2020 Subaru Forester review & buyer's guide

 

The Subaru Forester is one of the safest, most practical and capable SUVs on sale today, it’s also a red-hot seller. But should you consider one? Let’s talk about that…

 
 
 
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I routinely get a lot of enquiry about the Subaru Forester, and it’s understandable.

Firstly, Subaru’s CVT reliability and short warranty (three years once upon a time) used to garner curiosity or suspicion of a conspiracy. Well those days are happily gone. From January 1, 2019 all Subarus in ‘Straya became a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty affair. So that’s nice.

And besides, warranty has nothing to do with reliability, and everything to do with marketing. That’s a common misconception outside the industry.

Subaru CVTs seem reasonably durable - I don’t think they’re totally suited to regular heavy towing, but towing well under the maximum braked towing limit, or even occasional heavy towing will be fine.

The servicing costs have been capped for five years now, too, to go with the warranty. We’ll get to that.


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FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Forester has the easiest lineup on earth to understand because there’s only one powertrain. The venerable 2.5-litre direct injected boxer four-cylinder with CVT transmission and Symmetrical AWD on all four spec levels.

For comparison, Mazda’s CX-5 has five spec levels, four different engines (three naturally aspirated), two drive-types (2WD and AWD), and one manual transmission option. It’s a brain-bender. I’m sure there are buyers out there who couldn’t tell you which options they paid for.

Forester performance (136kW @ 5800rpm and 239Nm @ 4400rpm) is within a bee’s dick of a Mazda CX-5 2.5-litre atmo (140kW @ 6000rpm and 252Nm @ 4000rpm). Although Forester weighs roughly 1622kg (with 63 litres of fuel aboard) compared with the CX-5’s 1682kg.

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However, if you’re looking for decent performance from your mid-size family bus, then Hyundai’s 1.6 turbo in the Tucson is slightly in front, mainly because it’s a lighter vehicle and the turbo gives it killer mid-range delivery. That’ll be 130kW @ 5500rpm and 265Nm @ 1500 - 4500rpm in a top-spec Highlander weighing 1666kg at its heaviest.

In their quest for simplification, Subaru has dropped the diesel, manuals and the turbo XT variants. And that’s a shame, but do not lament because the hotness of the XT lives on in spirit in the 2.5i-S. We’ll get to that too.

In practice, the only difference with Forester as you step through the range and pay more money is the spec level (leather trim, better infotainment screen, GPS, etc.) and Subaru’s website is good at laying out the key differences between the variants and the pricing. Again, unlike Mazda’s long, single-column website with tabs hiding various other spec-levels, and a comparison tool which only permits two versions at once - whereas Subaru, Kia, and Hyundai allow you to easily scan between all versions at once.


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PRICING & RANGE

The Forester range has four easy steps and spans about $8000 from the bottom to the top.

Forester pricing in December 2019, and don’t worry, you won’t get left behind here, goes a little something like this:

2.5i - $39,400

2.5i-L - $41,700 (+2300)

2.5i Premium - $44,800 (+3100)

2.5i-S - $47,900 (+3100)

The value proposition across the range is solid. But you have to realise that base model Forester is better than base models of the others because it effectively already has the big engine (compared with the two-litre entry engine in a Tucson, Sportage and CX-5, for example).

Forester already has AWD, too, and the others are 2WD in the base models. Some of the others have base model manuals, and in others the full safety suite is either optional or not available in the base - and it’s standard in the Forester. The big-ticket features like autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise, reversing camera, rear cross-traffic, blind-sport monitoring, lane departure warning and lane-keeping, tyre pressure monitoring - it’s certainly a works burger base model.

You have to remember value is not just low price. It’s what you get for what you spend.

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Forester 2.5i standard features include:

Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, EyeSight (auto emergency braking, adaptive cruise, blind-sport monitoring, brake light recognition etc.), 17-inch alloys with full-size spare, rearview camera, X-Mode AWD system, tyre pressure monitoring, heated power-folding door mirrors, reversing camera and headlight washers, DAB+ radio, 6.5-inch touchscreen, push-button ignition with proximity key.


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Forester 2.5i-L features include:
Drive monitoring system (drowsiness detection, facial recognition, distraction warning), reverse emergency braking, side-view camera, adaptive headlights, heated front seats, wiper de-icer front/rear.


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2.5i Premium features include:

Intelligent sports drive mode, 18-inch alloys with matching full-size spare wheel, auto driver’s seat and mirror preset adjustment, auto-dipping passenger side door mirror, satnav, eight-inch touchscreen, auto folding mirrors, powered tailgate, premium cloth seats, electric folding rear seats,


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2.5i-S features include:

Switchable X-Mode functions (snow/dirt), LED fog lights, full leather front/rear seats, premium 8-speaker Harman Kardon stereo with subwoofer and amplifier, sunroof.


FEATURES & HIGHLIGHTS

Forester is essentially the same size as CX-5, Sportage and Tucson, which are also all worth a comparative drive - if only to confirm you’re making the right choice.

Although, Forester has a massive boot, one of the biggest in the segment in fact - 498 litres seats up and 1768 litres seats down – it is only beaten for cubes by the vast RAV4, Chevrolet-based Holden Equinox and Jeep Cherokee.

Next on Forester’s hit list is Symmetrical all-wheel drive. People make a big deal out of AWD, but it’s really only an advantage at low speeds in slippery situations. For normal driving it’s unnecessary. By the time you’re doing 50-60km/h - AWD/2WD makes little tangible difference.

That said, if you do live in hilly terrain, perhaps with a slippery driveway, especially when wet, or you know people who live in sketchy areas - the terrain, not in a Struggle Street kind of way - Forester is probably a smart choice.

Dual-function X-Mode which can select between snow/ice and dirt/mud is another Forester strength, especially if you actually plan to take your soft-roader soft roading. Let’s be clear, this is not an off-road, blue-singlet low-range bruiser ready to crush Mount Kosciusko, but you’ll be able to stroll up to the slopes or grapple with tricky roads the on-demand competition will use as an excuse to watch you go on ahead.

Now is probably an opportune moment to run the rule over the competition, so let’s do that.


See Forester for the trees

Here’s how the Forester compares to its rivals:

CX-5: Certainly the best-looking of the bunch, but Mazda’s styling, and being nice to drive, doesn’t necessarily make up for such a tiny boot (442 litres rear seats up/1342 litres rear seats down), a space-saver and a 10,000km first service interval don’t make it perfect. More torque (420Nm) and power (170kW) available and a decent two-tonne towing capacity on the 2.5 turbo petrol makes up for reduced stowage - so does the transmission kickdown switch and 360 degree camera. Takes regular 91 RON or standard diesel; no hybrid option yet. Decent 200mm ground clearance is still unmatched by Forester.

RAV4: Good luck getting your RAV4 Hybrid on the six-month waiting list, but when you do you’ll enjoy 542 litres of boot space, but also at the cost of a space-saver spare lurking beneath the boot floor. Reliable, grunty petrol and hybrid powertrains (although naturally aspirated isn’t particularly explosive) and no diesel. Top-spec price at $52k is hard to swallow considering towing is capped at 1500kg braked in AWD/hybrid, and just 800kg braked in 2WD variants. Hybrid is comparatively heavy too, at 1745kg (kerb). Only 195mm ground clearance.

Sportage: Not the prettiest SUV, or indeed thing, you can buy today, but at least it’s not perpetually angry-looking like the RAV4. Only 466 litres of boot space is offset by a full-size spare wheel, and 1455 litres with rear seats down. Kia’s 2.0-litre diesel offers superior grunt at 400Nm between 1750-2750rpm and 136kW at 4000rpm - much more available at lower revs than Forester. Sportage petrol isn’t much contest, and nor is 172mm of ground clearance.

Forester: CVT integration is good. Fuel economy: Good. Dual function X-Mode: brilliant. Couple that with 220mm of ground clearance, that reasonable towing capacity and good boot space and you certainly have one of the most capable mid-size SUVs. Tightest turning circle of the group at 10.8m versus 11m on CX-5, RAV4 and Sportage. Runs on 91 octane fuel, and has a hybrid version coming in late 2020/early 2021.

One thing I don’t like is the re-start on the auto engine stop-start. It’s a bit harsh, and also not quick enough to fire back up in some situations. You can be off the brake and on the gas, and waiting a fraction of a second for the engine to start up, in situations where you want to get off the line quickly.

The only way to beat this is either turn it off pre-emptively, or reduce brake pressure slightly, in anticipation of getting going (this causes the re-start) and then take off normally.

There’s a heap of legroom in row two, and also headroom throughout because the roofline doesn’t taper rearwards - so it’s quite practical there, and that also applies to the loadspace, which is quite versatile.


Outback’s narrower 512 litres versus Forester’s wider 498 litres of boot space is academic.

Outback’s narrower 512 litres versus Forester’s wider 498 litres of boot space is academic.

Forester -vs- Outback

Forester and it’s supposedly bigger brother, the Outback, share the same powertrain, albeit in quite different packaging.

The Outback, which is classified as a large SUV, is actually slightly shorter than the “mid-size” Forester at 1730mm (vs 1675mm). Outback offers 512 litres of boot space against Forester’s 498 litres, so it’s a question of just how much stuff you have.

But Outback is slightly longer at 4820mm versus the Forester at 4625mm, and wider at 1840mm versus 1815mm, meaning the stowage space is nearly identical, but orientated differently. Outback favours longer gear, whereas Forester prefers wider stuff like prams, large travel bags etc. Outback caters for longer things like tents, deck chairs, big eskis, anti-tank rocket launchers - that sort of thing.

And fitting your big, lanky teenaged kids - future NBA stars included - into the back seats: No problem. Forester is plenty tall enough with ample legroom for actual humans.

You’ll also find the Outback’s electric tailgate is two seconds slower to open and close than Forester’s (at five seconds) which is remarkably quick. That two seconds, when you have kids, is time you’ll never get back - trust me on this. Forester’s tailgate also has a habit of thumping closed, while Outback’s more subtly clicks closed.

Installing a child seat, you can reach the Forester’s top tether anchor points with one arm over the top of the seat without having to unpack and climb into the boot with plenty of other SUVs. That includes Outback, which has been designed in a sadistically low point on the back of the second row seats, which, when you have a boot full of crap, is a downright bastard for accessing. Even moreso on a hot day, with kids screaming, you’re running late and the boss is about to call you any minute now...

Vision is excellent through the crisp high-quality rearview camera and big, wide door mirrors (which should, of course, not be adjusted so you can see the side of the car on the inside).

Plenty of people will also find the seats are very comfortable, almost to the point of being noticeably unusual. Comfort and support on long-ish trips is something missing in plenty of bigger SUVs.

Also consider if you like Outback’s standard integrated roof racks which do away with having to buy aftermarket versions or pay through the nose for the accessory pack.


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Conclusion

Forester is the best-selling model for Subaru and it’s easy to see why.

New Forester is still the current Forester, only better, essentially, and with a longer warranty - and less choice in the powertrains. Definitely, it’s on my preferred five-seat SUV list.

Combine X-Mode, symmetrical all-wheel drive, Subaru’s even better EyeSight system, some refinements to CVT integration and a model range even a politician could understand and Forester is all but a forgone conclusion.

If you and your kin are actually the mob who regularly escape the concrete jungle, or you live in rural or regional ‘Straya, then consider buying an SUV which comes standard with a loaded arsenal, not packed full of compromises.

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