I still remember my very first test drive of the Subaru Forester. It was in 2001 or 2002, and my father and I thought it would be the coolest thing to drive all the way to Pagudpud. I had a Forester for Holy Week, and Subaru's little SUV/wagon begged to be driven far and fast. Okay, decently fast, because at the time the only model that was available had a 2.0-liter flat-four that made all of 123hp. At least, it had a stick shift, but coupled with all-wheel drive we weren't going to set any land-speed records.
Not that traffic would have let us go fast anyway, because no sooner had we hit the road than the reality of Holy Week traffic hit us like a slap to the face at 3am. NLEX was a pitiful three-lane highway back then, and there was no SCTEX to speed up the journey. To this day, I still shudder at the thought of spending all morning on MacArthur Highway at the blistering speed of 30kph. Couple that with a paucity of overpriced rooms in Pagudpud and the inevitable father-son arguments as tempers flared over the course of a 12-hour drive (one-way), now I remember why I didn't attempt to make a similar journey until eight years later with my soon-to-be-wife.
I hated the trip, but loved the car. I loved the sharpness of the steering, the quirky drone of the boxer engine, and the confidence-building traction of the all-wheel drive. I even grew to like the boxy style, which was pretty ugly back then but yielded benefits in cabin space.
Now it's 2013, and the latest Subaru Forester is perhaps 10% bigger than the first model that landed in the Philippines. It is now substantially roomier, and perceptively smoother. For better or worse, it's also the most conventionally styled Forester yet, its only unique concession being that angular grille that gives it a pug-nosed look. It's not as pleasantly likeable as the previous generation's sharper, more aerodynamic nose, but then again it wouldn't be a Subaru if it played safe everywhere.
The biggest and most noticeable improvement over the old model has to do with the transmission. As smooth and responsive as the old four-speed was, it really needed another cog or two to put it at par with the new industry standard of five- and six-speed gearboxes from Honda, Hyundai and Kia. Instead of using a torque converter setup, Subaru decided to use a continuously variable transmission (aka the "worm drive" tranny).
Some people don't like the weird, shiftless feeling of a CVT where the engine speed rises along with the vehicle speed, never dropping as it would with a torque converter system. I guess it just takes some getting used to, but the upside is a smoother driving experience and theoretically higher fuel efficiency. Over the course of a weekend trip to Subic, I averaged around 9km/L, including the usual stop-and-go of EDSA traffic. Pity there's no manual gate. There's only a slot for low gear, which means that, if you're in a hurry, you'll just have to trust the CVT to make the right ratio settings for you.
If you opt for the turbocharged 237hp Forester, you get nice toys like a power moonroof, power liftgate, dual-zone A/C, and push-button start/stop system, among others. The normally aspirated, 148hp 2.0i Premium, on the other hand, is pretty much a "back-to-basics" SUV that delivers on all the important, major points while still giving a few modcons to please the customer. For P1.398 million, you still get nice features like HID headlamps with automatic leveling, pop-up headlamp washers, auto climate control, one-touch release for the rear seatbacks, a basic multifunction display, and rain-sensing wipers. Gone are the cool dual tailpipes of the previous generation. Retained is the excellent, all-wheel drive system that makes practically any Subaru such a confident-handling machine in all conditions, and it's spruced up with hill descent control, hill start assist, stability control system, and the programmable throttle response and transmission shift system called SI Drive.
My weekend test drive involved a trip to Subic for the two-day Tour of Subic stage race. With one other passenger on board, one bike on the roof, and another in the backseat, the cargo area easily swallowed all the paraphernalia of this amateur bike racer: spare wheels, two small suitcases, two utility bags, one small cooler, plus various small items. To think my father and I were really pressed for space in that old Forester. I didn't really miss the power liftgate feature of the pricier 2.0XT; it's not that hard to pull up a hatch if your idea of fun is racing a bike for two days.
Performance from the drivetrain is competent rather than rousing; that's what the turbo variant is for. It gets the job quietly and smoothly done, but never really comes alive or exhorts you to try something exciting even with the SI Drive set to "Sport."
It's a bit of a snooze-aru to look at and to drive, actually, but this can be a good thing if you're the type who just needs a roomy, relaxing and tall wagon to schlep the kids and the gear with. The ride is softer and quieter than I remember from previous generations, so much so that I quickly fell asleep while riding shotgun for a change. Passenger space is excellent for a small SUV, with good thigh support and generous leg- and headroom. The cockpit is also easier on the eyes than ever, with handsome gauges and Subaru's signature, black-and-gray color treatment. The OEM stereo still has those tacky buttons, unfortunately. Visibility all around is still excellent, especially with a windshield that feels as expansive as a minivan's.
This latest iteration of the Forester takes a page from the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 playbook--very practical, comfortable and vice-free almost to a fault. If you like the distinct personality of the Subaru brand but are coming from years of familiarity with Toyota or Honda, a Forester is just enough off the beaten track to be interesting.
Photos by Andy Leuterio