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An independent car for an Independent review

Wednesday, 4th March, 2020 4:32pm

There is probably no car brand in the world more genuinely iconoclastic than Subaru. Originally an offshoot of an aircraft maker (and indeed, the wider Subaru corporation still makes aircraft components to this day), Subaru has long trod its own path while other stuck to the main road.

Ever-wedded to the quirky flat-four engine, originally it was a farmers’ friend — and sold through networks of agricultural machinery providers.

In the nineties, that all changed and once the iconic Impreza met the unstoppable Colin McRae, Subaru became the rallying brand, its blue and gold rally stage rocketships as famous around the world as a Ferrari. In the wet, on a twisting road, they were near-as-dammit as fast as a Ferrari, too.

That has all changed, now. The rallying days are over, and Subaru is now focusing more and more on SUVs and crossovers. Let’s examine the case of this Forester, Subaru’s most popular model, and long since a firm favourite with them that need to regularly traverse the rockier, boggier, parts of the countryside.

This latest version will be sold in Ireland only as a hybrid - specifically this e-Boxer hybrid model (boxer is in reference to the flat-four engine, whose horizontally opposed cylinders ‘box’ towards each other when the engine is running).

Now, Subaru has a mutual shareholding arrangement, and technology sharing agreements with Toyota. And this new Forester e-Boxer hybrid does, at first glance, contain what looks suspiciously like a Toyota hybrid system.

There’s a compact electric motor, being fed by a stack of lithium-ion batteries under the boot. It’s mounted in series with a petrol engine and driving the wheels through a CVT gearbox.

Subaru didn’t just lift the hybrid system from Toyota (excellent) RAV4, though. Oh no, that would never do. Instead, Subaru has created its own hybrid setup, where the flat-four 2.0 litre 150hp engine and an adjacent electric motor drive together through a proper, mechanical, all-wheel drive system.

Now, that four-wheel drive system is both heavy, and it saps more power from the engine than a part-time four-wheel drive system might. So don’t go expecting this hybrid to deliver Toyota-like economy figures.

Subaru quotes WLTP fuel economy figures of 8.1 litres per 100km, and we scored 9.0 litres per 100km in our time with the car. Not appalling, perhaps, but not what you expect when you see the word ‘hybrid’.

Performance is also languid at best. True, thanks to the hybrid, there’s a little more oomph to the acceleration, but this is still a car that takes its time getting up to cruising speed.

Style-wise, you might also look down your nose at the Forester. It’s big and blocky, and certainly not what you’d call sleek.

Now, in some ways I find that immensely appealing — there’s no fuss, and no lack of purposefulness to the look of the Forester. Inside too, you could accuse some of the dials and displays of looking at little old-fashioned and a touch cheap. Then again, as we shall see below, the main points of the cabin are actually very, very good…

Now, the final criticism I’m going to level at the Forester is that it’s not cheap. In fact, this one I’m driving costs the guts of €50,000 but then again that has to be seen in light of the fact that it’s crammed with award-winning safety equipment (including the EyeSight camera-based collision avoidance system that has been lauded by both Euro and Japanese NCAP crash test expert) and is also stuffed with leather seats, an excellent touchscreen sound system, and much more.

And this is the thing — I actually love it. In spite of the various flaws and issues that I’ve pointed out, I think this is a terrific car.

Yes, it’s a touch thirsty, but then Subaru is as ever focused on the US market (where it is wildly more successful than it is here in Europe).

It’s also utterly delightful to drive, with light but sharp and responsive steering, that frankly makes most other car makers’ steering feel either too heavy, too mushy, or both. The relatively soft springs means that there is body roll, but it’s well-contained, and the four-wheel drive system means that you never run out of traction.

You sit high-ish, on hugely comfortable leather seats, with a great view out because Subaru is one of the few (only?) car makers who can square impressive safety credentials with thin windscreen pillars.

Speaking of safety, the multiple award-winning EyeSight camera based lane-keeping and braking system makes a mockery of most other’s efforts.

On top of which, it’s properly rugged. Its lofty ride height and 4x4 status is no mere affectation. We managed to sample the Forester e-Boxer both in the deep snows of northern Finland, and in the driving rains of Storm Denis, and it performed in a manner that can only be described as ‘unstoppable’.

Knee-deep snow? No bother. Howling winds and standing water? Barely noticed them. The confidence that the Forester inspires in you when others are warily watching the barometer is something else.

I get that the Forester isn’t for everyone. I get that many will find this one too thirsty, too slow, too expensive, or all three.

I get that many will in no way see the Subaru badge as having the same cachet as that of a Toyota, or a BMW, or an Audi or some such.

For me, though, this is the real deal. It’s the anti-fashion SUV, an SUV where the focus truly is on U for utility. A car designed and made by engineers, not marketeers.

Honesty? I’d love one.

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