Re­for­esta­tion sees Su­bie sprout a fifth-gen ver­sion of its ev­er­green wagon. Shouts of ‘Tim­berrr!’ echo

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Subaru’s box-fresh Forester draws a bead on its ri­vals

YOU’RE a prospec­tive medium-suv buyer, lost, alone and con­fused in the woods, sur­rounded by a thicket of looka­like cross­over choices. What do you do? Hap­pily, we’re here to help, hav­ing al­ready sorted through the good, the bad and the ugly to ar­rive at the cream of the crop as ri­vals for Subaru’s new, fifth-gen Forester, with not a dull or dreary drive in sight.

The ev­er­green Subaru Forester has been rooted in the medium-suv scene since 1997, be­com­ing a by­word for sen­si­ble, prac­ti­cal and ver­sa­tile lifestyle/ad­ven­ture fam­ily car, with enough in­di­vid­u­al­ity to ap­peal to en­thu­si­asts.

For her 21st this year, the Ja­panese car­maker gave the old girl a whop­ping makeover. Cos­met­i­cally al­most iden­ti­cal, dis­ap­point­ingly, all the big com­ing-of-age ad­vances oc­cur un­der the fussy clothes, with the adop­tion of the lat­est Im­preza’s imag­i­na­tively dubbed ‘Subaru Global Plat­form’ – the com­pany’s first new global plat­form since the orig­i­nal Lib­erty’s launch in 1989.

Fur­ther­more, a 90 per­cent new, 136kw, 239Nm 2.5-litre four-pot hor­i­zon­tally op­posed pow­er­train de­buts, along with an over­hauled CVT auto, sus­pen­sion (struts up front and dou­ble A-arms out back) and steer­ing (elec­tric, nat­u­rally), while an­nual ser­vic­ing re­places the pre­vi­ous six-monthly work­shop vis­its. A big improve­ment – at last.

Sub-$45,000 all-wheel-drive spec is where all the SUV ac­tion is, so we’re kick­ing off with the range-top­ping (for now) $41,490 Forester 2.5i-s – S stand­ing for swanky, pre­sum­ably, be­cause it costs some $1750 more than the equiv­a­lent pre­vi­ous-gen vari­ant.

Oh, but we’re talk­ing kitchen-sink chock­ers, with Subaru’s Eye­sight dual-cam­era ac­tive safety gad­getry bring­ing front and rear au­ton­o­mous emer­gency brak­ing, rear cross-traf­fic alert, adap­tive cruise con­trol, lane-keep as­sist, blind-spot mon­i­tor­ing, adap­tive LED head­lights with auto high-beam, 360-de­gree-view cam­eras, drowsi­ness alert with fa­cial recog­ni­tion that recog­nises and mem­o­rises in­di­vid­ual driv­ing-po­si­tion set­tings (creepy), pow­ered front seat ad­just­ment and rear back­rests, a pow­ered tail­gate, cli­mate con­trol, key­less en­try and start, an 8.0-inch touch­screen with sat-nav, DAB+ dig­i­tal ra­dio, Blue­tooth, Ap­ple Carplay and An­droid Auto, ritzier trim, roof rails, 18-inch al­loys, leather, a sun­roof and high-end au­dio. But no heated seats, oddly.

Choos­ing the 2.5i Pre­mium sees you forgo those last three items, sav­ing $3K and tak­ing the Forester to $38,490, which is ex­actly how much Mazda charges for its sporty and stylish CX-5 in Tour­ing AWD guise, now pow­ered by a 140kw, 252Nm 2.5-litre atmo four. Now? Launched in early 2017, the se­cond-gen KF re­ally stepped up re­fine­ment wise, and was fol­lowed a year later by a Se­ries II up­date with cylin­der de-ac­ti­va­tion for bet­ter econ­omy, among other up­dates that brought slightly higher out­puts.

How­ever, for the CX-5 to match the Forester’s cabin lux­ury, you’ll need the $43,590 GT we re­quested for this test, or the $46,190 Ak­era for al­most equiv­a­lent safety, just without the Su­bie-ex­clu­sive drowsi­ness mon­i­tor and fac­ere­cog­ni­tion tech. Note, though, that Tour­ing strikes back with a handy Traf­fic Sign Recog­ni­tion and head-up dis­play.

The CX-5’S op­u­lent ma­te­ri­als and con­sis­tent trim choices seem richer than the exxier Tiguan

Volk­swa­gen, too, has of­fered a medium-suv class ace since the lat­est (Mk2) Tiguan sur­faced in Septem­ber 2016. Es­sen­tially a jumped-up ver­sion of our Co­ty­win­ning Mk7 Golf, re­fine­ment, func­tion­al­ity, ef­fi­ciency and so­phis­ti­ca­tion are this Teu­ton’s call­ing cards.

For MY19, the $42,490 Com­fort­line 4Mo­tion DSG, pow­ered by a 132kw, 320Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol en­gine, scores ex­tra kit over the cheaper 2018 model tested, in­clud­ing key­less en­try and start, a pow­ered tail­gate and 18-inch al­loys – so we’ve fac­tored these into our as­sess­ment. To match the Subaru’s bounty, though, please tick the $4000 Lux­ury and $1400 Driver As­sis­tance packs, tak­ing that to nearly $48K. Autsch! Con­versely, the VW is alone with its slid­ing rear seat­base, hid­den draw­ers, over­head stor­age, back-seat trays and pre­pos­ter­ous name: Tiguan is an amal­gam of tiger and iguana.

Fi­nally, speak­ing of hu­mour, a wild­card. The Span­ish­built Ford Es­cape (or Kuga as this Mk2 ver­sion was called from its mid-2013 ar­rival un­til the ex­ten­sive MY17 facelift) al­ways fin­ished at the pointy end of pre­vi­ous en­coun­ters, im­press­ing with en­gag­ing dy­nam­ics, hearty per­for­mance and real chas­sis nous.

Now, there’s the newly hatched $39,990 Es­cape St-line. De­rived from the 178kw, 345Nm 2.0-litre turbo Trend, it dons the au­to­mo­tive equiv­a­lent of a track suit and train­ers in the form of a body kit, 19-inch al­loys, quicker steer­ing, 10mm-lower ride height, thicker an­tiroll bars, racier seats and mood­ier trim… though for Forester-equalling safety please pay an­other $800. Like Mazda, Ford has adopted a five-year war­ranty, which is an ex­tra-cost op­tion on the other two.

From a pack­ag­ing point of view, all four of­fer com­pelling virtues such as ex­cel­lent en­try and egress, lots of room and a de­cent cargo area, but only one of them truly nails the brief.

Over five gen­er­a­tions, the Forester’s cabin has gen­tly evolved around own­ers’ need for space, clar­ity, stor­age, per­sonal com­fort and ease, while pay­ing lip-ser­vice to fash­ion, and it’s now at a point where there’s pre­cious lit­tle to fault. The tall ceil­ing, deep glasshouse, nar­row pil­lars, low dash and lofty, sump­tu­ous seat­ing col­lude to make the Subaru seem cav­ernous, airy and invit­ing. At­ten­tion to de­tail is pleas­ing too – though the bar­rage of data screens can be in­tim­i­dat­ing, and a squeak from the driver’s door soon be­came in­fu­ri­at­ing.

Like­wise, the Tiguan stands out with its slick, pre­mium sheen, techy am­bi­ence, classy in­stru­men­ta­tion, tac­tile sur­faces, rich aro­mas and smart use of space. Firm but sup­port­ive seat­ing, the ver­sa­til­ity of that slid­ing back seat, lots of glass and a mul­ti­tude of small but pleas­ing sur­prise-and-de­light fea­tures such as the touch­screen user in­ter­face nour­ish some­thing emo­tional like no other can.

But are these enough when con­sid­er­ing how much higher the price of Com­fort­line en­try is, and how much shorter the stan­dard kit list is? Plus, while hushed and creamy-smooth on the move, bumps and coarser bi­tu­men ex­pose an un­der­ly­ing, erm… stiff­ness un­der­neath. And this is only on 17s, not 18s.

The cosy, yet by no means cramped CX-5 feels al­to­gether more in­ti­mate, largely be­cause of the smaller glasshouse and un­ex­pect­edly op­u­lent ma­te­ri­als, of­fer­ing a su­perb driv­ing po­si­tion, a beau­ti­fully in­te­grated dash­board with lovely white in­stru­ment mark­ings, con­sis­tent trim choices, pre­ci­sion con­trols, fault­less er­gonomics, sup­port­ive front seat­ing and a deluxe back seat en­vi­ron­ment. In fact, our Tour­ing seems richer than the exxier Tiguan.

On the flip­side, the Mazda’s touch­screen looks passe and lacks Carplay and An­droid Auto, and there’s still no­tice­able en­gine and road-noise in­tru­sion back there.

No­body ex­pected the Es­cape’s age­ing in­te­rior to win friends and, for sure, in this com­pany the fussy, im­pos­ing dash­board looks a lit­tle cheap in places, the ex­tra-thick A-pil­lar bases can hide whole cityscapes, and thin rear cush­ions could use more pad­ding.

Yet, even on 19s and with low­ered sus­pen­sion, the St-line’s ride tune hasn’t re­lin­quished Ford’s renown un­der­ly­ing sup­ple­ness, and it’s pretty quiet too. Bet­ter yet, be­ing the most overtly sporty, the Blue Oval soars

even fur­ther from the mo­ment the starter is pressed.

If not the hot-hatch, the tepid-tail­gate of the four­some, with greater power and torque on tap, the fiery Euro with a reg­u­lar-joe six-speed torque-con­verter auto lives up to its name by lit­er­ally es­cap­ing from the non-turbo two­some. It’ll even­tu­ally pulling clear from the Tiguan too; 7.7 sec­onds to 100 clicks and 15.6sec across 400 me­tres are im­pact­ful – lit­er­ally so, since an 11.3L/100km av­er­age also makes the heavy­weight St-line the group’s dip­so­ma­niac by some mar­gin.

While not quite the light­est, theVee Dub, as the se­cond sprightli­est over­all, de­liver sales son in ef­fi­ciency, be­cause it’s only a cou­ple of tenths short of the hard-charg­ing, hard­drink­ing Ford – and only half a se­cond be­hind by 140km/h – yet is a whop­ping 20 per­cent more eco­nom­i­cal. Espe­cially im­pres­sive con­sid­er­ing the mere 346km on the odo. Ku­dos, then, to the vel­vety EA888 turbo and seven-speed DSG dou­ble-act, which slices and sifts seam­lessly through the ra­tios to de­liver strong and stir­ring per­for­mance, as well as pre­mium-level re­fine­ment that’s un­matched by any SUV here. Yes, on oc­ca­sion, at lower speeds, that silky trans­mis­sion will mo­men­tar­ily hes­i­tate just when you need it to leap into ac­tion, which can make it tricky to mod­u­late a crawl up­hill, but ev­ery­where else it is your silent, ef­fi­ca­cious friend.

The lack of turbo oomph leaves the Ja­panese duo in the dust in out­right ac­cel­er­a­tive terms but less so in the real world, since both the CX-5 and Forester feel more than suf­fi­ciently swift if the driver is will­ing to re­ally flex their right an­kle.

We adore how Mazda’s Sky­ac­tiv pow­er­trains pos­sess a lusty, ebul­lient na­ture once on song, and the big-bore 2.5 atmo four can cer­tainly pack a punch when pro­voked – but it does have to be prod­ded, so as to not feel flat in this posse. Though high­est in mileage and fizzi­est in spirit, our Tour­ing saun­tered to 100 in a meh 9.3sec, only man­aged a 16.7sec 400m, and had lost in­ter­est by 140km/h.

Away from the dragstrip, se­lect­ing Sport holds a se­lected ra­tio (and won’t upshift in man­ual mode), to spice things up, but the ac­com­pa­ny­ing rev roar is an­noy­ing around the ’burbs – a per­sis­tent anom­aly with the oth­er­wise sweet­shift­ing six-speed torque-con­verter auto. Plus, the CX-5’S a whole litre thirstier than the VW. We ea­gerly await the com­pressed-ig­ni­tion Sky­ac­tiv-x tech – or the com­ing turbo – to shake things up in the Hiroshima-mo­bile.

Still in Ja­pan, the Forester feels al­to­gether torquier right from the get-go, pro­vid­ing a de­cent amount of poke de­spite the CVT gear­box’s in­her­ently elas­tic re­sponse. Paired with the heav­ily re­vamped atmo FB25, in ‘S’ sport mode there’s an ap­peal­ing tur­bine-like in­duc­tion sound that’s in keep­ing with the boxer’s pro­gres­sive power de­liv­ery, while a to­tal of seven ra­tio steps al­low a sim­u­lated kick­down for an added sense of urge.

Ul­ti­mately, the num­bers are only slightly bet­ter than what the Mazda man­aged. All that said, the new­comer’s per­for­mance story gels bril­liantly, for the ea­ger, ef­fort­less and light­weight Subaru seems to scoot along with an oiled slick­ness – and real-world fuel econ­omy ben­e­fits – that was once the sole prov­ince of a VW Group pow­er­train. Up­shot? Keep an eye on your speed.

Luck­ily, the faith­ful Forester’s brand-spank­ing chas­sis is more than up for a chal­lenge. No SUV here seems as glued to the tar­mac or as un­ruf­fled be­ing hur­ried along, even if some body lean ac­com­pa­nies more ex­treme an­tics. In wildly wet and windy con­di­tions, this thing is rock-solid, re­veal­ing an in­her­ent in­sou­ciance. All that win­dow glass helps in­spire con­fi­dence, too.

The ea­ger, ef­fort­less Subaru scoots along with an oiled slick­ness

Cy­lon-es­que dash (up­dated in 2016) is not sub­tle and fea­tures ev­ery known plas­tic va­ri­ety but cabin of­fers a wel­com­ing driv­ing po­si­tion, leg­i­ble di­als, in­tu­itive voice-con­trol mul­ti­me­dia, huge touch­screen, hand­some wheel (with pad­dle shifters) and log­i­cal lay­out for ev­ery­day prac­ti­cal­ity. Front seats are comfy and stor­age is am­ple, though wide A-pil­lars can block vi­sion. The rear cush­ion is flat and the back­rest can’t be re­motely re­leased from the boot. Cargo ca­pac­ity is 406L, tow­ing ca­pac­ity is 1600kg and the spare is a space-saver. Ground clear­ance is just 163mm.

Sporty wheel, wide con­sole, squidgy ma­te­ri­als and har­monised graph­ics (dated touch­screen aside) lift the CX-5’S in­te­rior above the or­di­nary, backed up by shapely seats and ex­cel­lent fin­ishes. Am­bi­ence in Tour­ing is high-qual­ity and in­ti­mate. With rear air vents (match­ing the op­po­si­tion), eas­ier ac­cess and heaps more ameni­ties, own­ers of the ear­lier-gen­er­a­tion Ke-se­ries ver­sion will mar­vel at how much qui­eter, com­fier and ac­com­mo­dat­ing the back seat area is. Spare is a space-saver, boot vol­ume is 442L and braked tow­ing ca­pac­ity is 1800kg. Ground clear­ance is 193mm.

Length grows by 15mm, width by 20mm and wheel­base by 30mm, boost­ing in­te­rior space sub­stan­tially. Thin pil­lars and deep glass are a boon for driver con­fi­dence. Subaru has paid much at­ten­tion to de­tail­ing and qual­ity, for a more co­he­sive and en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence. Seats, er­gonomics, re­fine­ment, space, prac­ti­cal­ity… the Forester nails all of them. The 2.5i-s heaves with stan­dard equip­ment but the sheer num­ber of info screens can be in­tim­i­dat­ing ini­tially. Boot vol­ume is 498L, spare is a full-sized item, ground clear­ance is 220mm and braked tow­ing ca­pac­ity is 1500kg.

Like a grown-up Golf, Tiguan’s in­te­rior of­fers sober, sat­is­fy­ing qual­ity and crafts­man­ship, though it is quite ba­sic in stan­dard Com­fort­line trim. Mul­ti­me­dia sys­tem is first class. Choos­ing the ex­pen­sive op­tional tech and lux­ury packs to match ri­vals here does boost the pre­mium am­bi­ence sig­nif­i­cantly. Ad­di­tional prac­ti­cal touches in­clude un­der-seat draw­ers and slid­ing se­cond-row seat­base, go­ing one bet­ter than ri­vals’ re­clin­ing set-ups. Braked tow­ing ca­pac­ity is 2500kg, spare a space saver and boot vol­ume a handy 615L. Ground clear­ance is 201mm.

For keen driv­ers, the well-weighted steer­ing comes up short on real feel and feed­back, elect­ing in­stead to just get on with the job of pri­ori­tis­ing se­cure and calm con­trol. As this is an SUV and not a WRX, that’s prob­a­bly okay. Espe­cially as the plush ride, long a se­ries strength, re­sides on a higher plane than the oth­ers, un­der­pin­ning pleas­ingly pil­lowy progress yet still with out­stand­ing dy­namic poise. Butts will love this Subaru.

And, guess what? For all its low­ered and stiff­ened sus­pen­sion tun­ing and 19-inch rub­ber, the Ford shocked us by not trans­mit­ting a shock­ing ride. The St-line’s abil­ity to firmly but ef­fec­tively cush­ion re­ally cruddy sur­faces ex­poses an un­der­ly­ing chas­sis sup­ple­ness.

Such pro­fi­ciency is more pro­found when fac­tor­ing in the Es­cape’s life-af­firm­ing steer­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion (in the com­pany of other SUVS, any­way) and nu­anced re­sponses, con­nect­ing driver with ma­chine for fast, flu­ent han­dling as well as taut cor­ner­ing com­po­sure. This is far more an el­e­vated-fo­cus than the wagon pro­por­tions pur­port. Only con­sid­er­able road rum­ble from the qual­ity Conti tyres takes away from the so­phis­ti­cated band­width of ca­pa­bil­i­ties on of­fer.

Equally up for a blast, the CX-5 con­firms its rep­u­ta­tion for B-road tal­ent and en­thu­si­asm and, in iso­la­tion, its mix of re­cep­tive, in­clu­sive steer­ing feel and pin-point han­dling can make a be­liever of even the most avid Suv-hater, espe­cially as the pow­er­train seems to thrive on a can­ing. This thing eggs you on to push harder.

But do so, espe­cially af­ter a spell in the oth­ers, and the helm is too sharply geared at speed, re­sult­ing in a ner­vous and skit­tish feel. And the sus­pen­sion, as men­tioned ear­lier, never quite set­tles, ei­ther, trans­mit­ting road ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties con­stantly.

Some­where in be­tween re­sides the Tiguan – ex­cel­lent steer­ing con­tact for ut­terly trust­wor­thy two-way han­dling in­ter­ac­tion, brac­ing road­hold­ing skills and – on nice roads – that good old VW Teflon com­fort. Plus, the harder you drive, the more the in­grained Golf DNA shines through. Im­preg­nable fun to be savoured.

How­ever, over rub­bish roads, that lav­ish gloss can be chipped away one bump at a time, shift­ing away from the Com­fort­line billing to an ex­tent that its hatch sib­ling never does. And while rid­ing on bal­loon-like 17in tyres.

Ul­ti­mately, the Forester walks away with the win, rep­re­sent­ing a step for­ward for both Subaru’s ev­er­green model line and SUVS in this seg­ment. The de­sign is cer­tainly di­vi­sive, but oth­er­wise the Subaru is stun­ningly com­plete, with loads of char­ac­ter and very few vices.

Se­cond and third is a closely run thing. With deep pock­ets, the Tiguan can be spec­i­fied to drive, steer, han­dle and ride like a cut-price Audi, but without these worth­while yet costly op­tions, it feels in­fe­rior to a Golf. ‘Com­fort­line’, it seems, is a mis­nomer.

The CX-5, mean­while, of­fers fine value and feels spe­cial on many unan­tic­i­pated lev­els, in­clud­ing the area of cabin de­sign and pre­sen­ta­tion. Yet, like the Ger­man, the Tour­ing is patchy in other parts – namely in its re­fine­ment, out­right per­for­mance and stan­dard driver-as­sist spec.

Fi­nally, our ap­pro­pri­ately wild, wild­card, the Es­cape. Sharply priced, smartly pack­aged and so­phis­ti­cated dy­nam­i­cally, it’s a cool yet warm-un­der-the-col­lar out­cast that de­serves ac­cep­tance, even if you’ll pay at the bowser. Be pre­pared to be charmed by this slightly crusty old dog. Fourth place here is no dis­grace. Long live the driver-ori­ented en­gi­neer­ing ethos at Ford, and the brand’s abil­ity to turn out a crack­ing steer.

So, it’s the ful­some Forester that el­e­vates it­self above all with sheer ef­fort­less­ness. It sim­ply rises above the trees of nor­mal SUVS.

CX-5’S re­cep­tive steer­ing feel and pin-point han­dling can make a be­liever of the most avid Suv-hater




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