Is this Australia’s safest SUV?
THE mid-size, five-seater SUV, led by Mazda's CX5, is well on the way to becoming the class of choice in suburban Australia. It's closing in fast on the current front runner, the small hatchback, and if present sales trends continue will overtake it next year. The car is dead. Long live the SUV. Has it really come to this? Almost.
Subaru's Forester - one of the original SUVs, along with Toyota's RAV4 and the Honda CR-V - arrived in 1997, and more than 250,000 have since been sold here.
As is the Subaru way, the new fifth-generation Forester doesn't stray from a winning formula. Subaru has one of the most loyal customer bases in the business, so Rule No.1 with any new model is keeping the faithful in the church.
It's a much leaner Forester line-up for 2018, though, with the previous 2.0-litre petrol, 2.0-litre turbo diesel and 2.5-litre turbo variants all gone. Subaru sees no future in diesel. A hybrid will happen within a couple of years, then a pure electric variant.
For now, power for the four grades of Forester comes solely from a new 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder in Subaru's signature "boxer" layout. The continuously variable transmission has seven ratios in manual mode - there is no manual gearbox.
Still the only volume-selling mid-size SUV with full-time all-wheel drive as standard, the 2018 Forester has more sophisticated X-Mode software for maximum traction in difficult off-road conditions. Add 220mm of clearance, plus a full size-spare, and it easily retains class-leading off-road credentials.
Prices start at $33,490 for the base 2.5i. We're testing the top-spec Forester S, at $41,490.
Infotainment now includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. LED headlights that illuminate your path through a corner as you turn the wheel are also standard.
The S adds leather upholstery, rich interior trim, sunroof, power tailgate, navigation, 18-inch alloys and Harman Kardon audio.
Restricted vision is an unfortunate by-product of 21st century car design but the Forester has the best view in town, all around the car, with lots of glass, a tall roof and relatively slim pillars, plus a high, comfortable driving position.
The new body is larger, especially behind the driver where rear passengers enjoy vast legroom. Kid-friendly practicalities are covered, with air vents, two USB ports and two storage pockets on each front seat. The 60-40 split backrest is too steeply angled for proper support, though, and non-adjustable.
Extra cabin width translates to more boot space, easier loading through a wider aperture and an extended floor of almost two metres.
Rivals fit stiffer suspension in pursuit of sporty dynamics. Subaru has gone the other way on the fifth generation, with a relatively supple tune, perhaps to suit US tastes. The result is a luxurious, quiet ride, though with a full load of adult passengers it can get bouncy on bumps as the suspension struggles to control the extra weight.
No rival has such a comprehensive driver assistance safety tech package as Subaru's EyeSight, standard across the range. Vision Assist (not on the base grade) has surround cameras and reverse automatic braking, plus an inward facing infra-red camera that watches you as you drive and triggers an alarm, accompanied by a Keep Your Eyes on the Bloody (well, not that bit…) Road message, if you take a longish look away from the straight ahead. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
Despite gaining almost 50kg, the Forester is a more responsive, quicker drive than its predecessor, reaching the 100km/h mark in 9.5 seconds.
OK, so it's still no jet but the new engine and recalibrated CVT deliver much more useful acceleration, especially in the lower half of the rev range, than its relatively modest, peaky torque output (239Nm at 4400rpm) would indicate, so performance is adequate in town and on a highway cruise. Sport and economy settings add to the breadth of its ability, as does the seven-speed manual mode, using paddles.
Fuel efficiency is significantly improved. Expect 6L/100km on the highway and 9L-11L in town, on regular unleaded.
The all-wheel drivetrain, now supplemented by torque vectoring, ensures exceptional stability and grip on the open road, and on dirt, but its softly sprung, lightly damped suspension doesn't exercise quite the disciplined control over body movement that it should.
As a result, the increased bulk makes itself felt, especially in corners and/or fully laden, when it almost drives like a seven-seater SUV.
VW's Tiguan is the best handler in this class; Mazda's all-wheel drive CX-5 is superior, too.
I have a young family so safety is my top priority. Subaru is a blue-chip Japanese brand with a reputation for making safe, practical, family friendly wagons.
This ticks a lot of boxes and, size wise, it's the sweet spot for my needs - not too big but with more interior space than before. Made in Japan quality, off-road cred, best in class safety and strong resale values seal the deal.
MAZDA CX-5 GT FROM $43,950
Thanks to 140kW/251Nm 2.5-litre/six-speed auto/all-wheel drive, it does 0-100km/h in
7.8 seconds. Stronger performance and sportier handling than the Subaru, plus five years' warranty. Similar safety spec. Smaller, though.
VW TIGUAN 132TSI COMFORTLINE FROM $42,490
Great handling plus big torque from its 132kW/ 320Nm 2.0-litre turbo. It does 0-100km/h in
7.7 seconds. Seven-speed dual clutch transmission and all-wheel drive. Warranty is five years. Ride is firm and the full safety package costs extra.
If you're looking for a sports-flavoured five-seater SUV, the Forester isn't your wagon. If there are more important things in your life, such as a couple of kids, you'll find its capabilities, size, safety and design priorities are all must-haves on the parents' wish list.
SUBARU FORESTER S
WARRANTY/SERVICING 3 years; $1277 for 3 years/37,500km
ENGINE 2.5-litre 4-cyl, 136kW/239Nm
SAFETY 5 stars, 7 airbags, AEB, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise, rear cross traffic alert, driver monitoring, lane keep assist, surround cameras
SPARE Full -size