AT SCHOOL WE dressed the same, looked the same, often thought the same. Life was all about following the rules, studying the books, scoring tries and hopefully a girlfriend. At varsity, no one dressed the same, looked the same or even acted the same. We had only one rule to remember: no drinking with your left hand. It was okay to be a hooligan. Life was fun, free and the bad angel on your left shoulder had your willing ear.
A decade on you’re probably more bald yet ironically more presentable and the lone margarine tub is not the only item in your fridge. You’re expected to be ‘responsible’ and chat more with the good angel and the tax man than you did with the big, white telephone. Essentially you’ve become a Forester man with a penchant for space, practicality and the outdoors. Subaru confirmed, your only decision is which angel to listen to: the one urging you to grow horns, floor the throttle and race through the bush, or the one suggesting you sit back and cruise sedately, saving the earth, your relationship and your money. Some choice.
The previous Forester seemed to strike a chord with horsey types and soccer moms ranged from Morningside to the Midlands. I’m not sure what exactly this means about the styling of the previous version, but the newcomer is not that radically different. It does have a more rounded, upmarket feel though and still succeeds in being one the best looking options in the wagon market, even if you – like me –prefer horsepower over horses.
The range-topping S-Edition is the newest addition to the 2011 range aimed, as Subaru puts it, ‘at the performance junkie who happens to have a family’. I like that. It’s ballsy and honest. Our ‘check-me-out-china’ metallic ‘Sky Blue’ unit might be a bit too ballsy and honest, differentiated from the understated pearl white diesel test unit by not only its color but also a black grille, silver roof rails, 17-inch STI alloy wheels and a rear tailgate spoiler. In my youth I would definitely have opted for the S-Edition, whereas it is the diesel’s vanilla looks that now appeal. I’d even venture to say it has more class and elegance, though a bonnet scoop does push the limits. Given the Forester’s complement of female fans, I asked my wife for her opinion, and to my surprise she loved the scoop and the extra bling. She’s originally from the south of Johannesburg though, so perhaps that vote should be considered a spoiled paper.
Round 1: Diesel
While a CD to dangle from the mirror is not standard issue, boy racers will like the look and feel of the S-Edition’s branded sport seats, which are swathed in a black leather/blue Alcantara combination. Drilled aluminium pedals and ally-look paddles behind the steering wheel add to the sporty functionality of a cabin ultimately let down by its poor tactile quality and dated design.
Without the benefit of those ‘S’ elements the diesel’s cabin feels even more archaic, though on both test units the build quality wasn’t bad. Both were delivered in Premium specification which includes a CD/USB audio system with Bluetooth and iPod connectivity, reversing camera, dual-zone climate control, double volume electric sunroof and xenon headlights. Common to both units is excellent all-round visibility (also a strong point in the previous gen cars), along with generous front and rear accommodation. The luggage area expands from an average 450 litres to 1610 litres with the rear seats folded totally flat, while the load floor conceals a full-size spare – adding to peace of mind.
Round 2: Tie
Most of those who identify with the blue starred oval are performance junkies. That’s becoming more fringe for new Subaru buyers who value safety and quality, but all will agree that the boxer engine is at the heart of the brand’s character. It’s all about the sound, the low centre of gravity and smooth character, thanks to the low NVH associated with the balanced horizontally opposed piston layout. Now, after 20 years, Subaru has updated the faithful EJ-series engines with the new FB-series. It’s still a horizontally opposed four, but the line-up now includes the diesel, a first for Subaru and first available locally in the 2010 Legacy. The oilburner is a little guttural at low rpms, but in the Forester application power delivery is punchy, with above-average throttle response considering it’s a turbo mill. Mated to the six-speed manual it offers a rewarding, torquey response in each gear. It’s also frugal, making it the perfect holiday cruiser or commuter. For those wayward weekends however, you want the 193kW S. At first I found the choice of a five-speed auto (albeit with paddle-shift control) a bit odd for the ‘sportier’ option, but the drivetrain synergies with the 2.5-litre petrol turbo makes for a thrilling drive, even on track. The mill has been lifted straight from the WRX hot hatch and remapped for 2kW less power and 2Nm more torque (now 347Nm) to optimise delivery for the auto. Against the clock, the diesel was 2.93secs slower than the petrol in the 0-100kph sprint, but used four fewer litres of fuel over 100km, so again it’s up to you how good, or bad, you want to be. Each measure has its merits.
Round 3: Tie
Both tests units were shod with the larger 17in alloys standard on Premium models, and offered adequate bite and good all-round traction – on the open road and on track – thanks to Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system. Ride quality could still be better though, particularly over dirt corrugations and potholes. If you intend venturing a long way off the Tarmac and require a more complaint ride, we suggest opting for the smaller 16in alloys available on the base versions.
Subaru engineers have altered the Forester’s low-speed damping characteristics by changing fluid flow rates within the rear shock absorbers, but the changes are more evident on the S version. The diesel still displays more pitch under acceleration and dive under braking than seems necessary, despite its less ‘sporty’ profiling (and despite being fitted with self-levelling rear suspension). Body roll, despite being contained and well controlled, is also more evident on the diesel. Steering feel on both models was adequate, though in each case lacked weight. Again a trade-off, as less weight is a positive off the beaten track, keeping jarring vibration and cabin intrusion to the minimum. Particularly on the handling front, the slightly divergent dynamics of the two cars underlines their different positioning.
Round 4: S Edition
The score cards show a split decision. On the one hand we love the power delivery, aggression and tauter dynamics of the S-Edition. It’s a vehicle that prods your inner hooligan despite the consequences and the fuel cost. Compared to its market rivals it packs a mean punch. But squared up to the diesel boxer, some may find it hard to justify the R40 000 premium or the bigger fuel bill every month. In reality, the diesel boxer is an equally entertaining performer, managing to be responsible yet fun to drive. Perhaps we, like the interiors, have just dated quickly, but in this bout it’s the diesel’s overall usability that narrowly claims our vote.