Norm Guthartz

See other tow car reviews written by Norm Guthartz

Subaru's updated, enlarged Forester is solid, stable and moderately priced, but close rivals offer more space, better fuel economy and gutsier engines

Overview

Practical Caravan's experts review the new-generation Subaru Forester, an SUV to take on the likes of the Honda CR-V and Nissan X-Trail. It’s roomier and more economical than the old model, and now comes with a five-year warranty package. There’s a choice of diesel and petrol versions. Here we're driving the mid-spec XC diesel, which will set you back a fiver less than £27,000.

Subaru has a reputation for making rugged and reliable cars. We are hoping the new Forester delivers more of the same, but with greater practicality and lower running costs. The diesel engine should have the muscle to cope with any suitably matched caravan, and we expect stability at high speeds.

Towing

For a 4x4 of this size, the Subaru Forester is quite light. Even including 75kg for the driver, it only weighs 1631kg, giving an 85% match figure of 1386kg. That means many mid-sized caravans make sensible matches, even for newcomers to towing. Some rivals can be far heavier.

The legal towing limit of 2000kg is reassuring, and self-levelling suspension and a trailer stability control system are fitted as standard. Unlike many cars, its towing electrics are easy to reach rather than tucked away under the back bumper. Subaru clearly expects many customers to tow with the Forester, and has a good idea of the features that tow car drivers are looking for.

Practical Caravan's reviewers hitched one to an unladen Swift Expression 584 with a mass in running order (MiRO) of 1310kg to see whether the Subaru lives up to its promise.

At motorway speeds, the Forester felt stable enough, although the odd steering correction was needed in crosswinds. It wasn’t as composed in the lane-change test. Lots of body roll and limited bite from the tyres didn’t inspire confidence, and the big Swift could be felt pushing the car on the fastest runs.

Plenty of SUVs struggle with the lane-change, but are usually much stronger in the hill-start test. Sure enough, the Forester’s handbrake held the outfit still as long as it was on firmly, then the car towed up a 1-in-10 slope without complaint. After tackling the same gradient in reverse, although there was a slight smell from the clutch.

The Subaru’s 2.0-litre diesel engine was strong enough for the hill start, and its peak torque of 258lb ft matches that of a Honda CR-V 2.2 diesel. It pulled from 30-60mph, as you might when joining the motorway, in 14.8 seconds. That’s respectable enough, although it’s worth noting that the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento offer considerably more punch.

Because the Subaru has less muscle, the driver may need to change down a couple of gears if caught behind slower traffic: accelerating from 50-60mph in fifth gear took a pedestrian 16.5 seconds. But as long as the driver keeps the engine above 1600rpm and doesn’t bother revving beyond peak power at 3600rpm, the Forester gathers speed at a reasonable rate.

Our braking test took place in wet weather, but the Subaru’s discs were up to the job, bringing car and caravan to a stop in 11.6m. In normal towing we found the brakes powerful and easy to apply smoothly.

All told, the Subaru is a solid tow car; the four-wheel-drive system and all-season tyres will come into their own on out-of-the-way campsites. However, the likes of the Audi Q3 and Volkswagen Tiguan feel more secure on Tarmac, and you can buy heavier and more powerful tow cars for similar money. The Forester is a good tug, but not class-leading.

Everyday driving

With the caravan left behind, the Subaru’s strongest point is its comfortable ride. On bumpy B-roads, tighter control would make it better still, but the Forester still smooths the road effectively, especially on faster roads and motorways.

It’s a car for drivers who prefer a steady approach to pressing on. Practical Caravan's reviewers were sorry that the Forester leans so much when cornering hard and that the steering feels a bit vague.

Subaru’s four-cylinder diesel has been around for half a decade, and it’s starting to trail newer designs in terms of noise and refinement. Perhaps there’s more character to the engine note than with most diesels, but the volume could be turned down a bit. On rough surfaces, road noise is noticeable. 

Once cruising at a steady speed on smooth Tarmac, the Forester is quiet enough to make a long drive no chore. Parking at the end of the journey is made easier by the light steering and the standard fit reversing camera. So, the Subaru Forester is capable solo, but not exceptional.

Space

The Subaru Forester has grown taller, wider and longer. There’s also an extra 2.5cm between the axles, giving Subaru scope to make its SUV roomier.

There’s plenty of legroom in front, the driving position is comfortable and the Practical Caravan review team felt there was a wide range of adjustment to suit people of most shapes and sizes. Electric adjustment for the driver’s seat is a plus on a mid-spec car and, despite the sunroof, even very tall drivers won’t be short of headroom.

The major controls are clearly laid out, with large buttons and dials. The air-conditioning controls in particular are a model of simplicity. There are buttons on the steering wheel for the stereo, cruise control, trip computer and phone connectivity. Although you can’t fault the dashboard for ease of use, a more upmarket finish would improve things further.

Those in the back get plenty of space, with a centimetre or so more legroom than in a Tiguan. Despite being a 4x4, the transmission tunnel makes only a slight hump in the floor so there’s room for everyone’s feet, even with three on the rear seat.

Large windows let plenty of light into the back, so passengers feel less hemmed-in than when travelling in some rival SUVs. However, no air vents specifically serve them. 

Luggage space in the Subaru Forester 2.0D X has risen to 505 litres. That’s 35 litres more than you’ll find in a Volkswagen Tiguan, but short of a Honda CR-V’s 589 litres. It’s easy to make the most of the space, though, thanks to a wide opening and a load height that’s low by 4x4 standards.

Catches on either side of the boot make a quick job of lowering the rear seat backs, but there is a slight slope to the load floor. With the seats down, capacity increases to 1592 litres.

The new Forester is definitely a roomier and more practical car than its predecessor, although it’s up against spacious rivals.

Running costs

Subaru has suffered in recent years from unfavourable exchange rates, which push its prices up. Today’s weakened yen means the new Forester is more competitive with its rivals.

The Forester range starts with the 2.0D X priced at £24,995, while petrol cars cost from £500 more. Our mid-spec diesel test car has a list price of £26,995. What Car?’s Target Price team reckon that if you twist the dealer’s arm a bit that will drop to £25,842.

You get a comprehensive list of standard kit for your money, including 17in alloy wheels, xenon headlamps, dual-zone climate control, and front, side curtain and driver’s knee airbags. Plentiful safety equipment has contributed to a five-star rating from Euro NCAP.

Fuel economy and emissions are similar to its nearest rivals’. You can expect 47.9mpg on the combined cycle. We achieved a respectable 24.9mpg towing around our economy route.

Despite the high price of fuel, depreciation is the biggest motoring cost for most owners. What Car?’s used car experts predict the Forester will be worth 43% of the original price if you hang on to the car for three years or 36,000 miles.

Hold on to the car for longer and you’ll continue to enjoy warranty cover until it reaches five years of age, or 100,000 miles. That’s longer than most mainstream rivals offer.

It’s good to see Subaru back on the pace in terms of price and running costs.

Technical specs

Engine size1998 cc
Kerbweight1631 kg
85% KW1386 kg
Towball limit80 kg
Maximum towing limit2000 kg
Power145.0 bhp
Torque258.0 lb ft
Official MPG47.9 mpg
CO2156 g/km
30-60mph14.8 seconds
30-0mph11.6 m

Verdict

So, what's the verdict of the Practical Caravan Subaru Forester review? It is a good car, and a definite improvement on its predecessor. It’s hard to find one area in which it outpoints all of its key rivals, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t buy one.

It’s most likely to suit someone who will really benefit from its 4x4 abilities, towing throughout the year and staying on out-of-the-way campsites. There’s an honest, down-to-earth ruggedness about the car that’s really quite appealing. It rides comfortably, too, smoothing over all but the worst lumps and bumps in the road. 

As a tow car, it’s strong in most respects without being outstanding. The 2.0-litre diesel delivers determined performance, but it’s not hard to find 4x4s with more power and torque at a similar price point. Stability at speed is good, but more controlled suspension would make the Subaru feel even better tied down.

You’d expect a 4x4 to tackle a hill start without fuss, and we were very happy with the Subaru going forwards, although the clutch did smell taking on the same hill in reverse.

It’s good to see that Subaru can now price its cars more realistically. You couldn’t describe the Forester as a bargain, but it’s there or thereabouts compared with the likes of the Honda CR-V.

The Forester makes a sound ownership proposition, too. Fuel economy is within a few mpg of its chief rivals’, and we achieved 24.9mpg while towing.

Don’t expect thrills, an upmarket finish or much design flair but the Forester is a solid, practical and workmanlike tow car.

Conclusion

Pros

  • A solid, stable and workmanlike tow car, with competitive fuel economy
  • It's rugged,with 4x4 and all-weather tyres that will be useful on muddy pitches
  • The current version is taller, longer and wider than the previous model

Cons

  • There are more powerful rivals that cost about as much as the Forester
  • It's not all that grippy on Tarmac and exhibits lots of body roll
  • A better-controlled suspension would make it feel well tied-down
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