OVER four decades Subaru has charmed Australians with a blend of style, technology and passion with their cars embracing fun and common sense in equal measure.
The XT Forester with its all-round capabilities and quality build has done much to entrench the credibility of the Japanese manufacturer's promises and has been rewarded with a fourth-generation makeover to help it stay among the top choices.
So in comes a new engine, a new transmission, a vastly improved interior and a safety package with enviable technology. But out goes the bonnet scoop - that symbol of daring - as Subaru eyes a more refined, grown-up look.
Subaru has responded favourably to customer feedback, adding more better-feel luxurious touches to the interior to complement the price.
Switchgear has that quality look and for the first time there is a touch-screen multi-function display which to be honest could be a bit larger. Instruments are well set out and modern and steering wheel controls, while numerous, are far from cumbersome or confusing.
The seats in our XT Premium benefited from being raised slightly, were a bit too flat to be absolutely comfortable with the missing side bolstering noticeable around a series of sharp corners.
Surprisingly back-seat passengers are the real winners in this equation with improved class-leading leg room and more cabin width too to settle in those shoulders.
There are plenty of cup holders and storage bins, and the boot, larger by 38 litres in the XT (55 litres across the range), deals well with the life of a small family.
On the road
The turbocharged 2.5-litre engine that drove the previous XT has been replaced by a direct-injected turbocharged 2.0-litre unit that delivers increased power and torque.
There is no longer a manual option and Subaru has also replaced the automatic transmission with a continuously variable one. The XT, the sporty brother in the Forester family, has always been popular because of its ability to deliver and the new model sticks to the script. It is an incredibly easy car to drive and to fall in love with - its balance, poise and power coupled with daring off-road ability bringing pretty close to a perfect package.
The CVT used here is impressive, handling changes in traffic conditions and gradients with ease with none of the lurching and droning so apparent in some competitors.
The Forester range also now features the SI-Drive system, activated by a button on the steering, which allows you to select from three modes - Intelligent, Sport and Sport-sharp.
The suspension has been tuned for comfort and the front biased (60:40) torque distribution does well to keep understeer to a minimum.
Off-road too, the Forester has retained its zing. The dual-range transfer case (offered in the manual) has gone, replaced now by X-Mode
which does an excellent job of dealing with traction and stability control and driving the down-hill assistance program to control speed on slippery slopes. Ground clearance is really good for this class and buyers will also be happy with the news that towing capacity has increased to 1800kg.
What do you get?
Our top-of-the-range XT Premium came with all the bells and whistles although that's what you should expect if you are doling out more than $50,000. Highlights include dual-zone climate control, electric glass sunroof, electrically-adjustable heated front seats, Bluetooth, an excellent Harmon Kardon sound system, sat nav, rain-sensing wipers, dusk-sensing headlights, keyless entry and start, heated door mirrors, a powered tailgate and de-icing wipers.
Subaru has particularly excelled with its safety package which features seven airbags, stability control, traction control and ABS brakes with EBD. Of course the star of the show is the 3D camera-based EyeSight system with its lane-departure warnings and automatic braking intervention.
The medium SUV market is packed and the Forester faces competition from Mazda CX-5 (from $36,620), Nissan X-Trail (from $35,190), Toyota RAV 4 (from $38,990), Volkswagen Tiguan (from $38,490) and Kia Sportage (from $34,990).
The Forester's space, build and on and off-road capability make it an inviting option. Subaru has eliminated many of the disadvantages of the previous model - the brakes are better, the wing mirrors and A-pillar has been moved slightly to improve forward visibility while the child-seat anchor points are now in the back of the rear seat, improving visibility out the back window. The lane departure warning, despite its advantages, is a tad trigger happy beeping loudly within a whisker of the side lines.
The smaller more efficient engine has brought with it a reduction in fuel usage from 10.5 litres per 100 kilometres to a promised 8.5l/100km. Our test figures though were closer to 9.6 litres/100km which is probably manageable enough. Subaru offers a three-year unlimited kilometres warranty, insurance costs are mid-range and Foresters hold their value well.
We don't think that losing the trademark scoop has done much to enhance the exterior appeal of the Forester - it is almost as if it has said goodbye to a point of difference in a market plagued by "sameness". The Forester sometimes looks a bit ungainly but the mesh front grille, 18-inch alloys and sleek new aerodynamic design will probably have more lovers than haters.
What matters most
What we liked: All-round capability, easy ride, powerful turbo punch.
What we'd like to see: Better front seats, better inclusions in the entry models.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year unlimited kilometre warranty. XT servicing is every six months or 12,500km. Service costs are capped at an average of $397.46 over 10 services in five years.
Model: Subaru Forester XT.
Details: Five-door medium-size all-wheel drive sports utility vehicle.
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder horizontally opposed Boxer producing maximum power of 177kW @ 5600rpm and peak torque of 350Nm @ 2400-3600rpm.
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic.
Consumption: 8.5 litres/100km.
Performance: 0-100kmh in 7.5 seconds.
Towing capacity: 1800kg; tow ball 180kg.
Bottom line: XT $43,490; Premium $50,490.
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