DRIVEN: New Subaru Forester is something real good

Safety is a big selling point for the brand’s latest offerings.

A blast of hot, late afternoon Kalahari heat exploded into the interior after I opened the window.

We hadn’t noticed it up until then but the automatic aircon in the Subaru Forester was doing its job quietly, unobtrusively in the background.

The outside temperature gauge read 380C. Warm enough… We had stopped and switched off, to take in the sight just ahead on the gravel road in Mokala National Park – not something you often see, day or night.

Two jackal puppies were rolling around in the dirt, playing with each other and what looked like a fragment of an animal their parents had caught and killed for them.

They initially pricked up their ears at the pinging of hot exhaust metal cooling down, but then decided we weren’t a threat and got on with their game.

It was another little bush vignette for us … and yet another memory brought to us by a Subaru Forester.

This was the brand new, 2019 model, the most technologically advanced yet from a brand which has always been known for its innovative, but mostly underthe-skin engineering. We had been able to get a long way down this awful rocky and slippery road thanks to the Forester’s state-of-the-art all-wheeldrive (AWD) system, updated to be even more capable and user-friendly in the latest model.

It’s the best currently available in the “soft-road” SUV segment (vehicles which are not hardcore 4x4s with low-range gearing).

Prove me wrong. Anyone.

Or let’s just go to the Kalahari and see… The ability to get out into the bush without the fear of getting stuck – particularly on badly-maintained or flood damaged gravel roads – was the reason we bought our first Forester back in 2004.

With its simple full-time AWD system, it’s taken us to plenty of places you won’t reach in a conventional sedan or hatchback. And it’s brought some unforgettable memories – like the expressions on the faces of the drivers of Land Rover Discoverys and Toyota Land Cruisers when the Forester got all the way down the “4×4 only” route to Rocktail Bay in KZN.

When came the time to replace my Forester, I couldn’t part with it (a lot of Subaru owners are fiercely loyal) … so we kept it.

And we bought another – a 2015 demo model.

That vehicle was a leap up from the 2004 one, and the 2019 Forester is equally impressive in the tech it has on offer. The big selling point for new Subarus is not their AWD systems, it is safety.

The Forester has always had one of the strongest passenger safety cells on the market, with the security of permanent AWD and balance because of the “boxer” engine which sits lower in the chassis and gives a better centre-of-gravity than most competitors.

Now, though, Subaru has incorporated a host of electronic safety systems in the new model.

The system – known as “iSight” – uses cameras and sensors to do things like brake in an emergency, warn you when you’re leaving your lane, keeps a constant distance from the vehicle in front when using the “adaptive cruise control” and will even stop the car if you are about to hit something when reversing and have ignored the warnings in the central display.

That’s made an already strong and safe car one of the most safe you can buy.

And it’s not just me saying that: the American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has rated all Subaru models in its top two safety categories.

That is certainly something to think about if you’re an urban family which travels occasionally to the bush. I know that my decision to surrender my Forester to my wife early on was one well made – I never worried about her or the kids when they were in that Subaru, even in the worst of weather.

The new model is built on an entirely new global “platform” and the difference in handling – already excellent for an SUV – shows.

The car changes direction quickly and securely with very little body roll.

Despite the improvement in handling and roadholding, the ride is also improved.

Some people say the 2.0 litre engine available as the only option at the moment is under-powered. To that I say: it has only 10kW less than the 2.5 engine in our 2016 Forester.

And it is more economical, too. I do not understand why motoring journos particularly always want a car to “blow their hair back”.

This is not a sports car. Performance is in the ballpark of competitors and I reckon I would get better consumption.

On that trip to Mokala and then Knysna and back, the Forester averaged 7.4 litres per 100km, which is damn good, actually.

The most interesting thing for me is that Subaru South Africa has managed to keep the price down for the 2019 model, with even the top-spec version coming in at less than R500 000.

Personally, I would go for the mid-level one – about R460 000 – and forego things like a sunroof and leather seats.

The real pity about Subaru is that not many people “get it” – so they don’t even include it on their list when car shopping.

Most of those who test drive them, though, end up buying.

And very few of them regret the decision. I never have…

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