Subaru has brought a hybrid powertrain to its Forester family SUV - and added truly impressive safety upgrades.
Subaru has a reputation for making reliable, sturdy and safe cars and the Forester is no exception. And just like the rest of the Subaru range, the Forester is evolving as well, into a roomy, sophisticated vehicle with excellent driving dynamics and a versatile appeal for a range of use-cases. In a nutshell: hi-tech, tough, dependable, comfortable and safe.
Very safe, in fact. (More on that later.) If you need a car that will take you and your family virtually anywhere, and tow a heavy load, the Forester may well be for you.
Now in its fifth-generation, the Forester was something of a trail-blazer, being amongst the first to combine 4WD, higher ride height and estate-level space when it first arrived back in 1997, although few would remember that nowadays of course.
The Forester held the candle for Subaru in the UK in recent years as it shrugged off its petrol-head associations thanks to years of Impreza rally victories.
However, now that the excellent new XV compact SUV is getting into full swing, it isn't the Japanese brand's biggest seller any longer.
The XV may beat the Forester in the looks department, but the bigger Forester's go-anywhere ruggedness, excellent space and brilliant tech mean it should remain a firm favourite for many.
Hybrid power and an array of new safety systems, that's what. The e-Boxer features a self-charging battery-powered electric motor and a petrol Boxer engine in combination to improve fuel economy and increase power.
Working together, the engine and motor automatically adjust the hybrid power to achieve the "most efficient" driving mode depending on your speed and the driving conditions.
The e-Boxer also contains subtle additions over the former standard Forester, including tweaked design and additional safety enhancements.
The battery for the electric motor is placed above the rear axle, improving front/rear weight balance and the car's centre of gravity. While it's not the best in its class for economy and emissions, this is more than made up for by the Forester's serious off-road abilities.
Having driven the car for a week on NI roads, safety is definitely one of the stand-out features of the Forester (and also its smaller XV sibling, by the way).
Few cars have this level of occupant and third-party protection, as evidenced by last year's Euro NCAP crash test results, where the Forester hybrid scored the maximum five-star overall rating in the safety performance test, and the XV's five-star status was reconfirmed.
The Forester had been winning many plaudits for its safety, with its 97% adult occupant rating in Euro NCAP 2019.
Indeed, the Forester was ranked the safest car of all for child protection. That's quite an achievement for a company once mainly associated on these isles with rallies and petrolheads. This was underlined again last month when What Car? crowned the Subaru driver monitoring system as the best new car technology for 2020.
The Forester comes equipped with the manufacturer's brilliant EyeSight safety system, which protects the car, occupants and pedestrians using a combination of cameras, sensors, automatic braking and other technologies.
It would be hypocritical to develop something as acclaimed as EyeSight and not make it standard, and thankfully that's not a trap Subaru has fallen in to.
The system deploys a range of preventative safety systems like Pre-Collision Braking Control, Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Keep Assist, and more.
Like other models, the Forester is equipped with Subaru Rear Vehicle Detection (SRVD) system that detects vehicles approaching from the rear.
SRVD offers three main functions to improve visibility and help to minimize common causes for accidents: Blind-Spot Detection, Lane Change Assist and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert.
These systems work: I've previously driven and also reversed the vehicle straight at objects, with foot off the brake pedal: it was somewhat un-nerving, but the car safely braked to a halt automatically every time.
Should the worst ever happen (preventive braking works up 37mph), the Forester e-Boxer comes as standard with seven airbags including driver and front passenger frontal airbags, side curtain airbags, side pelvis/torso airbags and a driver's knee airbag.
But it's not just new tech - the car's engineering contributes to those important NCAP results.
The new Subaru Global Platform (SGP) brings significant enhancement to the body with chassis rigidity and impact energy absorption improved by 40% over outgoing models.
There are also seven airbags, including one SRS knee airbag installed for the driver's seat, to keep the car's occupants safe in a collision. The new Driver Distraction technology keeps an eye - literally, via sensors - on the driver and sounds if the driver looks drowsy or takes their eyes off the road. And no, it doesn't feel nanny-ish, just common-sense these days.
Subaru has retired all of its diesel engines, so for now you'll only have a choice of the petrol powerplant with mild hybrid. The hybrid powerplant works in combination with Subaru's tried and tested S-AWD system, which stands for Symmetrical All Wheel Drive and delivers the company's trade-mark off-road ability.
It incorporates a direct-injection 2.0-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, featuring 80% new components, paired with an electric motor within the customized Lineartronic transmission.
This, says Subaru, achieves a smoother, 30% more linear, responsive acceleration and a highly responsive torque.
The e-Boxer system adjusts the power-split ratio between the dedicated 2.0-litre direct-injection (DI) engine and the electric motor to match the driving condition, changing between 3 driving modes: Engine driving, EV driving, and Motor Assist driving.
You can actually drive on electric power alone for the first 1.5km or so, and at speeds of up to about 25mph. After this, t
he petrol engine will kick in to assist the electric motor, which gives a more fuel-efficient drive.
Finally, at higher speeds, the 2.0-litre Boxer petrol engine fully powers the car whilst also recharging the electric battery.
If all of this sounds complicated, it probably is, but you won't notice. It happens in the background seamlessly. And it works: fuel consumption is up to 10% less compared to the outgoing 2.0-litre petrol model.
Stop & Go is present and Subaru have worked to get around the un-natural braking feel sometimes associated with electric and hybrid vehicles using regenerative braking.
If you've already driven Subarus, you won't be surprised to know that the answer to that question is, like its XV sister: very well indeed.
Sophisticated driving dynamics are something of a Subaru hallmark. And whilst the company is now light-years from the old Subaru beloved of petrol-heads, their current models retain all the historic driving capabilities … and then some.
On tarmac the car is composed, quiet and responsive, reflecting Subaru's reputation for producing drivers' cars. It feels well planted on the road, there's little corner roll, and even the regenerative braking feels unobtrusive.
I've been fortunate enough to directly compare the new Forester with a previous-generation car side by side and the difference is night and day.
The new model accelerates faster, corners better and simply has superior driving dynamics. There's a driver-selectable powertrain management system called SI-DRIVE which allows the driver to tailor the vehicle's throttle characteristics by choosing between "Intelligent" and "Sport" modes.
That electric motor also plays a key role in the Forester's significant off-road capabilities. Selecting the two-stage X-Mode on the console rotary dial unleashes all of the car's all-wheel drive ability.
The electric motor delivers extra low-down torque for hill descent control, with the car intelligently sending power to the correct wheels on steep inclines and declines with ease helped by ground clearance of 220mm.
The Forester isn't going to win awards for the prettiest car, but it should for its capabilities. Rugged, sturdy, reliable, roomy and very competent are some of the adjectives that come to mind.
Those unfamiliar with Subaru may well be surprised at the quality of the cabin, which can more than hold its own in this marketplace.
It's an inspiring place to be with a quality feel and an overall impression that everything is solidly put together.
We shouldn't be surprised; this is part of Subaru's journey.
There are also some thoughtful touches like a rear-view camera washer - so the lens is free from gunge even when off-roading in bad weather.
There's a wide range of accessories and ideas, and lots of cubby holes and other storage suitable for smartphones, drinks, magazines and more.
The new car is roomier before, and boot space is now an impressive 509-litres with the back seat up. There are USB charger ports for front and rear passengers.
The latest Subaru infotainment packages are installed including an 8-inch screen navigation and latest infotainment system. Connectivity has also been enhanced with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto available.
This is a very safe and very capable car, one that has a large number of use cases. If you want a good tow-er, an explorer, a car for carrying lots of kit, then it may well be for you.
Alternatively, if you want a safe car for your family, one that will protect as well as anything on the market, the Forester should be firmly on your consideration list.