By Andy Enright
The fourth generation Forester model was key for Subaru. At its launch in 2013, the company was busy re-defining itself as a maker of SUVs - and the Forester was about as 'SUV-like' as you could get from the Fuji Heavy Industries brand. Having said that, this MK4 model was more car-like than any of its predecessors, yet still appropriately tough. Think of it as a Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V compact SUV soft-roader with a bit more 4x4 ability and you'll not be too far from the mark.
If your only experience of Forester models is limited to the early, quirky first and second generation ones, then you'll find this fourth generation version much easier to live with - and to justify as an alternative to something more mainstream. It's one of our favourite cars of this kind and it makes a great used buy. Read on to find out why.
Although its fairly generic SUV silhouette doesn't appear to differ too much from the third generation car, make no mistake, the underpinnings of the MK4 Forester model are wholly different and the detailing is a lot smarter. Efficiency was much improved with this generation version and those in search of more performance were satisfied by the return of the XT petrol turbocharged variant.
Subaru fans with longer memories might recall the time the Forester model line went from being '4x4 estate' to 'compact SUV' in genre. That happened with the launch of the MK3 model range in 2008 and the MK4 version we look at here continued the trend towards a market segment dominated by cars like Toyota's RAV4, Honda's CR-V and Land Rover's Freelander. It arrived in dealers at the start of May 2013 with a design that concentrated on an improvement in quality, greater space-efficiency and extra safety, all features intended to attract family buyers. Sales were reasonable and this car was eventually replaced by an updated and refreshed version in 2015.
What You Get
Sit this fourth-generation car next to its predecessor and it actually looks less adventurous. A bit more generously proportioned maybe, but a lot of the more overt detailing has been toned back. It's still a fairly good looking thing but it's no head turner. The interior has come on leaps and bounds though, with Subaru wisely investing in the 'touch points' such as the steering wheel, handbrake and gear shift, while optimising the switchgear feel of all other controls. Those of you who remember Subaru interiors feeling about as plush as a Photo-Me booth will appreciate the use of higher grade materials on the dashboard, the centre console and doors.
There's certainly plenty of room in a smarter cabin than you might expect. Where this car's predecessor had found itself to be out-classed by cars like the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, the Land Rover Freelander and the Nissan X-TRAIL when it came to interior packaging, this MK4 model was able to compete on far more equal terms with small SUVs of this kind when it came to cabin quality. It felt spacious too, thanks to a 23mm increase in rear legroom and the designers' decision to move the base of the A-pillar 200mm forward, improving visibility and creating a sense of spaciousness for front seat occupants. The overall width of the cabin grew too for MK4 model buyers, up 20mm to 1,540mm, increasing the distance between the driver and front passenger seat to bring about best-in-class shoulder room and elbow space. And with this fourth generation version, buyers got 12% more boot space, total capacity up from 450 to 505-litres. When the rear seats are folded down, boot space increases to 1,592-litres, giving an immensely usable area. Original buyers also got the option of a powered tailgate - though it's painfully slow to operate.
What to Look For
You are joking, right? In all seriousness, very little goes wrong with the Subaru Forester. In 2011, Warranty Direct named it the fourth most reliable SUV you could buy, this car being pipped only by three similar Japanese competitors, Honda's HR-V and CR-V models, plus the Suzuki Grand Vitara. Look for signs of over-zealous off-road action which usually means hedge scrapes in the paintwork, chewed alloy wheels, dented exhaust boxes and possibly misaligned suspension. The interiors have proven hardwearing, although the dashboard mouldings can creak and rattle.
(approx based on a 2014 Forester 2.0 diesel) Parts are pitched a good deal above what you'd expect to fork out for Vauxhall or Ford spares but Subaru counters that you'll need to buy them less often. A replacement headlamp unit will cost in the region of £285, whilst an exhaust is around £450. Tyres are around £100 a corner.
On the Road
You get the choice of three engines. There's a normally aspirated 150PS 2.0-litre petrol which is the same unit you'll find in the brand's XV crossover model and doesn't really show the Forester at its best. It's a perfectly serviceable flat-four, but it struggles a bit to shift a heavily-laden car. Better fun can be had with the turbocharged 2.0-litre which is in fact a completely different engine, effectively being a blown version of the unit found in the Subaru BRZ sports coupe and its Toyota GT86 sibling. Finally, there's the 150PS flat four turbodiesel that most will choose, the powerplant that is probably the best fit for this Forester.
There's a lot to like about the diesel and most buyers will be entirely happy with it. It's a fairly willing engine and with 350Nm of torque available from just 1,600rpm, it feels agreeably strong. It's mated only to a six-speed manual transmission though. The 240PS turbo petrol engine is a peach, getting to 62mph in just 7.5 seconds and running on to a top speed of 137mph. The addition of a turbo makes it feel so much brawnier than the breathless lump in the BRZ and the Lineartronic CVT transmission is paired with X-Mode, a whole suite of electronics designed to get the best traction off road. On tarmac, the body control is excellent even when taking liberties in corners and visibility is excellent. The steering could use a little more feel but that's a minor gripe. Here was a very credible rival to Mazda's CX-5 for the title of best handling SUV.
The fourth generation Subaru Forester represents a lot for the money, a car that can cut it off road and which still delivers all the safety equipment you could ask for on-tarmac whether you choose the rugged diesel engine or the lusty turbocharged petrol unit. We're less enthusiastic about the unremarkable normally-aspirated petrol unit though.
Overall, the good thing about this MK4 model Forester is that it isn't trying to be a BMW X3 or an Audi Q5. It plays an entirely different game and in that, it's a class act. Look for a lightly-used example that's been serviced on the button and you really can't go far wrong.