As a relatively compact and affordable car for its class, the Subaru Forester does a lot with a little – but five years in, are there better choices among this SUV’s rivals?
It’s not easy being the last kid to get presents on Christmas morning – and in many ways, the Subaru Forester is that mature and high-achieving elder child.
Japanese marque Subaru has spent the last few years renewing its entire lineup from the BRZ, to the WRX, Outback and now the Crosstrek (formerly the XV) and Impreza, all gaining new generations; complete with the latest safety technology and interior tech.
Not so much the Forester: while the current generation launched globally in 2018, five years is an age in the hyper-competitive midsize SUV segment, and it’s expected that the popular model will be fully renewed sometime next year.
But is the current Forester still worth considering? We certainly thought so back in 2022, when Chasing Cars recognised the merits of the Forester during our midsize SUV megatest, awarding the AWD-only Subaru awarded it third place – behind the Toyota RAV4 and Volkswagen Tiguan.
We tested the Forester then in a specification that is exactly the same as it appears here, in the top-spec, non-hybrid 2.5i-S AWD grade with a handsome shade of Horizon Blue Pearl and commended it for its sheer practicality and family-friendly nature.
The price? $46,340 before on-road costs, or about $51,400 driveaway.
However, in a segment as crowded as the midsize SUV a year is a hell of a long time and new mainstream rivals such as the Nissan X-Trail have ramped up the competition and the Forester is by no means perfect.
So with a successor likely just around the corner and more options than you can dream of is the current-generation Forester still worth a look?
Ask a Subaru dealer what the brand’s best feature is and you’ll hear Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive leave their lips before you’ve even finished the question, but to me it’s the value proposition that’s the real highlight.
At a time when inflationary price creep is more of a steady jog, the $37,890 (before on-roads) entry price of the Forester is enticing, and going further up the range in pursuit of more features isn’t as punishing as some other brands, with our 2.5i-S grade only $8450 more expensive.
Starting with the 2.5i AWD base model, the Forester nets the following as standard:
Subaru is currently offering the 2.5X AWD grade as a special edition, which is almost identical to the base grade with the exception of swapping out the 8.0-inch unit for a smaller 7.0-inch Alpine-sourced display. The CD player is lost but you do gain wireless phone connectivity.
Stepping up to the 2.5i-L AWD adds a front camera, a curb-side camera, heated seats in the front row and adaptive LED headlights but the most notable upgrades go towards safety with reversing AEB and driver monitoring functionality added.
The hybrid version of this grade, the Hybrid L AWD, adds a few extra goodies including LED fog light and a premium cloth interior.
The 2.5i Premium AWD grade builds on the 2.5i-L with the following:
The more rugged 2.5i Sport AWD adds:
Finally, the 2.5i-S and Hybrid S grades throw in the additional features:
It doesn’t take an expert to know that modern Subarus have a pretty unique feel to how they drive: very soft, forgiving, and relaxed – though pessimists might say ‘lethargic’.
That isn’t the case for the newly-introduced Subaru Outback XT turbo models, which finally go as well as their rigid SGP chassis feels. Sadly, the turbo engine hasn’t been brought back to the Forester lineup.
Instead, the Forester’s passive driving demeanour no doubt earns Subaru a few fans – and when it comes to SUVs, I count myself among them. After all, isn’t a comfortable cruiser exactly what you want when coming home after a hard day? This isn’t meant to be a sports car.
The Forester replicates this formula well, though it’s not without its downsides, as this soft suspension adds a rolley-polley nature to the driving experience that occasionally makes the car feel ‘challenged’ during some rather mundane cornering.
What does this mean for you as the driver? Well, it means that you feel ‘challenged’ also, with those unwanted g-forces sometimes carrying through to the cabin during some fairly mild corning speeds, so I’ve often found myself bracing my knee against the centre console and door.
The Forester’s size is a real asset when parking, and would make it a good fit for apartment dwellers, but it does mean the driving experience is not as soothing as it could be.
Wider rivals corner flatter, faster and feel more relaxed to drive than the Forester and even if you’re not a lead foot this is a factor to consider.
However, it’s not a deal breaker either and find the right bit of road – preferably involving some dirt – and this fairly compact midsizer can be reasonably fun to drive.
Away from corners though there is a lot to love about the way the Forester drives, with its fantastic cabin visibility a real winner in heavy city traffic.
The lithe nature, comfy seats, chunky tyres and soft suspension also mean the Forester won’t see you living in fear of your next encounter with one of this country’s many potholes.
While many SUVs in this segment opt for a sleek design with big wheels and a low ride height, the Forester proudly remembers its utilitarian focus with its chunky wheels, 220mm ground clearance and short overhangs.
Put simply, the Forester makes quick work of this country’s many dirt roads, hiking trails and drive-on beaches. Plus, the combination of the full-size space under the boot floor and Subaru’s well-tuned X-Mode off-road mode mean you have the confidence to go places you may not with its rivals.
It’s telling how many Foresters, appear online as suped-up off-road rigs traversing terrain normally reserved for proper 4WDs with low-range transfer cases, and while the midsizer is no replacement for the latter, widespread testing has shown it’s among the most capable soft roaders out there when the going gets tough.
There is however some room for improvement under the bonnet, as the 2.5-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder is neither fast nor refined.
With 136kW/239Nm at the ready, it’s down on the 138kW/245Nm tune of this same engine offered in the Outback and these peak figures don’t even come on song until 5800rpm and 4400rpm respectively.
Combine this with the often divisive CVT automatic transmission, and it means the Forester has to rev often, and loudly. Subaru has a solution, I believe, but it may not arrive within the lifetime of the current generation.
In Japan, Forester buyers are offered a 1.8-litre turbo four-cylinder engine making 130kW/300Nm, and while I don’t think the extra grunt is critical for this family SUV, I believe the refinement could be hugely beneficial.
Chasing Cars recently ran a test between the 2.5-litre n/a and 2.4-litre turbo ‘XT’ Outback models and saw a 43 percent reduction in noise under moderate throttle and 29 percent reduction under full throttle.
This isn’t an anomaly, this is the joy of turbocharged engines which typically make power more quietly and do so at lower revs. Currently, Subaru Australia has said there are no plans to bring this option to our market but it hasn’t ruled it out either.
Subaru has a 1800kg braked tow rating for the 2.5-litre Forester (600kg more than the hybrid) and an unusually good maximum towball load of 180kg. No wonder you see so many of these with mountain bikes hanging off the back.
The interior of a midsize SUV should be approachable, comfortable and easy to use and thankfully the Forester ticks all of these boxes effectively.
It’s remarkable how open the inside of the Forester feels, thanks to its large glasshouse, which is expanded even further on the Sport and S grades with the addition of a sunroof.
Buyers may also be surprised at the level of space inside the Forester given its modest exterior dimensions, with sufficient width for even the most prominent man-spreader though long-legged folk should spend some time in the driver’s seat before they sign on the dotted line.
The Forester is perhaps the only mainstream midsize SUV on the market to offer a longitudinal engine, rather than the more compact transverse configuration, with its boxer engine slightly intruding into the cabin.
I wouldn’t say I was uncomfortable per-say but my knees were more bent and sat higher than they do in some rivals, though the 230mm longer Outback doesn’t seem to have this problem.
The front seats themselves are relatively comfortable, trimmed in leather like the rest of the interior and feature eight directions of adjustability and two stages of heating.
You’ll notice a few hard plastics here or there but nothing that feels too cheap. I would appreciate some more leg protection on the centre tunnel though and the additional padding on the front door tops doesn’t really cover your whole elbow.
The Forester is now the only car to retain Subaru’s last-generation 8.0-inch display which is both relatively small (by modern standards) and features some rather elderly software, though thankfully wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto resolve much of this issue.
Once you plug your phone in however you’ll notice that there really isn’t anywhere to put it, with the small cutout beneath the touchscreen not fit for a modern phone. Into the cupholder it is then.
The touchscreen makes up one of three displays that dot the Forester’s interior, with the next biggest a 6.3-inch display sitting further up the dash providing access to a curb-view camera and basic vehicle information though it’s not particularly useful.
We expect to see these two replaced by Subaru’s 11.6-inch portrait touchscreen in the next-generation, as seen first in the new-gen Outback, which has also ushered in wireless phone connectivity for some models.
An additional 4.2-inch unit in the gauge cluster can be found between the analogue dials and provides a digital speed readout and other basic data.
Newer rivals have moved onto a full-width digital display, though not all examples of this new technology actually offer a usability advantage over this classic setup.
Being the top-end grade, the Forester also benefits from an eight-speaker Harman Kardon sound system which is good but not great. Overall it’s well-equipped but some notable feature omissions include a wireless phone charger, a heads-up display and seat ventilation.
Moving into the back reveals that this is a car suited for not just young children but teenagers and fully-grown adults as there is heaps of room. The rear doors also open quite wide and I was able to easily strap in a forward- and rearwards-facing child seat without much fuss.
The only major criticism is the lack of pull-up sunshades which are a bit of a must-have in a family SUV with as much glass and sunshine as this one, even before you open the sunroof. Still, some good aftermarket options can fix this for a few hundred bucks.
The boot area of the Forester is a masterclass in how to do it right. Firstly, it’s pretty big for a car this size at 498 litres but that figure doesn’t tell the whole story.
Subaru has gone to the effort to make room for owners to stow their cargo cover away when not in use and is one of the few brands committed to a full-size spare (except in the hybrid). Shopping bag hooks and a 12-volt socket also make the area more usable.
The fifth-generation Forester was tested by ANCAP back in 2019 which means it did miss out on the more strict modern criteria including in 2020, though it still scored five stars at the time.
This means it doesn’t include modern innovations available on popular rivals such as the Kia Sportage and GWM Haval H6, like a front-centre airbag that aims to reduce potential harm between the front passengers clashing during a side-on collision.
If this is a deal breaker and you still love the ‘vibe’ of the Forester, it’s worth noting that the Subaru Outback does include a centre airbag and was rated the safest car on record when it was tested back in 2021.
The Forester, meanwhile saw the following results:
Even with the passage of time, these results are still impressive and the late-2021 facelift saw an expansion of Subaru’s Eyesight safety suite to include lane centring, lane departure warning and autonomous emergency steering.
This joins existing features such as forwards AEB, adaptive LED headlights, blind-spot monitoring, driver condition monitoring as well as front, curb and rear cameras.
Of particular note though is the addition of reversing AEB, a feature that I consider to be non-negotiable as a parent due to the sort of terrible accidents they prevent, though please note that this isn’t available on the 2.5i AWD and 2.5X AWD grades.
During our testing, we were impressed at how well-tuned the safety systems were as a whole, with the adaptive cruise control a particular highlight due to its accurate tracing of the road ahead in both heavy traffic and at highway speeds.
During our testing, we saw an average of 8.3L/100km, not too far off Subaru’s claim of 7.4L/100km when using 91 octane fuel.
The as-tested result is neither terrible nor particularly good. It’s a shame that the hybrid option has been shown in repeated testing to offer minimal gains, a fact we hope changes if the next-generation Forester scores hybrid technology from Toyota, as reports suggest.
Service intervals are 12,500km or every 12 months, with prices capped at $2675 over five years and while Subaru does give you the option to pre-pay for servicing, it doesn’t offer any discount to the fee for doing so, unlike brands like Skoda.
That’s not an unusual figure for a vehicle of this type but it’s a fair way off the $1300 Toyota charges for a non-hybrid RAV4 Edge AWD over five years or 75,000km.
The warranty is a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, as per the industry standard, and a year’s worth of roadside assistance is also packaged in.
Subarus, like Jeeps, seem to be a type of car that you either get – or you don’t – and that’s because this brand has built up a reputation for attacking the same problem at entirely different angles to its rivals.
Quirks like making AWD mandatory on almost everything, persisting with its quirky boxer engine, integrating multiple screens into the cabin instead of one big slab and retaining a CD player in 2023 are all a bit odd, but they do serve a purpose.
If you’re a bonafide Subaru person you’ll likely appreciate these aspects but even if you aren’t; aspects like its well-tuned safety systems, huge interior space and mountain goat-like off-road capability can appeal to a broad audience.
While we eagerly await the next generation – and hold out hope the 1.8-litre turbo engine comes to Australia soon – the fifth-generation Forester, as it stands, is still a convincing package.
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Key specs (as tested)
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