Friday, February 11, 2011

Subaru Forester S-Edition Car Review,And Specs

Subaru Forester S-Edition

Local Launch
Canberra, ACT

What we liked
>> Strong engine performance
>> Smooth five-speed auto
>> Understated styling

Not so much
>> Suspension needs more work
>> Below-average tyre grip
>> Steering-rack rattle in tight corners

Overall rating: 3.0/5.0
Engine and Drivetrain: 3.5/5.0
Price, Value, Practicality: 3.0/5.0
Safety: 4.0/5.0
Behind the wheel: 2.0/5.0
X-factor: 3.0/5.0

About our ratings

-- The most powerful and most expensive Forester has landed
Australia's favourite compact softroader for the past three years in a row, and one of the pioneers of the segment, Subaru's Forester, has come in for a mid-life freshen-up.

The new flagship of the Forester fleet is the S-Edition which comes with the turbocharged 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine from the Impreza WRX, the five-speed automatic from the WRX STI -- and a hefty pricetag which pitches the car in excess of $50,000.

There are more than 30 compact softroaders on sale in Australia today, giving buyers more choice than any other vehicle category, including 2WD as well as 4WD versions. But the S-Edition is the first true performance model -- after the turbocharged Forester XT, which is slightly less powerful.

The Forester S-Edition is also one of the most expensive vehicles in the compact softroader class. Subaru says the high price is part of a deliberate strategy. For now, the Forester will remain exclusively all-wheel-drive and the company has no plans to dip below the $30,000 barrier, where much of the compact SUV sales growth has come from.

"Our rivals are in a race to the bottom, we're pushing the top end of the compact SUV market," says the boss of Subaru Australia, Nick Senior.

The introduction of the S-Edition coincides with an update to the regular Forester range, identified by a deeper grille, indicators in the side mirrors and the global debut of an all-new 2.5-litre horizontally-opposed 'boxer' engine -- the first clean-sheet overhaul in 21 years.

Subaru says stock of the 2011 model range -- including the S-Edition -- has already begun arriving in dealerships, but the initial shipment of cars was built in December. Cars wearing a 2011 build plate are on the water and due in dealerships in the coming weeks.

-- The $50,990 price tag creates a new high watermark
With a price tag of $50,990 plus on-road costs, the S-Edition is the most expensive Forester of all time. Fittingly, it comes with the works.

Leather-suede upholstery, a glass sunroof, eight-way electric driver's seat, dual zone air-conditioning, a rear view camera, navigation, premium sound with Bluetooth and a USB audio input are all standard.

And the list goes on... Front footwell illumination and brighter, premium-look instrument gauges help lift -- but do little to disguise -- what is otherwise a bland interior defined by cheap-looking hard, grey plastics.

There is only one choice of powertrain: the turbocharged 2.5-litre engine from the WRX and the five-speed automatic (with paddle shift) from the WRX STI. A manual is not available and the company says there are no plans to add one.

Indeed, the only option on the S-Edition is the colour. There is a choice of eight colours for now, but there are only seven on the brochure because Rally Blue (the colour of most of the press cars at the launch) is available only for a limited time.

-- Forester gets a heart transplant from the WRX
Don't be fooled by the STI badges on the slim-spoke, lightweight alloy wheels. While they're a nice addition to the car, this is not an STI model.

Under the bonnet is the exact same powerplant as the one fitted to the latest WRX, the turbocharged 2.5-litre horizontally-opposed boxer four. It comes with 193kW and 347Nm, which is up from 169kW and 320Nm in the regular turbocharged Forester model, the XT.

But while the XT (and the WRX) are available with manual transmission, mysteriously, the S-Edition is not. The S-Edition is available solely with the five-speed automatic also shared with the Tribeca SUV and WRX STI performance car. Subaru says it did not expect much demand for a manual, and as a result it was not developed for this model.

Despite the extra performance (0 to 100km/h in a claimed 6.5 seconds), the S-Edition that Subaru describes as "the world's first truly high-powered compact SUV" does not get bigger brakes -- it keeps the same brake set-up as the turbo Forester XT. [Ed: For the record, despite Subaru's statements there's at least one compact SUV that packs more kW than the Forester S-Edition -- Toyota's RAV4 V6 has 201kW]

But, as with its predecessor, the new Forester maintains its five-star ANCAP safety rating, and as with every model in the Forester range, it comes with six airbags and stability control.

-- Good things do come in small packages
The Subaru Forester is not the biggest softroader in its class -- but nor is it the smallest. It could be argued, however, that its size is just right.

If sales success over the past three years is a guide, Australians must love the size of the Forester -- because they're prepared to pay a premium for what is a smaller car than most of its peers.

From a company that has had some notable design misses over the past decade, the Forester is one of Subaru's smartest design executions. Its compact proportions are quite deceiving; it has more backseat legroom than a Nissan X-Trail, and doesn't sacrifice much in the way of cargo space. And yet it fits in the same size parking spot as a Toyota Corolla sedan.

It has decent-sized door pockets, drinkholders and glovebox -- but the centre console is a tight squeeze because the car is relatively narrow.

Visibility all around is good thanks to the low window line, and with the 2011 Forester all versions except the base petrol and diesel models come with a rear view camera as standard.

-- With a five-star ANCAP rating it's one of the best, but...
There have been no fundamental structural changes to the 2011 model year Forester that would change its five-star ANCAP safety rating for better or worse. Indeed, all Subarus are five-star rated after the company made safety a top priority in the early 2000s; we're seeing the benefits of that development work now.

Six airbags and stability control are standard, as are lap-sash belts and height-adjustable headrests for all five seats.

But as car makers often like to tell us, there are two types of safety: protection after a crash, and prevention of a crash. The S-Edition certainly has the ability to protect occupants after a crash, but there is a question mark over "prevention", as it can feel unwieldy to drive in certain situations (see drive impressions).

-- All rivals come from within: WRX or XT?
This is a bit of a long shot, but I reckon the S-Edition Forester won't necessarily attract new buyers to the Subaru fold, rather its primary purpose is to keep its loyal band of customers from defecting to other brands.

There is no other car quite like the Subaru Forester S-Edition -- until you get into $200,000 Porsche Cayenne territory. But the S-Edition could be just the sort of vehicle that current Forester XT buyers might be interested in. Maybe they won't upgrade to the new BMW X1 or X3 after all.

And the same goes for Subaru WRX owners. How many of those are under pressure to find a family car? The S-Edition could be just the ticket.

-- No shortage of grunt, but there is a shortage of grip
The brochure for the S-Edition reads: "For decades Subaru STI engineers crafted World Rally winning cars, picking up 6 World Championships along the way. Across the road, other Subaru engineers have been working hard since 1972 to create better all-wheel-drive SUVs. Now they've got together and poured everything they know into one almighty Subaru."

These are impressive credentials and, on face value, it would be fair to assume the Forester S-Edition should be the ultimate expression of this collaboration. Unfortunately, Subaru's combined expertise has not translated well on this particular model -- and not because Subaru left motorsport three years ago and hasn't won a championship since 2003. If anything, Subaru may have tried too hard to morph WRX performance into a Forester frame.

There are three fundamental problems: poor tyre grip, bouncy suspension and severe steering kick-back (or rattle) in tight turns.

The sweeping mountain roads on the outskirts of Canberra -- the same roads that car commercials are filmed on -- should have been the perfect environment for the S-Edition to demonstrate its breadth of abilities. But sadly the terrain highlighted its weaknesses.

When driven enthusiastically, the steering rack was prone to thudding quite violently in tight corners -- but the biggest surprise was that the steering rack even got the jitters when braking in bends while taking it easy. This would not be acceptable in a lesser car, let alone one with the pedigree of Subaru.

Next bugbear: the Yokohama Geolander tyres. They have one of the most demanding jobs in the tyre business: deliver good on-road grip and be competent on gravel. Oh, and don't get a puncture, either. Unfortunately, they only score two out of three. They can handle a bump, and they are adequate on dirt, but they have sub-standard grip on sealed roads. This is not the first time this complaint has been made about these tyres.

There is no way to sugar-coat it: the grip just isn't there. It wants to run wide even at a modest pace. Worse still, once grip is lost, it doesn't matter what you do with the steering wheel -- the tyres can't handle the pressure. We'll come back to the tyres shortly because, for now, the suspension has some explaining to do.

Subaru went out of its way to give the S-Edition a sporty feel. Indeed, the company said so in its press release: "Suspension revised for sporty feel".

Translated, what this generally means is that the springs and shock absorbers have been stiffened to help reduce lean or bodyroll in corners. But in this instance, the theory has been turned into a bit of a shambles.

The net effect of this high-riding, sporty suspension is that it makes the S-Edition feel way too bouncy and way too reactive to imperfections in the road. It's a bit like a pogo stick, which is not only uncomfortable, it's also not the best way to get the power to the ground or feel connected to the road.

It all clicked when I drove the regular Forester on the return leg of the media preview drive -- over the same roads. Few journalists on the launch had the opportunity to do the same because of flight delays and the limited number of regular Foresters. But I was one of the lucky few to experience the turbo and non-turbo models on the same roads on the same day.

I count myself especially lucky because the base model Forester helped restore a little faith in the core vehicle and provided me with a light bulb moment -- a realisation of where the S-Edition went wrong.

The regular, non-turbo Forester I drove had identical Yokohama Geolander tyres -- in the identical 17-inch size. Only the suspension was different. And guess what? The regular Forester's suspension didn't bounce around as much -- and therefore the tyres were able to find more grip. They were still sub-standard, but not as bad as the S-Edition experience.

So here's my theory: the bounce in the S-Edition's suspension simply meant that the tyre either had less contact with the road, or less lean (or weight) over the corner of the car when it needed it most. Basically, it feels as if Subaru has set up the S-Edition to be a chronic understeerer in an attempt to keep the car on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, they've created a harrowing experience instead.

The good news is the fix is easy. All Subaru needs to do is ditch the S-Edition suspension and fit the springs and shocks from the regular Forester. And while they're at it, find some decent rubber.

Even if you don't do it for us, Subaru, at least do it to protect your proud engineering and motorsport heritage.


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