Subaru Forester makes its own way through the SUV woods
The Subaru Forester is a uniquely talented SUV with real engineering depth. It's just a shame it hides its light under a bushel, writes William Scholes
AS the flashing blue lights coming towards us got brighter and the wail of the siren louder, I knew it was going to be close - very close - but it was still a shock when the fire engine hit us.
Another vehicle had moved and the driver of the fire engine had been forced to adjust his line in the split second before he slalomed through the Finaghy crossroads.
Under the circumstances, it was a fine piece of driving. If the door mirrors on the Subaru Forester were not so large, the fire engine would probably have whistled past uninterrupted.
As it was, the mirror took the full force of the impact from the fully lit-up fire engine, though such was the blur of noise and energy, and the gentle rocking of the car on its springs in the immediate aftermath, that I was sure that the whole side of the Subaru had disappeared up the Lisburn Road.
The fire service was exemplary - stopping to take my phone number before speeding on to their call. They still got there in time, incidentally, and phoned me back that afternoon to check we were unhurt and to swap insurance details.
The episode was instructive in a number of ways.
First, it was a reminder that the fire service - who have doubtless just had a busy night dealing with over-ambitious Eleventh night bonfires at various 'cultural expression zones' - do a difficult job under the greatest of pressure.
Second, accidents happen.
Third, once insurance companies know you have been involved in an accident you will be plagued by phone calls and letters from lawyers offering to represent you in your claim for damages. Even when you have told them, repeatedly, to leave you alone and that neither you nor your wife were hurt.
Fourth, Subaru build their cars really, really tough.
After turning on to Finaghy Road South from the crossroads, I was able to properly take in what devastation had been wrought to the Forester.
The sum total of damage caused by the fire engine's clout with the Subaru was the loss of the body-coloured piece of plastic that acted as the mirror cap. And the indicator bulb in the mirror was broken. That was it.
The mirror itself had been folded in against the window of the driver's door in the impact. I was bracing myself for the whole mirror to fall off as soon as I touched it, but it popped back into position without complaint.
More amazing was the fact that the electric motor which folds the mirror in and out when the car is locked and unlocked, still worked perfectly.
The mirror didn't even need to be adjusted back into the right position. Nor was there a mark on the window.
It was impossible to be other than hugely impressed by how the Forester had shrugged off the sort of impact, albeit a glancing blow, that I am certain would have resulted in far more damage on a lesser car.
The sum total of damage caused by the fire engine's clout with the Subaru was the loss of the body-coloured piece of plastic that acted as the mirror cap. And the indicator bulb in the mirror was broken. That was it
To be honest, most 'ordinary' cars feel lesser than a Subaru.
They are shot through with a rare sort of integrity. There is a depth to its abilities that mere figures - such as horsepower and fuel consumption, boot size and acceleration, the sorts of statistics that are the normal stock-in-trade of columns like this one - somehow don't adequately communicate.
The plastics might not be as well textured and soft-touch as you find in a Volkswagen; the sat-nav and infotainment may not be as intuitive and as easy on the eye as something from BMW or Audi; and appreciation of the styling is not likely to be the chief reason you buy one.
But few other cars feel as well engineered as a Subaru from the moment you get behind the wheel.
The company has stuck, with the dogged contrariness of the ideologue, to its idiosyncratic drivetrain layout.
This mates a boxer engine - so-called because the pistons 'punch' horizontally, rather than the up-and-down in-line configuration that almost everyone else uses - with a 'symmetrical' four-wheel-drive system in which all the drive axles are equal length.
Subaru and Porsche, with its sports cars, are the only manufacturers to use boxer engines, citing their inherent lack of vibration and the fact that they have a lower centre of gravity than their in-line counterparts, as the main advantages.
Toyota's GT86 sports coupe has a boxer, but that car's engine is a Subaru unit and in any case it is paired with Subaru's BRZ.
A lower centre of gravity contributes to better balance and handling, which in turn aids safety.
Subaru was late to get a diesel boxer to market - its biggest markets are places like the United States, where there is no demand for the fuel - and while its power, torque and emissions figures are not class-leading, at least on paper, it is a very pleasant unit to operate.
Dovetailing with the engine, the symmetrical all-wheel-drive system is also a rather pure engineering solution.
The systems found in most four-wheel-drive cars are essentially adaptations of two-wheel-drive drivetrains, but the Subaru version is 4x4 from the start.
It is a layout that works brilliantly with the boxer engine, and it is permanently engaged, unlike the 'on demand' systems found elsewhere.
You can have your Subaru with a manual or automatic gearbox. Typically, its take on the auto is unusual, using a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, which it calls Lineartronic.
Subaru is one of the few manufacturers who seems to have managed to make a CVT work without an overbearing excess of whining and constant revs under acceleration that can be experienced in CVT cars from other manufacturers.
Seven artificially fixed ratios are built in to Lineartronic to give the impression of 'normal' automatic gearchanges.
The whole drivetrain works very well together, and is one of the main reasons that a Subaru feels so thoroughly cohesive as soon as you start to drive it.
Another is the sheer structural strength of the car. Volvo gets a lot of plaudits - and rightly so - for its longstanding dedication to safety but Subaru also has a long tradition of keeping passengers safe.
A plethora of air bags helps, too, and the Forester has a five-star Euro Ncap rating, with particularly high adult and child occupant protection scores.
A Subaru is shot through with a rare sort of integrity. There is a depth to its abilities that mere figures - such as horsepower and fuel consumption, boot size and acceleration - don't adequately communicate
Subaru models also routinely top the safety charts in tough tests in the United States and Australia; its stereo camera-based EyeSight technology is regarded as one of the best of the 'extra set of eyes' safety systems, blending automatic braking, throttle control, adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist.
EyeSight has yet to be fitted to UK-specification Foresters, and it is unlikely such a system would have made any difference in my accident.
The Forester is Subaru's SUV or crossover offering, pitching it against rivals like the Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV4, Ford Kuga and an almost impossibly long list of others.
Indeed, Subaru is among those manufacturers who can claim to have invented the crossover with its original Forester in 1997, which was basically a more rugged and practical Impreza.
The model line is now into its fourth generation, which has seen the Forester become ever-so-slightly posher.
While enhancements such as better leather and a nicer dashboard are welcome, they are not the Forester's main plus points.
Instead, you will enjoy the comfortable seats, the elevated driving position and the uncommonly clear view of the road through large windows.
It is an easy car to place on the road, a by-product of its straight-edged design, and you and your passengers will appreciate the light let in by the large sunroof. It is all very calm and relaxing.
The Forester's qualities are more cerebral, and will appeal to the sort of person who appreciates Subaru's singular approach to engineering and its tangibly superior build quality
A big boot, doors that open wide and make it easy to get in and out add to the Forester's user-friendliness. The switches and controls feel like they will outlast Rathlin Island. The boxy silhouette allows for ample headroom and a tremendous sense of spaciousness.
The chassis offers plenty of grip, as you might expect, but suspension is tuned for softness and loping wheel travel - consistent with its off-road credentials - rather than demolishing B-roads.
The fact that much of what makes the Subaru Forester special is invisible and lies beneath undemonstrative bodywork will mean it won't even make it on to the shopping list of more fashion-conscious buyers. It rather hides its light under a bushel...
Instead, its qualities are more cerebral, and will appeal to the sort of person who appreciates Subaru's singular approach to engineering and its tangibly superior build quality.
The frill-free and straightforward attitude helps to give the Forester a refreshingly honest character.
It feels desirable as much for what it isn't as for what it is - and in a sea of pseudo-SUVs, it stands apart as the real deal. It's also tougher than nails - and almost as tough as a fire engine.
- AT A GLANCE
Subaru Forester 2.0D XC Premium Lineartronic
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder 'boxer' diesel turbo, CVT automatic transmission, four-wheel-drive; 145bhp, 258lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 117mph, 0-62mph in 9.9 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 46.3mpg (EU combined); 39.4mpg (real world); 158g/km
Car tax: £500 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 33 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (91/91/73/86), 2012