to the fullest - the most dramatic way of underlining its new marketing slogan of "It can, if you can".
The new Forester can, too. It can take on almost anything. While it remains very much a "soft-roader" in that it is a comfortable and compact vehicle for ordinary urban and open-road work, it also has the full-time all-wheel drive and the 220mm ground clearance necessary for it to roll up its sleeves and get stuck into harder work in rough country.
During last week's media event, Mr Dumper also took a swipe at other manufacturers who are now offering front-wheel-drive versions of their SUVs.
"We're sticking to our roots," he said.
"We are staying 100 per cent all-wheel drive all the time and improving the technology to offer a wider range of capability.
"Given the lifestyle use most New Zealanders subject SUVs to, we reckon the Forester is up to those Kiwi challenges."
As if to underline all of that, this new Forester enters the market with an entry price of $39,990 for a 2.0-litre model with six-speed manual transmission - which is exactly the price that many of the competitors are asking for their front-wheel drive SUVs.
There are a further six models in the Forester selection, ranging from a 2.5i with Subaru's Lineartronic automatic transmission for $44,990, through to $59,990 for a hot turbocharged 2.0-litre XT with the Lineartronic. The range also includes one turbodiesel model, a 2.0-litre six-speed manual, for $49,990.
This new model is the biggest Forester yet, with a body that is 35mm longer and the wheelbase increased by 25mm. And even though the rear is narrower than before, interior room has been improved all round, with considerably more leg and shoulder room for those in the back seats.
Up front, it's very comfortable. The hip points of the seats have been raised and the backrests made 60mm higher, and the A-pillar has been moved forward by 200mm. All this increases the "command" feeling that is often considered important by those who favour SUV-style vehicles.
Forester is easier to get in and out of this time around, too. The side sills have been lowered by 50mm and the front doors open 135mm wider. Also, the rear passenger side steps have been made as wide as possible, and covered in a non- slip finish, to help those getting in and out of the back seats.
All the Forester variants are powered by new-generation versions of Subaru's boxer engine, and all of them are more fuel-efficient than before. For example, the 2.0-litre engine uses more than 22 per cent less fuel, while the 2.5-litre engine is almost 13 per cent more fuel efficient.
Meanwhile, the 2.0-litre direct-injection motor fitted to the XT is a development of the unit first seen in the Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 sportscar, and it is the first time a turbocharged Subaru has had direct fuel injection.
All automatic variants are fitted with Subaru's latest Lineartronic continuously variable transmissions, with the 2.5-litre and XT variants given paddle shifters that allow the auto to be used manually when required.
The transmission also features what is called X-Mode, which makes it easier for drivers to get along slippery surfaces and down steep hills.
When it is engaged at 40 kmh or less, the X-Mode centralises control of the engine, all-wheel drive, brakes and other components to help keep things safe. And when things get down to below 20 kmh and the vehicle is heading steeply downhill, the system also uses hill-descent control to maintain vehicle speed when neither the accelerator pedal or brakes are pressed.
That allows the driver to concentrate on steering the Forester - which, last week, during a very steep descent down to the outskirts of Alexandra, was a fairly hair-raising thing to do anyway. As the Forester's innards creaked and graunched, it was good to know that the X-Mode system was working to keep things in check.
The AWD helps make Forester safe out on the open road too, and in addition the brakes have been made stiffer and more responsive, and the vehicle has stability control.
Towing ability has been enhanced through Towing Stability Control, which is co-ordinated with the stability control, and this has allowed the braked trailer capability to be increased to 1500 kg for the normally aspirated models and to 1800 kg with the diesel.
Subaru's EyeSight driver-assist system, which uses windscreen-mounted cameras to among other things help prevent rear-end collisions at the lower speeds, is aboard the higher-specified models, and if things do get bad there are now seven airbags, with a driver's knee bag now fitted to every model.
Other standard features on all Foresters include a reversing camera, full connectivity, Bluetooth capability, cruise control with buttons on the steering wheel, roof rails, and automatic headlights.
Extra features on the 2.5-litre Sport, Premium and XT models include Subaru's excellent SI Drive with the paddle shifters, frront fog lights, and privacy glass.
The Premium and XT models have satellite navigation, heated front seats, leather upholstery, electric front seats, rain-sensing wipers, xenon headlights, electric sunroof, and adaptive cruise control.
It's all enough to allow the new Forester to assume the high ground in the very competitive medium-sized SUV sector. And, as last week's launch so easily proved, that high ground can be in more ways than one.
Taranaki Daily News