2019 Subaru Forester Review – International First Drive
Isaac Bober’s International first drive 2019 Subaru Forester Review with performance, ride and handling, safety, verdict and score.
In a nutshell: This is the all-new Subaru Forester on the brand’s global platform; it’s bigger, safer and better to drive…it’ll be here in September.
2019 Subaru Forester Specifications
Price Unknown Warranty three years, unlimited kilometres Safety Not tested Engine 2.5-litre Boxer four-cylinder petrol Power 136kW at 5800rpm Torque 239Nm at 4400rpm Transmission CVT Drive all-wheel drive Dimensions 4625mm (long) 1815mm (wide) 1730mm (high) 2670mm (wheelbase) Angles 20-degrees (approach); 21.6-degrees (rampover); 26-degrees (departure) Ground Clearance 220mm Boot Space 498-1768L Spare full-size Fuel Tank 63L Thirst Unknown
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PLENTY HAS ALREADY been written about this new Subaru Forester, like the fact there’ll be no XT variant or a diesel-engined variant. Anywhere. At least not for the foreseeable future. But there will be a hybrid variant coming to Australia with more grunt than the vehicle we tested at the preview drive in Japan at the end of last week…
…But Subaru won’t say just how much grunt that variant will offer. Nor would it open-up about where it tests Forester during its development, with the project manager Tomoyuki Nunome telling Practical Motoring that it “tests in lots of different places around the world”.
As a significant market for the brand, Subaru Australia is understandably proud that, although it’s not allowed to tweak and tune suspension for our market, it is able to test prototypes during the development phase and provide feedback. Practical Motoring was told Subaru Australia engineers provide “a lot of feedback that makes the cars better”.
What is the Subaru Forester?
The Forester is both Subaru Australia’s most-awarded vehicle and the brand’s best-seller (a quarter of all Subarus sold in 2017 were Forester) and it’s hoping that this all-new Forester, which will arrive Down Under in September, will continue the old car’s winning ways. And, based on a brief preview drive in Japan (in Japan-specification vehicles) we can’t see any reason to doubt Subaru’s faith in the new car.
The all-new Forester is the third vehicle to be built off the brand’s modular global platform (Subaru Global Platform) which debuted on the Impreza and then the XV. This platform, as we’ve discovered from those other two vehicles, offers much-improved torsional rigidity and thus improved ride and handling, and allows more interior room, too.
With the vehicle not arriving in Australia until September there was no pricing or final specification details announced but there’s still plenty to talk about. For instance, this new Forester sees the brand start to make key powertrain changes, like the decision to drop the turbocharged 2.5-litre four-cylinder effectively killing the Forester XT as well as dropping the diesel engine from the Forester range. You can expect the diesel to be dropped from the Outback soon too.
Instead, the new Forester will only be offered, initially in this country at least, with a 2.5-litre Boxer four-cylinder making 136kW at 5800rpm and 239Nm of torque at 4400rpm. This is a slight increase on the current car’s 2.5-litre engine based on the fact the new engine is direct injection and thus, according to Subaru, around 90% or more of the engine’s parts are new. And it’s the same with the CVT; it’s not the same as the old one, rather this one gets seven simulated gears, depending on the driving mode, and is, more or less, the same as the updated CVT in other new-release Subarus.
There have been changes to the steering system, the suspension, the X-Mode and more. Being built off the Subaru Global Platform, the new Forester is both stiffer and stronger, quieter and there’s more interior space. But one of the big improvements has been visibility out of the thing.
There’ll be some looking at the pics on this page and struggling to work out the changes from the old car to this one. They’re sublte but no brand knows better the risks you run when you mess with a design that works…remember the Tribeca and how quickly Subaru changed the pig-faced look of that car.
Like with the refreshed Liberty and Outback, Subaru had focussed on improving the practicality of the Forester and so the rear door openings are now wider to make access to the back seat and, say, fitting a child seat easier. Indeed, rear seat legroom has been improved (by around 5cm) thanks to an increase in the wheelbase which is now 2670mm, and there’s between 498 and 1768 litres of boot space with the 60:40 split-fold seats lowered with a rear opening of 1300mm; a powered rear tailgate with a close and lock button will likely be offered on some models – and is another first for the Forester (the close and lock function).
The new Forester gets new front and rear seats and an electric parking brake replaces the old manual-lift handbrake. And, like other recently-released Subarus, the new Forester gets the brand’s latest 8.0-inch infotainment unit with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. As well as a Driver Monitoring System which, besides being a first for Subaru, allows owners to create personalised settings (up to five); using a camera the car recognises the driver and alters things like mirrors, climate control and seat to suit. The system also keeps an eye on the driver and warns them if they’re becoming distracted – if they look away for two seconds or more.
The new Forester debuts the second-generation of the brand’s clever X-Mode rough-road system which offers a two-stage set-up covering snow/dirt and deep snow/mud. Ground clearance remains at 220mm with towing weights the same too.
What’s the interior like?
For the new Forester, Subaru took a gently, gently approach to the interior, focussing on things that makes it comfortable rather than showy, according to the program manager, Tomoyuki Nunome. What becomes clear the moment you climb inside the thing is the family link between vehicles like the XV and the Outback, from the dials used for the climate control to the general dash layout, and this is good.
Subaru wants its vehicles to be usable and tough and so while there’s more soft-touch materials creeping in than ever before like around the transmission, the glovebox lid and upper sections of the door card, there’s still plenty of harder but nice-grained plastics in sections where you want harder-wearing materials. While the Japan-spec cars we drove will be ever-so-slightly different to the cars we get back in Oz (the infotainment systems you see in the photos won’t be the same as those on cars in Australia), it’s clear the material-quality of the new Forester is a decent step ahead of the old car.
Settle in behind the wheel and there’s a sense of space which is partly down to a clever trick from the designers of pushing the air vents out to the edges of the dashboard to emphasise width in the cabin. But it’s also down to more glass…the A- and C-pillars are now thinner and the rear window too is bigger, allowing greater forwards and rearwards vision than before.
The new front seats are comfortable and with electric adjustment can be adjusted to suit drivers of all shapes and sizes; the steering wheel offers decent height and reach adjustment too. The shape of the seat (wider and with more padding) is more supportive than the old car’s rather flat and featureless seat. The leather quality is also better on the new car.
Over in the back seats there’s a lot more room than in the old car, thanks to the slightly longer wheelbase (2670 vs 2640mm). Indeed, with the front seats set to suit me, I found I had heaps of foot and legroom (although that might not be super clear from the photo showing my legs and feet below).
There’s also good head and shoulder room and the back seats, like the front seats, are well well-shaped and better padded than before. The car we drove at the preview event had directional rear air vents and power outlets at the back of the centre console and an armrest that could be folded down out of the back rest of the middle seat.
As mentioned at the start of this review, the aim of the design for the new Forester was to focus on changing areas based on practicality. And nowhere is that more evident than in the boot which despite being slighty bigger in overall volume, offers a wider rear opening of 1300mm (up from 1166mm) and this means loading, say, a set of golf clubs won’t require you to twist the bag; you’ll just be able to load it straight in. The width of the actual boot is 1100mm up from 1073mm and the floor is 35mm longer at 908mm. The boot volume is 498 litres which is down on numbers you might have read elsewhere (but up compared to the old car) because in Australia the Forester will come with a full-size spare.
Whether it will be standard across the range remains to be seen, the Forester is available with a powered tailgate that opens and closes much quicker than on other Subaru models. The 60:40 rear seats can be dropped via levers in the boot with a 12V outlet and several hooks scattered around the boot. When you drop the back seats, the new design makes for a flatter floor than on the current car; it’s not totally flat but there’s much less of a lip at the transition point than before.
What’s it like on the road?
Our preview drive was held at the Japan Cycle Sports Centre on a four-and-a-bit-kilometre long loop. We were allowed eight or nine laps before moving to a short “off-road” course to sample the X-Mode tweaks. If you watched the short video I posted on Facebook you’ll see it wasn’t a very challenging track, although there was one 26-degree hill that was designed to showcase the secondary X-Mode setting…but I’ll come back to this shortly.
Under the bonnet is a 2.5-litre Boxer four-cylinder making 136kW at 5800rpm and 239Nm of torque at 4400rpm. Featuring direct injection now (the old engine was in-port injection) the engine is around 90% all-new and offers an increase in power and torque from 126kW and 235Nm. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference on paper but coupled with the updated CVT the new Forester feels a lot more urgent than the old car; and for comparison the Australian motoring writers attending managed to convince Subaru Japan to let us run around the course in an old Forester.
While a CVT will never be everyone’s cup of tea, especially those who’ve never driven with one, the one in the new Forester is about as good as they get and in ‘manual’ mode it does a reasonable impression of a traditional automatic. The thing responds well to throttle inputs and gets the most from the engine and all with none of the drone of CVTs past.
Indeed, the whole car is incredibly quiet. You can barely hear the engine at start-up and even when you’re giving it a shove the engine revs cleanly with the note hardening but remaining well muffled. Subaru said it has tweaked the crank behaviour which has resulted in a quieter engine with less vibration but the old car wasn’t exactly rattly so you’d be hard pressed to pick the difference.
In terms of ride and handling, the new model, thanks to the new platform, feels a lot more agile and controlled than the old car (chassis flex rigidity and torsional rigidity are both up by 40%). While it by no means allowed for a definitive assessment of the chassis, the loop we drove around was full of corners with plenty of elevation change and the Forester handled it with ease confirming what we already knew from Impreza and XV (also after driving the old Forester) and that is that dynamically the SGP is superior to what went before it.
Where the old car rolled into corners and pitched and dived under brakes and had much slower steering, the new car felt taut with minimal body roll through corners, excellent damping with no bump-through and steering that felt well weighted, consistent and direct in its action. Indeed, Subaru reckons the new car’s directional change ability is around 15% better than the old car and I’d agree with that.
What’s it like off-road?
With just one lap of the ‘off-road’ course I was determined to make the new Forester work as hard as possible. But there was little about the course to worry the Forester besides one 26-degree hill. There was a hole and some loose surface at the base of the hill to try and make the vehicle lose traction and fail in its climb in both Normal and regular X-Mode. And it did for me. Turning the X-Mode dial to the right and engaging the deep snow/mud function, however, saw the thing quickly and easily climb the hill.
Now, getting an accurate description of how the ‘extra’ X-Mode functionality works was, because of the language barrier, tricky. But after a lot of questions and hand gestures I think we managed to get a pretty good idea of what the system does. You can read more about X-Mode in general HERE so I’ll confine this to talking about the new addition to X-Mode which according to Subaru was introduced largely because owners wanted improved performance in deep snow and mud.
What the system does, in a nutshell, is disable the engine-based traction control to allow for more wheelspin (because the engine isn’t killing power) when driving in deep mud or snow. And that was as far as the initial explanation of the system went, but I felt that didn’t adequately explain what was going on because I could hear and feel some sort of traction control working when driving in the deep snow/mud mode…
The system turns of engine traction control, yes (and a big and confusing point was made of this with most Aussie reporters walking away after that, but not PM, we annoyed the engineers for a clearer description). But what wasn’t clear from the slides or the initial description of the system is that it leaves brake traction control active which allows the system to kill power to a wheel that comes off the ground allowing drive through the wheel that still has contact and thus grip but won’t try and kill a spinning wheel and thus momentum when you’re powering through thick mud. Great.
But there’s more, when stationary Subaru’s all-wheel drive split is 50:50 but the moment you start driving this constantly starts changing from variations between 40% and 60% of drive to the front or rear, but with the deep snow/mud setting activated the system tries to maintain the 50:50 drive split. We’re going to need some more time with the car but our short drive showed that Subaru have made the Forester even more capable than it was before…it’s now possibly the most capable non-low-range medium SUV you can buy.
What about safety?
There’s no NCAP rating yet but Subaru Japan claims the new car will exceed the performance of the old car and so one would imagine it’ll realise a five-star rating. There are front driver and passenger airbags as well as curtain airbags that extend all the way back into the boot. In Japan, bonnet-mounted pedestrian airbag will be fitted but this won’t come to Australia.
Subaru Australia wouldn’t be drawn on which variants will get what safety features but all variants with EyeSight will offer autonomous emergency braking, reverse automatic braking, rear vehicle detection which monitors for oncoming traffic when you’re reversing out of, say, a parking space, as well as lane departure warning and assist and pre-collision braking which works if the system detects a vehicle in front and the driver has accidentally stepped on the accelerator.
The Forester is also, of course, a permanent all-wheel drive with the usual suspects like ABS, traction and stability controls rain-sensing wipers, reversing camera and sensors and much more.
So, what do we think?
It might have only been a short drive but it was long enough to suggest that Subaru has improved the all-new Forester in every single area.