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January 25, 2012

Review: 2012 Subaru Forester 2.0 XS

To many, the notion of having an automotive ‘facelift’ or a ‘refresh’ is simply a game of scrambling the specs sheet. It could happen via the slapping on of a new front grille, bumper, alloy wheels or perhaps a new interior color combination. Of course, to the increasingly knowledgeable Filipino car buyer, he or she knows that it’s not much different from the previous year’s model except the price has been hiked up tremendously.

This isn’t the case with the 2011 Subaru Forester, the surprisingly successful compact crossover that’s made the Star of Pleiades badge as recognizable as the other Japanese makes. Before 2009, the Forester has always been an oddball. It looked like nothing more than a tall station wagon with all-terrain tires. However, the current model designated by enthusiasts as the ‘SH’ changed all that. Subaru finally shunned the mutated wagon look and went for something much more conventional. And while it lost some of its distinctive design flavor, it’s certainly much more acceptable to the vast majority of buyers. Now, if you’d like they’d add more flare to the 2011 model, think again. After all, why fix when it isn’t broke?

Most will be hard pressed to tell the difference with the 2009 and the 2011 Forester models. The grille is new: it features a much more distinct ‘egg crate’ pattern than before. Other than that, you get side mirror mounted signal lights, which are pretty much de rigueur nowadays. For 2011, the base 2.0-liter model gets a bump up in specs, jumping from the ‘X’ designation to ‘XS’ which adds color-coded side mirrors and silver-painted door handles. Meanwhile, the turbocharged ‘XT’ gets a newly shaped rear spoiler.

But before dismissing Subaru for lazily coming out with this mid-cycle refresh, let me assure you: what the Forester lacks in superficial changes, it more than makes up for it where it counts: the drivetrain, well at least for the 2.0-liter model. Under the hood resides an all-new “Boxer” four-cylinder engine—Subaru’s first completely new design in over 20 years. Christened as the ‘FB20’, this new engine emphasizes fuel economy and cleaner emissions. It features technology such as a zero-maintenance timing chain and intake/exhaust variable valve timing. The result is 28-percent reduction in friction loses and 10 percent better fuel mileage. Despite the improvements in fuel mileage and emissions, performance and driving fun is what makes Subaru a Subaru, so the FB20 also features the same output as before (150 horsepower) with slightly more torque (200 Nm) and more importantly, a broader torque curve. The XT’s turbocharged EJ25 engine remains unchanged for 2011.

On the road, the new FB20 doesn’t disappoint. Owning an Impreza with the older, EJ20 engine, the changes are almost immediately apparent. The engine is smoother, quieter and much more vibration-free than before. And even as the revs climb up, the engine is free from ruckus, thanks to the ultra-balanced flat-cylinder layout. Despite not having the same umph as the turbocharged version, the normally-aspirated Forester feels perkier and livelier on the road because much of its peak torque is available from as low as 2,500 rpm. And despite having a mere four-speed automatic installed, the broader torque curve results in almost no gear hunting even on twisty, mountainous roads. The fuel economy is also tremendously improved: 8.2 km/L in the city (14 km/L on the highway) compared to the previous model’s 7.6 km/L (12 km/L on the highway). For those doing regular long distance drives, the new FB20 engine is also capable of using lower, 93-octane fuel whereas the old EJ20/EJ25 required at least 95-octane.

Based off the Impreza platform, the Forester is on the sportier side of the crossover equation without being harsh. By mounting the suspension on a sub-frame, the Forester quells even the worst of road ruts and reduces the transmission of road noises into the cabin. But don’t expect it to behave like its sportier hatchback sibling. Because of the higher center of gravity and softer suspension, the Forester feels less ‘Teutonic’ and softer when going through corners. Nonetheless, there’s still tons of grip (the Forester is the tested as the least likely crossover/SUV to rollover in an emergency maneuver) and stability/traction control is standard across the line when the going does gets tough. But what it gives up on sporty road holding, it makes up for it with excellent suspension travel, enabling it to soak anything and everything on the road. And a 215 mm of ground clearance (225 mm for the XT), it’s much more adept at tackling Manila’s flooded streets.

Getting in and out of the Forester requires a bit of a re-think if you’re used to other crossovers. Because of the C-shaped reinforced crash safety structure, you don’t necessarily ‘slide’ in and out of your seat like in a typical tall car—you’ll have to step in and out. Generally, it’s not discontenting, but the older set may find it a chore. The seats aren’t mounted as high compared to other compact crossovers; but at least the driver’s side has height adjustment. The front passenger won’t be as lucky, where the view is akin to staring out of a bathtub. Meanwhile, the rear occupants enjoy a “theatre seating” arrangement, where they’re slightly higher than those in front perfect for small kids. And for families, the Forester makes for a perfect vehicle featuring ISOFIX child seat anchors and tethers, standard six airbags and even an illuminated cup holder/utility box at the back.

The biggest criticism thrown towards the Forester was how its dash lacked any differentiation compared to the Impreza. The 2011 model changes that. The materials have been softened, improving the overall feel and the off-black interior is now made purely black with darker, sportier metallic hues sprinkled around for good measure. The ‘Christmassy’ instrument panel has finally been replaced by a serious, sportier red-and-white one that marks the return of an analogue temperature gauge and the inclusion of an instant fuel economy meter among others. The urethane steering wheel of the X is now covered in genuine leather while the seat feature much better trimming while keeping its water-repellant nature. The ventilation system’s been bumped up as well, now featuring dual zone climate control on all models, complete with a digital readout. It’s cool and effective, especially if you have picky passengers. The moon roof remains standard on all models.

The new audio system is both a winner and a loser at the same time. It’s a winner thanks to a built-in USB port that enables full Apple iPod control on the head unit and steering wheel controls. It’s also a winner because it now incorporates a voice-command Bluetooth hands-free phone system which is equally effective and easy to program. It’s a loser because it loses its 6-disc functionality and makes do with 3 less speakers (four down from seven). The end result is a system that emphasizes clarity over chest-thumping power.

The Subaru Forester may not look as flashy or radically different as some of the other compact crossovers on offer today. But they’ve done improvements on things that matter. The headline, of course, is the fuel-efficient, clean-burning engine, but add the small incremental changes done to the interior and you’ve got a completely different crossover compared to the one launched two years ago. When the SH-model Forester launched, Subaru nailed the perfect balance of practicality, performance and packaging. For 2011, they’ve certainly done it again. The 2011 Subaru Forester XS offers a driving experience that’s largely unmatched by anything close to or even double its P 1,388,000 price range.

2011 Subaru Forester XS
Ownership 2.0 XS
Year Introduced 2009 (Facelifted 2011)
Vehicle Classification Compact Crossover
The Basics
Body Type 5-door crossover
Seating 5
Engine / Drive F/AWD
Under the Hood
Displacement (liters) 2.0
Aspiration NA
Layout / # of Cylinders Flat 4
BHP @ rpm 150 @ 6,200
Nm @ rpm 198 @ 4,200
Fuel / Min. Octane Unleaded / 93~
Transmission 4 AT
Cruise Control Yes
Dimensions and Weights
Length (mm) 4,560
Width (mm) 1,780
Height (mm) 1,700
Wheelbase (mm) 2,615
Curb Weight (kg) 1,470
Suspension and Tires
Front Suspension Independent, MacPherson Strut
Rear Suspension Independent, Double Wishbone
Front Brakes Vented Disc
Rear Brakes Disc
Tires 215/65R16
Wheels Alloy
Safety Features
Airbags 6
Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS) Yes
Traction / Stability Control Yes
Parking Sensors No
Exterior Features
Headlights HID
Fog Lamps Front, Rear
Auto Lights No
Auto Wipers No
Interior Features
Steering Wheel Adjustment Tilt/Telescopic
Steering Wheel Material Leather
Seating Adjustment Manual
Seating Surface Leather
Folding Rear Seat Yes, 60/40
On-Board Computer Yes
Convenience Features
Power Steering Yes
Power Door Locks Yes
Power Windows Yes
Power Mirrors Yes, with Fold
Climate Control Yes
Audio System Stereo
No. of Speakers 6
Steering Wheel Controls Yes

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