No-one can have missed the trend in recent years for big, butch off-roaders. Our streets are groaning under the weight of Land Rovers and Land Cruisers, each one capable of scaling a mountain or carrying pregnant sheep across a muddy field. Of course not many are called into active duty, and instead demean themselves with school runs and shopping trips.
The irony is that the very feature that makes them attractive, the extra twisty-turny bits that are their 4×4 genitals, are never used. Instead, they’re left dangling underneath the chassis, adding unnecessary weight to an already lumbering package. Think Linford Christie and Bernard Manning. Combined.
It’s absurd. Thankfully, Subaru have made sure there’s a more intelligent option.
The previous generation Forester Turbo achieved almost cult status. Those in-the-know saw it as the thinking man’s SUV. Sure, it had four wheel-drive and in some models, even had a low-range transfer box. The difference, though, was that it wasn’t crippled by its off-road aspirations. It was lower, lighter and far less of a compromise. Dare I say it, but it was even fun. The semi-mad Turbo version was genuinely exciting, in a pant-staining way. But it was dull, with styling inspired by a packing crate, and had a low-rent interior. Subaru is hoping to rectify that with the second-generation, whose range now comprises the base Forester 2.0 X, the 2.0 All-Weather, and this, the range-topper 2.0 XT. ‘T’ most definitely stands for ‘Turbo’.
Based on the current Impreza platform, the new Forester XT is shorter, lighter, faster, safer and generally nicer to be in. The styling is more aggressive, particularly at the front, while the rest of the panels have a purposeful chunkiness to them consistent with its rufty-tufty image. It’s colour-sensitive, though, and the silver of our test vehicle is not the smartest option in the shade chart.
If you’re into lugging sheep, the cargo bay is almost completely flat, and is littered with well thought out cubby holes and compartments. Access is excellent, thanks to the huge boot aperture, and the suspension is self-levelling so Dolly won’t upset the handling too much.
The front seats adjust in most directions you could ask for, and incorporate fold-down arm-rests in most models that are particularly welcome on long journeys. The steering wheel adjusts for height but not reach, the pedals are well spaced and there’s gallons of headroom as you might expect. The somewhat sit-up-and-beg driving position is the only reminder that you’re further from the ground than normal, but it’s a comfortable arrangement and suits the Forester perfectly. The seats of the XT model have decent bolstering to hold you in place during full-on roly-poly antics, and the optional leather seats add a touch of class. Easier to clean, too.
The dashboard plastics are much improved over the old model, and the controls are clearly laid-out and easy to use, particularly the dials for the climate system. Some materials are a little 1980s, though, with the storage bin on top of the fascia deserving a special mention for its vicious action and brittle plastic construction. The stereo is an aftermarket affair, with a cubby hole below – presumably the native Japanese model is fitted with a double-DIN sized stereo that doesn’t make it over to the UK.
Storage opportunities are numerous if not necessarily capacious, with a net on the side of the transmission tunnel, pockets in the doors, CD storage in the central armrest, etc. There’s a practical atmosphere in here; it’s easy to feel at home, and doesn’t take long before maps, mobile phones and other paraphernalia are stuffed into various crevices.
Climbing aboard, you prepare yourself for the inevitability that is a car on stilts. Pull away, and you’ll quickly notice the well-balanced clutch and gear change. But at the first corner, comes the big surprise: this barge can handle! The ride is excellent, too, the long-travel suspension soaking up even the harshest bumps our maintenance-free roads have to offer. This makes it even harder to believe the well controlled body-roll. There’s even precision in the steering, coupled with reasonable feedback. Much of this composure no doubt comes as a result of the low centre of gravity afforded by the use of the boxer engine, and it’s easy to see why Subaru insists on retaining this layout.
The engine eggs you on, too. It’s the same unit as that found in the Impreza WRX, but detuned to 175bhp. However, it retains its torquey turbo power delivery and characterful offbeat flat-four thrum. Sixty arrives in 8.3 seconds and puff runs out at 125mph.
Unlike many of the more conventional 4x4s, the Forester’s four wheel-drive system is set up to provide extra on-road grip, as well as help search for off-road traction. Tight cornering responds well to powering through, although there is dialled-in understeer more for safety’s sake than anything else.
Off-road, despite not having the low-range transfer box of the lesser models, the XT is an admirable performer in muddy conditions, and certainly won’t embarrass you in Silverstone car park. Ground clearance is actually greater than a Freelander’s at the front axle, although we’d still not advocate rock-crawling as a hobby.
The Forester XT starts at £20,995 for the five-speed manual, rising to £23,195 for the auto version with leather seats. There’s a respectable level of kit, with ABS, EBD, electric windows all round, automatic air conditioning, cruise control, heated seats, CD player, alloy wheels, the world’s largest electric sliding sunroof, headlamp washers, and even a wiper de-icer system.
The XT is better on fuel than the old Turbo, with the combined average up to 29.1mpg. Enjoy yourself, though, and that will drop quickly.
But that’s the point: you can enjoy yourself. A Land Cruiser isn’t much fun on your favourite back road. The Forester is, and you get the impression that the Subaru is somehow enjoying it with you.
We think it’s a well thought-out package, with added character. And a far better choice than any SUV.
There’s a lot to like, here. It’s fun, which is always nice, and practical, too. Four wheel-drive works well on- and off-road (within reason), it’s comfortable, and you’ll be truly amazed at how well it handles considering its height. Worth a serious look.