Subaru Forester boxes clever

SUBARU FORESTER: Square-rigged SUV is bigger, roomier and better value than the company's XV offering.
SUBARU FORESTER: Square-rigged SUV is bigger, roomier and better value than the company's XV offering.

As sibling rivalries go, this one is worthy of a soap opera.

Walk into a New Zealand Subaru showroom with the intention of spending between $45,000 and $50,000 on a crossover wagon and the star-spangled brand instantly offers a bewildering pair of choices.

The 2.0-litre XV will quickly catch the eye with its spunky quasi-hatchback design. Opting for the $48,990 2.0i-S model will guarantee immediate acknowledgement of your new-car purchase from your peers on the school run.

However, in my opinion, the 2.5-litre $47,990 Forester Sport is a better buy. It offers more pace and more space, two things that more folk than Nasa employees can appreciate. It also has an exterior design so androgynous it might as well be camouflage. The Forester prefers to offer more dash than flash, and represents a near-total victory of engineering over design.

It has always been thus with Subarus named after lumberjacks, and they've always been more than OK to drive once you get past their style-free exteriors.

The boxy shape of the original Forester could have been penned by a former East German crayon-wielder from the Trabant factory and, three generations later, this newly hatched fourth generation barely disguises those squared-off origins with a few embellishments like the kinked C-pillar, trapezoidal grille, and a more steeply raked windscreen. Although it is a step in the right direction, no-one will buy the latest Forester because the vehicle's looks triggered immediate personal bank account pillage.

But never mind the style, feel the substance. Although the fourth-generation body grows only a few millimetres in almost every direction, this Forester feels big enough to be renamed Smoky the Bear.

A 25mm wheelbase stretch, a generously sized glasshouse and the pulling forward of the windscreen have won perceptible room, so much so that dwellers of inner-city studio apartments might risk suffering agoraphobia in this car.

The raised seats are the items most responsible for creating the perception that the cabin of the fourth Forester is much more spacious than the third's. Their higher hip-points expand leg space for all occupants, yet there's still enough headroom for professional basketball players, even in the 60/40 spilt folding rear seat bench.

The rear bench is a genuine three-seater for fully grown humans and the flat tunnel-less floor beneath it makes it a lot more comfortable for those occupying its central position.

Up front, the Forester's interior is only slightly less successful. The controls, both those with primary and secondary functions, are well laid out and intuitive to use, although a little more art in the design would be nice.

Fortunately, the generous side bolsters of the bucket seats still provide the lateral support Subaru pews are generally valued for.

Along with the four-way adjustable steering wheel, they help create expectations of a sportier driving experience than most compact sport utility vehicles supply.

This, essentially, is what the latest Forester delivers. Apart from a new electric power steering system that is overly light in feeling at the straight-ahead position and slow to load up when the wheel is turned, the Forester maintains its usual station as one of the sportiest compact SUVs on the road.

Its handling prowess is definitely helped by having a permanent four-wheel-drive system that constantly adjusts the front-to-rear distribution of torque according to available tyre traction.

Most four-wheel-drive rivals in the compact SUV segment drive the front wheels as their default mode and send torque rearwards only when their front tyres start to slip. The Subaru's point of difference is that the Forester constantly maintains its traction rather than reacts to any loss in traction.

Driving all four wheels all the time is normally thirsty work, yet the latest Forester generates fuel-use figures that are among the best in the compact SUV segment.

A new automatic start-stop idle system, a shift from an ordinary four-speed automatic gearbox to constantly variable ratios and the new power steering system are the biggest enablers of the impressive 8.1 litres per 100km performance in official laboratory tests.

In real-world driving, the trip computer of the Forester was consistently showing fuel-use figures in the high eights.

The 126kW, 235Nm flat four might be one of Subaru's older engines, and while its performance is better described as willing than thrilling, it still has spade-loads more character than any of its inline rivals.

Shifting the CVT gearbox into sport mode is a requisite step to coaxing the best overtaking punch out of the veteran boxer.

With many compact SUVs pruning back off-road performance in the interests of increased refinement on road, it is refreshing to find the Forester still enjoys getting on the piste.

Ground clearance has been extended and there's now electronic hill-descent control to keep the vehicle at a manageable speed on gnarly downhills.

On-road refinement has also increased. The cabin rides more silently and the Forester is the best-suspended car in a showroom of well-suspended cars.

So be sure to ignore the XV that's stationed alongside it, if you can.

Sunday Star Times