Vince Pornelos / Brent Co | August 09, 2018 16:00
Subaru focuses on making Forester handle better, be safer, more usable
The Forester has always been a different kind of crossover.
In the nineties many car manufacturers capitalized on the emerging crossover SUV segment, using popular car platforms to create something bigger, more appealing, more versatile, and more capable. They were affordable too; front wheel drive platforms used on sedate sedans and wagons are known for being more economical to manufacture than similar body-on-frame or rear-wheel drive designs. And eventually, they gained more capability with the addition of four-wheel drive.
Subaru's case, however, was very different. Four-wheel drive (more specifically their version of all-wheel drive) was already their standard from the start; they already had a superior AWD platform from their rally championship-winning Impreza, Legacy, and the Outback.
The Forester was born, and immediately it proved to be a success for the brand. Spawning 4 generations over 20 years. Now there's a new model, and we're going to drive it at the regional launch in Taiwan.
A new look... sort of
The first thing you'll note about the all-new Subaru Forester is that it doesn't look all-new. Uncommon again; carmakers always make the design changes from one generation to the next as obvious as possible.
The design changes from the current 2013-2018 Forester are mildly evolutionary, so much so that you'd be forgiven if you thought this was just a facelifted model, not a new generation one. The fascia, the profile, the greenhouse (glass area) at the side, the stance, all look to have been tweaked from the previous model, not a clean sheet design. The only panel that appeared to have been fully redesigned was the rear.
We actually asked Subaru's project engineer about the seemingly mild design changes, and his answer was clear: they wanted to solidify the identity of the Forester line. And while the body panels look very similar to the current one, he assured us that none of the panels on this 2019 model are interchangeable with the 2014-2018 Forester.
All about architecture
The skin may not look as different from before, but what matters with the 2019 Subaru Forester is what is underneath. They call it the Subaru Global Platform, or SGP, and they've already been using it with the Subaru Impreza and the closely related XV.
Now we're not much for marketing speak, but basically what Subaru did was re-think the basic concept of the vehicle's frame. Using stronger materials and rounded (instead of angular) reinforcements, they were able to achieve some very impressive improvements.
The result is a platform that's 40% stronger, and that in itself improves steering, handling, straightline stability and so much more. Subaru even claims that there's 50% less roll, something we'll put to the test on a track. They also claim a 40% improvement in crash impact absorption.
We'll take their word on that last one; we'd rather not test that ourselves.
Better usability, especially for golfers
If the exterior design didn't really captivate you, that's OK; Subaru made it up with the interior.
Everything inside the Forester looks and, more importantly, feels better. The cabin, the panels, the build consistency, the leather, all just have a higher quality feel about them.
The dashboard itself is lifted from the Impreza, which is good; I like the layout and look of the new Impreza's dash. The steering is rather chunky to hold. The shifter for the CVT is nice to the touch. The gauges are clean to look at. The buttons all have a neat feel about them too.
A big (but not so obvious) improvement is the seating. The front seats are much better than before, and much more spacious. Subaru actually made some revisions that widened the space between the two front seats; that resulted in an extra 20mm of elbow room for the driver and front passenger. Subaru also stretched the Forester by 15mm and, more importantly, the wheelbase by 30mm. The result is an extra 33mm of space (and legroom) for the rear passengers.
One major improvement that the new Forester has is in the cargo hold. Open the tailgate (powered for the i-S and manual for the i-L variants) and you'll notice that the opening for the cargo area is much wider than before. Subaru says the opening now measures 1.3 meters wide; it's 20cm more than the previous model.
While that number may be seem like it was engineered out of the blue, it really wasn't; that's the average height of a golf bag (or length, if sideways) with a set of irons and drivers. That means golfers can load their golf bags horizontally, all without folding a seat.
Yes, golfers will love the lateral space for their clubs.
High tech safety
A technology that is practically headlining many new Subarus nowadays (so much so that it's actually in the variant name) is called EyeSight.
You can tell if your Subaru has this technology by looking at the windshield where the rear view mirror is mounted. If you see a pair of cameras installed as if to mimic a pair of eyes, that's it; a system that allows the Forester to literally see what's ahead of it.
The tech allows the Forester to have features that make it so much safer simply by mitigating or preventing frontal collisions. One benefit is throttle retard; if you step on the gas instead of the brake while facing a wall (i.e. in a parking spot), EyeSight will cut the throttle long enough for you to recognize your error. There's also the automated emergency braking; if EyeSight sees that you're about to crash into a vehicle that suddenly stopped, it will apply full braking to intervene.
Of course it's not all about safety. EyeSight can be used to enhance cruise control; you can set it to follow the car ahead in traffic, even up to a full stop. It will also alert you if the car in front already started moving.
All the features enabled by EyeSight add to the already great list of safety equipment like the four powerful disc brakes, the anti-lock braking system, traction and stability control, as well as 7 airbags. Don't forget the better rigidity and impact absorption of the frame too.
New off-road manners
The new Forester also comes with an improved version of its all-wheel drive electronics: Subaru calls it X-Mode.
Before, X-Mode optimized traction in tricky conditions; that version still exists in the 2.0i-L variants. But the 2.0i-S variants will now get a new version of X-Mode with the ability to be set for even more challenging weather or terrain conditions.
Similar to the SI-Drive knob in previous Subaru models (i.e. STI), the X-Mode dial allows the driver to engage standard X-Mode, or Snow/Dirt, or Deep Snow/Dirt. Granted we won't get snow here, but dirt and mud do behave somewhat similarly, and the new systems do allow the Forester to get through a jam if need be.
We asked the engineers if they had improved upon the 500mm maximum water wading capability of the Forester, but they were unable to provide data for it.
No turbo, no problem
For our drive, we were taken to a small circuit in Taichung, Taiwan. The track itself was made for karting, but seemed sufficient for the purposes of the test drive.
On the track, there were four crossovers: a 2019 Forester, a 2018 Forester, as well as two competitor models in the Honda CR-V (Taiwan version with 1.5L VTEC Turbo) and a Mazda CX-5 2.2 diesel. The CR-V VTEC turbo exhibited a bit of understeer at corner entry, but the CX-5 was spot on, even though it had a bit of mileage.
The 2018 Forester was likewise good, but the new Forester -even though the lap was quite short- was clearly better. The manners of the new crossover are indeed improved; as the rear rotates a bit better (less understeer) than the previous model, and the mid-corner throttle response allows you to accelerate well our of it. The body roll is also reduced; not by a lot, but the new Forester is definitely more confident when taking on tight chicanes.
What really surprised us, however, was the engine of the Forester... but not in the way we expected. The reason for that is because when Subaru launches this into the market, the Forester will only have the 2.0-liter FB20 engine... without a turbo. The only engine available will be a normally-aspirated flat-4 with 156 PS and 196 Nm of torque, and it's matched with the latest version of their Lineartronic CVT.
Subaru's engineers did tell us that they improved the response of the engine to deliver better initial pick up, but truth be told, I'm going to miss the Forester XT; had the 2019 model had that 240 PS and 350 Nm 2.0 turbo, the Forester would have left the CR-V turbo and the Mazda turbodiesel in its dust.
The drive was as brief as it gets, barely enough to whet our appetites for more. Honestly we do need more seat time behind a vehicle to formulate a proper review; later on we'll do a full test of the Forester and see how it performs in everyday driving conditions such as fuel economy, refinement, acceleration, parking, so on and so forth.
For now, these few laps will have to do prior to the official launch in the Philippines in January 2019. If there's one thing we know for sure, we want a more powerful version of the 2019 Forester; Subaru's engineers say they're working on an electrified version. Hopefully that would fill the void of the 2.0XT, a Forester that we will surely miss.