The all-new Subaru Forester is proof that looks can be deceiving

Forest for the trees
by Niky Tamayo | Jan 24, 2019

‘The Forester is Subaru’s most bankable product in this crossover-crazy market’

Knife-edged shadows slide across the ground as we idle past the same corner for the hundredth time. It’s a blisteringly sunny day, and the harsh light means we can only record in-car video while driving in a northwesterly direction. This means driving from one end of the Suntrust Verona compound in Tagaytay to the other before turning around to repeat the entire process. Over and over. This, along with numerous stops for still pictures, gives me precious little time to get a handle on what the Forester is meant to be.

I know what the Forester is, mind you—a crossover of roughly the same size and performance as your typical ‘CRAV-X5’ crossover. But what caption will sit under its yearbook photo? ‘Sporty Spice’? ‘Posh Spice’? Er...‘Baby Spice’? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out. With little time left for the finding.

The original 1997 Forester had a very clear identity: It was the anti-SUV. A boxy, boxer-engined station wagon for those who didn’t want the same boring blobby crossover as everyone else. The next was more of the same, only Boxier. With the 2009 third-generation SH model, however, Subaru went mainstream, giving the model a more conventional shape and styling to appeal to a wider audience. Sales soared as people other than loyal ‘Subaristas’ began to take notice. But something was lost in the translation.

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SHOT AT Suntrust Verona. The all-new Forester doesn’t look that different. Then again, looks can be deceiving. PHOTO: Mark Jesalva

The next-generation SJ brought a little of the old Fozzie back, with a boxier nose and the corporate hexagonal grille tacked onto the largely similar bodywork. A minor change, but with a major effect on the looks. Subaru seems happy with those looks, it seems. Because this all-new, fifth-generation SK I’m driving looks a lot like the previous car. Sitting on the Subaru Global Platform, the latest Forester is wider, lower, and longer: It doesn’t share a single body panel with the old car. But most people will be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Step closer, however, and you’ll see how a swooping shoulder line and strategic rocker panel cuts give the previously flat flanks a subtle Coke-bottle shape. Bracket-shaped taillights lend some shape to the rear hatch, while hooked headlamps and larger foglight surrounds do the same up front. The grille gets a minor tweak that eliminates that awkward patch of plastic up top. Two-tone, split-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels round out the package quite nicely.

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SHOT AT Suntrust Verona. Inside, the Forester is all business. PHOTO: Mark Jesalva

Interior upgrades are more obvious. The wider cabin allows for a wider center console, with A/C vents bracketing a big eight-inch infotainment touchscreen featuring Apple CarPlay (yes!), Android Auto (double yes!), and manual buttons and knobs underneath for the thick-fingered (triple yes!). The steering wheel features better control integration than before. Material quality takes a step up from sorta-average to pretty-good, with soft-touch materials and stitched leather everywhere, the best being the dimpled hide on the floor console. Yes, we’ve already seen most of this on the recently revamped XV, also sitting on the Subaru Global Platform, but it’s high time they made their way into the big dog.

And this dog is big. A 2,670mm wheelbase, up 30mm from the old car, provides more rear legroom than the spacious CR-V. And despite that trademark gigantic sunroof—still one of the largest single-pane units we’ve ever seen—headroom is still top-notch. One area that still needs improvement is the trunk. While spacious, the all-wheel-drive system underneath makes for a sloped loading floor—something that’s even more noticeable when you pull the quick-fold switches to drop the 60:40 split rear seats into cargo mode. On the other hand, the new power-lift tailgate is a nice surprise. Perfect for grocery runs.

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SHOT AT Suntrust Verona. The Forester will go wherever you want it to go. PHOTO: Mark Jesalva

As with the XV, motivation is via a 2.0-liter direct-injection four-cylinder boxer engine that sits low in the engine bay. It gets a mild power bump, from 148hp to 154hp. While peak power comes at a slightly lower and more useful 6,000rpm, I’d be lying if I told you I could feel the difference. What I could feel was the improved off-the-line performance thanks to remapped throttle and transmission electronics that give the Forester better throttle response as well as smoother and quicker ‘shifting’—not that a continuously variable transmission actually has gears to shift with. But while the Fozzie scoots off the line nicely, once underway, it’s glaringly obvious that this improved 2.0-liter mill is still no patch on the old Forester XT’s turbopetrol, or even the 2.5-liter unit in the Legacy. That turbo isn’t returning within the foreseeable future, but thankfully, the upcoming Forester hybrid promises more torque and better acceleration than the 2.5 and better economy than the regular 2.0. You can read more about that here.

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Another place where the new chassis architecture shines is in the way the Forester drives—which is eerily similar to the way the XV drives. The recalibrated electric steering is finger-twirl light yet surprisingly communicative. The new suspension feels more buttoned down, with less wheel judder and body roll than before. There’s a bit of tire thump over sharp ruts and pebbles, but the 225/55 R18 Toyo tires prove capable and quiet. While I’d like a little more grip, the Forester is more composed than anything sitting 220mm off the ground has a right to be. That low-slung boxer engine and taut chassis give it a balanced feel lacking in many competitors.

SHOT AT Suntrust Verona. Subaru’s latest compact crossover drives well, though we can’t help but miss the turbo. PHOTO: Mark Jesalva

Aside from this, the Forester gets an enhanced X-Mode for off-road situations and the same safety systems as the XV, including electronic stability control, cross-traffic and blind-spot alert, and Eyesight, Subaru’s active cruise-control system with its remarkable self-braking capabilities. On the passive side, the new Subaru Global Platform chassis and seven-airbag count should provide five-star crashworthiness. One thing here not present on the XV is the active aerodynamic lower grille shutter that’s likely worth an extra kilometer a liter or so on the highway. The socket and brackets are already on the XV, however, so it shouldn’t be hard to introduce it there in the future.

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Launch variants for the Forester are the fully-loaded 2.0i-S (P1.798 million) shown here, the lower spec 2.0i-L (P1.598 million) that lacks the sunroof and the Eyesight system, but still maintains the eight-inch touchscreen, and the midrange 2.0i-L (P1.698 million) that keeps Eyesight and some of the other goodies from the i-S. Sadly, the mad turbocharged XT is no more. But to focus on that would be missing the forest for the trees. The Forester is Subaru’s most bankable product in this crossover-crazy market, and it needs to appeal to the unwashed masses. Even if that means mellowing out a bit. Rebel no longer, the Forester is gunning for ‘Mister Popularity’ instead.

This, in turn, allows the brand to stick around, churning out turbocharged Levorgs and WRXs for those of us who still want a little fun in our lives. And...who knows? Maybe one day Subaru will bring back the XT. But probably not as we know it.

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I don’t know about you, but a turbocharged hybrid Forester sounds pretty sweet to me.

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PHOTO: Mark Jesalva
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