Subaru Forester XS NavPlus Review- Tough Countryside Cruiser

Superb AWD, tough looks, torquey diesel engine, comfortable ride and seats, roomy

High price for XS NavPlus spec, spec not on par with similar-priced SUV’s, hard & cheap-looking plastics on interior

Subaru Forester in near industrial-sized gas stores

Subaru Forester?

First available in 1997, the Subaru Forester was based on the Impreza platform. Subaru slotted the car in between the Impreza Wagon and the Legacy, giving people the chance to own an SUV that was compact, practical and capable. Subaru’s original slogan for the Forester was ‘SUV Tough, Car Easy‘, pointing out the high. boxy rear and the large amount of space it provided.

In the U.K., farmers loved the Forester for its great ground clearance, big boot and superb AWD system capable of tackling terrain from rough country road to fields. It’s grown considerably since the original model, and has gone from compact SUV to a mid-size SUV. Subaru state that the buyers of the Forester are often based in the country and do use their cars off-road, so this 2011 – 2012 2.0D XS NavPlus competes with the more ‘rugged’ SUV’s such as the Nissan X-Trail and Mitsubishi Outlander. Let’s see how it gets on… and if you want to read about the 4th generation 2014 Forester, click here.

Exterior. Butt ugly or beauty?

Given that Subaru’s aren’t known for their beauty, we’re going to put that aside right away. The Subaru Forester isn’t beautiful, nor a design icon. But then it’s not meant to be. This is a car designed with purpose in mind. The purpose of toughing it out down roads that are effectively tracks, with the occasional pot hole deep enough to hide a supermini, and to brave weather serious enough make to the average car driver take one look outside, ring work to tell them he can’t make it and then enjoy a day of crap telly and mugs of cocoa.

Rear of the Subaru Forester XS Navplus at a gas meter

As mentioned, the Forester has grown in size since the original and at 1,700 millimetres (67″) tall, height-wise it’ll now dwarf the average estate car. A couple of examples are the Honda Accord Tourer at 1470mm (58″) or Audi A4 Allroad at 1,495 mm (59″).  It’s actually a shorter car than these though by around eight inches, so is a little easier to park.

I actually the design of the Forester. Bulky and muscular, the Forester flexes flared wheel arches, a jutted and angular rear and a front that looks set to head-butt you should you look at it the wrong way. The diesel has the instantly-recognisable large air intake on the bonnet – a beast of thing that only adds to the tough demeanour.

image shows the front three-quarter angle of the Subaru Forester in silver

The XS NavPlus is fitted with five-spoke 17″ alloy wheels as standard, and in line with the rest of the exterior these are chunky and purposeful. Personally, I’d have all the rear windows tinted for even meaner looks and to lessen the ‘goldfish bowl’ effect.

Overall, a design which states determination and resilience. I like that.

Subaru Forester 2.0D air intake

Interior. Neat or nothing special?

This 2011/2012 is soon to be updated in 2013, but in the meanwhile let’s take a look around the range-topping Forester 2.0D XS NavPlus interior. First impressions? This is a £31,000 car, but sat inside it unfortunately does not feel like it. I’d go as far as to say I’d be disappointed if I’d have paid cash money for one. I’m not one to really rip into a car, or to be unnecessarily harsh or overly critical, but I am realistic and the 2011/2012 Forester’s interior just is not up to par.

Subaru Forester Navplus drivers view of the cockpit

Let’s look at the positives firstly though. The deep leather seats in both the front and rear are very comfortable and make any journey – long or short – a pleasant place for your derrière. Passengers in the rear enjoyed the excellent legroom and reclining seats plus handy fold-out tray and cup holder built into the centre of the rear bench. The cabin is spacious and airy, made more so by the large sunroof. The XS includes keyless entry and locking too, which is superb for when your hands are full and you can only get your pinkie around the door handle to open the car.

Image shows the Subaru Forester XS NavPlus interior

Unlike the Outback we tested, there’s not a million buttons everywhere which made even finding heating controls distracting while driving. Instead the Forester XS NavPlus has an easier layout to deal with, and far more ergonomic for the driver. Being the XS NavPlus, it’s at least got a decent amount of goodies thrown in, such as dual climate control, heated seats up front with 8-way power on the driver side, built-in satellite navigation/entertainment/information system with DVD player, reverse camera and other stuff. A neat feature I do like is that the front armrest slides forwards so you can get super-comfortable on long hauls.

The sound system – which is 180-watts and has 7-speakers including a sub-woofer and an amplifier – is also a good one, and although the equaliser is unnecessarily complex (as I talked about in our Outback review), you do get an excellent sound out of the speakers. A neat feature to quickly mention is the front heated section under the wipers, which de-ices them.

Image shows the Subaru Forester XS NavPlus sat nav /entertainment screens

The load area in the boot is a good size considering this is a medium, and not full-size, SUV. With 450 litres seats up (to window line) and 1,660 litres seats down (to roof) it’s less than a Nissan X-Trail – but I’d class that as a large SUV anyway – but overall has around the same space as a Mitsubishi Outlander (1,691 litres). There’s also a button each side of the boot that fold the 60/40 seats in one push, which is a really handy feature.

Now for the bad points. For nigh-on thirty one grand the XS NavPlus is too minimal, lacks much the high-end gear and tech that now seems to come on a lot of SUV’s – just look at the sort of tech you get on a £27K Kia Sportage for instance – and the interior materials and build are simply not good enough. Hard plastics cover the dash, door cards, centre console and other areas. The central storage area between the driver and passenger seats is plain and looks and feels substandard quality compared with the majority of cars made today. The equipment level for a range-topping car isn’t massive, and things like power windows, mirrors, sunroof and heated seats is now either standard or included on lower models now.

Image shows the boot  or trunk area of the Subaru Forester XS NavPlus

Yet something else that Subaru haven’t thought through properly; on the lower models without the sat nav system, there are auxiliary and USB ports so you can use your MP3 player. On the NavPlus, there are no ports and you can only link the bluetooth on your device up for phone calls but not music. Believe me, I looked right through all the Forester’s manuals in case I was mistaken, but nope. you can only use MP3/WMA CD’s.

All the buttons to operate the previously mentioned power windows etc, again, feel cheap and even down to points like Subaru just adding a blanking plate on the steering column for where the ignition was (XS NavPlus includes push-button start), smacks of unnecessary shoddiness and penny-pinching.

Subaru Forester XS NavPlus has a full-size 17" spare wheel

To sum up, the Forester XS NavPlus’ interior is comfortable, ergonomic for the driver and isn’t designed too badly, but it’s outmoded, cheaply-made and in severe need of an update. Subaru say a lot of Forester buyers live in the country, and maybe that plastic interior is good for wiping down after a day out on a rainy walk, or a pheasant shoot, so I can see it being appealing there, but if they want to reach a wider audience they’ll have to improve their 2013 Forester.

Engine and gearbox

I’m sent the 2.0 diesel version of the Forester. For all the interior’s cheap-ness, the Boxer diesel might just have redeemed much of that. This is a superb unit, and has to be one of the best smaller diesel engines available today. I previously reviewed the Subaru XV with the same unit, and it was one of the defining features on that car, and it’s the same case here.

The engine is a two-litre, 16 valve, double-overhead cam with direct injection. The tried-and-tested Boxer (flat-four) formation means it’s smooth and has Subaru’s legendary reliability, while a variable geometry turbo (VGT) bolted on gives good power (145 hp) and big torque (258 lb.ft/350 Nm). Subaru have done a proper job right here. If you ever get chance to try a Scooby Boxer diesel (you guys State-side need them there asap), it will go into the battle in your mind, mercilessly slaying old memories of underpowered, smokey, farm-quality diesels with a lust quenched only by a thoroughly good road-test.

Subaru Forester 2.0 Boxer diesel engine bay

There’s the matter of fuel economy though. My driving was a mix of motorway and town driving with a modest mix of light foot and heavy foot. The official MPG stats read: Urban: 39.2, Extra Urban: 53.3, Combined: 47.1. If I’d taken the average 43 mpg reading from the Nav system screen as good, I’d have been happy with those results. However, either the average readout is wrong, or the ‘fuel remaining’ figure is way out. Bare with me here. With a 64 litre (UK) tank, I got to 430 miles and the ‘fuel low’ warning popped up, stating I had 70 miles remaining. That’s 500 miles. Any fuel calculator will tell you this is an average of 35.5 mpg. The tank was reading full when it arrived, and to get 45 mpg I’d have had to use only fifty litres of fuel. Something’s very wrong there. Maybe next time I’ll run it totally dry, put 10 litres in and run it totally dry again to get a 100% accurate figure.

Subaru Forester 2.0 diesel Boxer engine cover

The six-speed manual gearbox is a little too heavy and cumbersome, and at times there was grinding involved. Both my teeth and the ‘box that is. Press loan cars are never going to get an easy life though, and this one had 20,000 hard miles under it’s belt, so a less tortured model may be easier to use. I’ll talk about the ratio’s in the next section.

Engine and gearbox summary then; the two-litre diesel Boxer is smooth, strong and pushes wads of torque out that’ll get you grinning in no time. The fuel economy figures are questionable though, and either the average or ‘remainder’ figures are wrong. The six-speed manual is a overly heavy and not fluid enough – at least on our press loan.

Ready to roll? Let’s drive!

Drive any of the AWD Subaru’s, and you instantly get a sense that it’s grounded (no, not on a rock). They are overall a reassuring car to drive. I’ve owned a classic Impreza Turbo from the mid-nineties, driven an original Outback, the new Outback, the XV and now this Forester and that blue-blood AWD-plantedness has run through them all. In fact, it’s only got better as electronic systems advance.

Push the clutch to the floor, press the Start button and the Forester’s diesel engine fires strongly into life. Setting off, first gear is noticeably short and you’re having to change up quickly to avoid topping the rev-range. It’s a nice gear for off-roading though, as you want that for getting out of sticky situations. Through the rest of the gears, there’s enough low-down torque to be lazy and change up early at low speed cruising.

Subaru Forester 2.0D XS NavPlus on the road

Through city traffic the Forester rides well over bad road surfaces, taking even bad potholes in its stride. It’ll carve through traffic nicely too, partly thanks to the electric power steering, and although it’s not a light car at 1,540 kg (min. kerb weight), it’s still sprightly enough not to feel cumbersome or overweight and podgy. That said, once you’re out onto winding country roads you soon notice the soft suspension wallowing when pushing on. It’s not the unnerving feel one might get when forcing an ancient Land Rover over 50mph on a long bend, but it’s still rolls conspicuously. On the plus side, the suspension will be great if you need to traverse a ploughed field!

Subaru Forester Navplus in industrial surroundings

The brakes need improvement too. Although they do the job at hand, they feel spongey, not modern-car sharp or precise. If you’re thinking of towing, the Subaru has clever self-levelling rear suspension, and will tow an impressive 2,000 kg’s if it has its own braking system.

Long-distance travel is pleasure in the Forester 2.0D, because as well as a high comfort level that smooth and torquey Boxer pulls the Scooby around with ease, and it’ll munch through the miles as easily as a dog goes through a packet of unattended biscuits.

Subaru Forester 2.0D dials

On an airport run the good ol’ British springtime had, only a few days beforehand, decided to grace us with more snow than we’d had all winter. My drive would include roads that went high up into the Pennines in England, and the highest section of motorway in the U.K. The views are stunningly beautiful, and it’s a fantastic drive, except that is when there’s already a foot of snow all around, the temperature is into minus figures and the clouds are threatening to dump huge amounts more of the slippery white stuff. As I climb higher, it gets dark and the temperature drops quickly. I flick on my heated seat and turn the heating control up a few notches. The lights of a passing car catch the Subaru emblem on the steering wheel, and I give a little grin. Of all the cars on the road, this is one of the top vehicles I’d want should the weather turn nasty. All is okay. That’s the Subaru feeling described perfectly I reckon.

3 photos of the Subaru Forester XS Navplus

Of anything bad to say regarding driving at motorway speeds, it’s a little noisy. A noticeable amount of wind and tyre noise comes into the cabin, and it’s especially noisy at the back end due to that large boot area. Apart from that though, it’s a nice cruiser with plenty of power for overtaking.

AWD and off-road. Stuck or superb?

Not getting chance to test the Forester off-road this time is no biggie. I can say with confidence that it’ll be excellent. I know this because it uses the same symmetrical all-wheel-drive system as the Outback – albeit with viscous centre differential AWD – and we tested that good ‘n proper in the snow. Actually though, the Forester has a slight advantage over the Outback as it has 215 mm of ground clearance over the Outback’s two hundred millimetres. This is slightly more than the Mitsubishi Outlander but less than the Land Rover Freelander 2.

Four photos of the Subaru XS Navplus in an industrial area

The AWD system also uses Subaru Vehicle Dynamics Control which detects slip or understeer and oversteer and corrects it appropriately by braking individual wheels and slowing down the engine rpm. All very clever and very effective. We tried several times to make the Forester get squirly under pressure from much hooning and silliness, and it just wouldn’t let us. Even with the traction control off the Subaru is still very planted.

Price

The Forester 2.0D XS NavPlus is not a cheap car. At £30,820 it’s pricey when you look at what the competition offer in terms of interior quality and tech on their cars. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, Subaru state most buyers will live in the country and actually use their car off-road, so some competitors we think would be used ‘properly’ are (in similar spec): Land Rover Freelander 2 XS 2.2 TD4 Manual £32,580, Mitsubishi Outlander GX4 2.2 DI-D manual £29,999, Nissan X-Trail TEKNA 2.0 dCi manual £32,200.

Positives for the Forester is the included 5-year warranty, which beats the others by two years plus Subaru usually have some superb offers on their website. If you are going to be using a Forester for country-ish stuff regularly but have a lower budget, maybe look at a lower spec model (X/XC) for around £24 – £26K to save some cash and still have that superb AWD system.

Subaru Forester 2.0D XS NavPlus verdict & score

The 2011/2012 Forester we tested is a solidly build car with a proven track record. It’s AWD system is one of the best out there and their engines are as reliable as the Sun. However, the interior lacks in material quality and tech compared with its competitors. Subaru say their owners buy them to be different, not mass-market, and they’re probably right. I constantly see X-Trail’s and Freelander 2’s on the road. In the past two weeks I’ve only spotted to three other Forester’s. Update that interior, start including some of the gadgets other manufacturers do and we’ll see more on the roads. P.S. Put your money away! The New Forester comes out in May this year, so wait until we’ve had a look at that first.

Do you own a 2011/2012 Forester? What’s your views on it? Share your thoughts and leave a comment below!

Exterior  7
Interior (XS NavPlus)  4.5
Engine (2.0D)  8
Gearbox (Man.)  5
Price  5
Drive  6.5
AWD & Off-road ability  8.5
Overall Score  6 / 10

  Specs

Model (as tested)  2011-2012 Subaru Forester 2.0D XS NavPlus manual
Spec includes  All-round power windows, leather upholstery, front heated seats, power driver seat, sat nav/entertainment system with reverse camera, bluetooth connectivity (phone-calls only), electric folding wing mirrors, dual climate-control, hill-start assist See spec sheet for more
Options you should spec  N/A
Price (as tested)  £30,820 on the road
Engine  1,998cc (2.0L) DOHC, 16v, direct injection, horizontally-opposed four-cylinder (Boxer) with VGT turbo
Power, Torque, CO2  145 hp (147 ps), 258 lb/ft (350 Nm) | CO2: 158 g/km
Drive, Gears (as tested)  Subaru Symmetrical all-wheel-drive (AWD), 6-speed manual
Top Speed, 0 – 60 mph, EuroNCAP  Max speed: 115 mph | 0 – 60 mph: 10.3 seconds | 5-Star Euro NCAP rating
Fuel economy (mpg)  Urban: 39.2 mpg, Extra Urban: 53.3 mpg, Combined: 47 mpg
Weight (base)  1,550 kg (3,417 lbs)
Ground clearance  215 mm (8.46″)
Websites  Subaru UK | Subaru Europe | Subaru Australia | Subaru Canada | Subaru USA | Subaru Global

Check out our Subaru XV and Subaru Outback reviews

Words: Chris Davies | Tested by: Chris Davies, Nathan Fielder| Photography: Jason Fanthorpe, Chris Davies, Matthew Davies

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