The Forester has long been the countryman’s SUV of choice but will Subaru’s new hybrid version earn an equally lofty place on our wishlist? Charlie Flindt finds out
The Forester has always been a Field favourite, so I was eager to see if the latest version – complete with hybrid ‘e-Boxer’ power plant – would still feature on our wishlist. We’ve grimaced at the continuously variable transmission (CVT) gearbox replacing the wonderful manual dual-range version. We cheered at the diesel flat-four when it arrived, and booed when it vanished. How would the petrol/electric mix get on?
It didn’t get off to a great start. I was sent the ‘Sport’ version, which comes adorned with clashing bronze/red flashes and a set of drilled pedals, but no extra performance at all compared with its stablemates. There’s no WRC/XT-style performance step-up here. And you can’t get it in the handsome green that the ‘plain’ version comes in.
The Forester’s body shape is still a wonder. It’s not pretty but it is practical. There’s loads of space front and back, wide-opening doors for easy access, and visibility is one of the best. There are slim pillars and proper quarterlights – still more valuable for road safety than a thousand electronic aids. And the rear seats fold almost flat, giving a splendid floor area. There’s a reasonable amount of ground clearance, while the four-wheel drive system is still there to give surprisingly respectable off-road ability.
Finally, to the heart of the matter: the e-Boxer. You know that noise when an angle grinder with a dodgy bearing slows to a stop? That’s what the ‘e’ bit sounds like for much of the time it’s in sole charge. Luckily, the ‘e’ bit spends little time in sole charge, and the petrol engine kicks in at the drop of a hat, but even the boxer bit has lost the ‘thrum’ that made driving flatfours such fun. It was hard to spot what the battery bit was actually for, except for ticking the right eco-box.
Performance is nothing to shout about, although Forester buyers are probably the last ones to be checking that column in the brochure. The ride and handling are as good as ever for a tall car, helped no doubt by the low centre of gravity and sensible tyres. Fuel economy hasn’t benefited from the new technology: the onboard computer estimated a mid-30s figure.
Subaru’s CVT gearbox is as quirky as it has always been. It’s hard to equate engine speed and road speed as it shifts its way up and down in a way that isn’t quite manual and isn’t quite seamless. It has a strangely uneasy relationship with the rest of the driveline. But it has been around for many years now and has established a reasonable reputation for reliability.
The whole package is mixed. The Forester has been the countryman’s SUV of choice since almost before the term SUV was invented, and fieldsports fans appreciate them for their practicality, reliability and off-road ability. But rural types are sceptical of too much tech and new-fangled fancy engine systems. I’m not sure what those who drive in wellies will make of the latest Forester. It might still be on our wishlist, but I suspect it will have dropped a few places.
♦ Engine: 1,995cc flat-four/lithium-ion battery
♦ Power: 150ps
♦ Max speed: 117mph
♦ Performance, 0 to 62: 11.8 seconds
♦ Fuel economy: 34.7mpg
♦ Insurance group: 23
♦ Price: £39,995