Subaru Forester: Thinking beyond the boxer
Subaru has electrified its traditional boxer engine, with a new e-Boxer mild-hybrid for the Forester and XV. They are deeply appealing cars, says William Scholes
THESE days, Subaru uses the slogan 'confidence in motion' to market its cars, writes William Scholes.
This, I am happy to report, is far more than a snappy turn of phrase or wishful thinking on the part of the Japanese manufacturer.
For a start, you must have a certain self-confidence to do things in such a different way to other car-makers.
In Subaru's case that means, among other things, 'boxer' engines and all-wheel-drive systems for a symmetrical drivetrain layout; it's a very pure engineering solution, which facilitates a low centre of gravity and stable handling.
When you speak to the people from Subaru you quickly get the impression that anything less would be to mess with the very DNA of the brand.
Peerless reliability and longevity are part of the package, too. These are very safe cars, both in the strength of their construction and the thoughtfulness of their design, as well as the electronic aids in the company's 'EyeSight' suite.
But you also need to be more than a little confident in your cars to submit them to the breadth of testing that Subaru allowed journalists to throw at its newest Forester and XV 'e-Boxer' models.
These come with a mild-hybrid system, harnessed to a 2.0-litre petrol engine - in trademark Subaru 'boxer' configuration, with the four cylinders horizontally-opposed and 'punching' and 'counter-punching' each other - and the latest version of its 'lineartronic' continuously variable transmission.
A mild-hybrid set-up harvests kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost by turning it into electricity and sending it to a battery - installed under the boot floor in Subaru's case - from where it can be used to take the load off the petrol engine under certain circumstances.
These include setting off from a standstill, or maybe a little boost of power when accelerating hard.
Treat the throttle gently, and the e-Boxer can glide up to around 25mph using electric power alone, though the small capacity battery - typical of all mild-hybrids - means you won't go very far before the petrol engine kicks in.
The sub-plot to all this is that the diesel boxer engine is now defunct; electrification is where it's at now for Subaru.
I got to drive pre-production e-Boxer models during the summer; they impressed with their smoothness and the seamless transition between battery and petrol power.
The production cars felt even better. They are on sale now and should start to reach their first Northern Ireland customers within weeks.
First to get the e-Boxer treatment are the new Forester and the XV.
Both were given their media launch in Latvia; Subaru has had great success in the Nordic region, which for its purposes includes the Baltic states, in recent years, growing sales and market share.
It reckons that the e-Boxer drivetrain, new models such as the Forester and an upcoming full-electric model, could spearhead a similar growth spurt in the UK market.
It's a bold plan, but reflects the confidence the company's executives have in their new and future products.
Which brings us back to 'confidence in motion'. To demonstrate just how broadly talented and thoroughly engineered the Forester and XV are, Subaru had laid on a comprehensive range of tests for us journalists to try.
Few other cars feel as immediately durable and fit for purpose as a Subaru. The Forester and XV each feel like a four-wheeled Swiss army knife, ready for anything the world - or your family - can throw at them
It's worth pointing out that the roads in Latvia would give any car a tough workout.
Get out of Riga and into the countryside, deep into the forests that blanket this beautiful country, and you'll find 'roads' that are essentially gravel tracks and grass lanes.
You would think thrice about using less rugged machinery - no wonder the Forester seems to be so popular.
Most car-makers with a four-wheel-drive family SUV and crossover to shout about would consider the Latvian roads challenge enough; not Subaru, though.
It laid on a fun handling circuit on a race track, where we had our arms twisted to do fast laps in a new XV and Forester, as well as a last-generation Forester for comparison.
This was a fairly brave move by Subaru, because neither the XV nor Forester are intended to be what might be called performance or track cars.
However, circuit driving can quickly show up shortcomings in a car; the Subarus shrugged it off.
Circuit driving is a brake-killer, for example, but the XV and Forester stood up to the abuse without complaint.
The new models use Subaru's latest super-stiff platform, and you can sense the rigidity in how the XV and Forester eagerly changed direction and dived round hairpin bends.
Other tests included a pair of skid pans. These both viciously kicked out the rear of the car in a random direction - one at the bottom of a fast downhill section - with the driver then having to regain control while swerving to avoid a wall of water which could shoot up from the road.
Even the most clod-footed motoring writer found the XV and Forester able allies, the inherent balance and stability of the boxer engine and symmetrical all-wheel-drive system assisted by the arsenal of technology Subaru has deployed.
We were also encouraged to test the automatic braking system, by driving towards the back of a car and resisting the temptation to hit the brakes (no cars were harmed in the making of this exercise).
A similar system operates when you are going backwards - useful when reversing out of a poorly-sighted parking space, for example.
The car also sounds a buzzer when it spots you are distracted and, like some smartphones, can identify the faces of different drivers and then adjust settings, such as the position of the driver's seat, accordingly.
The e-Boxer mild-hybrid system is impressive as much for how unobtrusive it is as for the efficiency improvements it delivers over the old engines
Off-road tests included courses with a bunch of improbable ascents and descents, laps of a precipitous motocross track, a trip deep into the forest and driving along a bank with a 30-degree tilt angle.
Suffice it to say, few cars have this breadth of ability, and it is hard to be other than deeply impressed.
The interiors of these new models are also more pleasant than previous Subarus - a slick, easy-to-use touchscreen, clear instruments, lots of soft-touch plastics and super-comfortable seats mean this is a big step up.
There are many of the thoughtful, practical touches that make a Subaru so useful.
Big, square back doors mean loading children into a child seat is easy; the wide, flat door sills are designed to double as steps when you are securing bikes and boats to the roof bars, which are themselves cleverly designed with lashing points. And so it goes on...
Other observations? The CVT gearbox is definitely one of the best of the breed, though lean too hard on the throttle and you can't escape the soaring engine revs characteristic of all these transmissions.
They are swifter than their on-paper figures suggest, too - a sensation aided by just how effectively these cars can maintain momentum.
The e-Boxer system is impressive as much for how unobtrusive it is as for the efficiency improvements it delivers over the old engines.
That being said, the combination of CVT and all-wheel-drive means the XV and Forester don't post the sort of CO2 emissions that will have company car users, sensitive to their benefit in kind liability, jumping out of their boring German diesel saloons...
A Subaru isn't something you choose merely because of the impression it makes on a spreadsheet, however; its appeal is far deeper and more enduring than that. That's why Subaru owners tend to keep their cars for such a long time.
There's an indefatigable, bomb-proof feeling to how these cars drive, which is deeply appealing and needs to be experienced to be appreciated.
Honestly, few other cars feel as immediately durable and fit for purpose as a Subaru. The Forester and XV each feel like a four-wheeled Swiss army knife, ready for anything the world - or your family - can throw at them.
No wonder Subaru has 'confidence in motion' - few other cars, at any price, are shot through with as such integrity.
AT A GLANCE
Subaru Forester e-Boxer XE
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder 'boxer' petrol with mild-hybrid system, all-wheel-drive, continuously variable transmission; 148bhp, 145lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 117mph, 0-62mph in 11.8 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 34.7mpg (WLTP combined), 154g/km
Car tax: £530 in first year, then £145 annually
Benefit in kind: 34 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Not yet tested