Driven to Extremes: Subaru Forester

Subaru operates in a slightly odd space. It’s a brand that is almost embarrassed by its glorious rallying heritage, as it only makes sensible grown-up SUVs like the Forester and XV now. Well, apart from the rear-wheel-drive low slung BRZ sports car, but we’ll skip over that.

Those sensible SUVs are, in isolation, lovely but delve deeper and you’ll find that its rivals can do various bits better. Subaru doesn’t even sell that many, with just 33,000 of its cars finding homes across all of Europe in 2019. Nissan sold more than 200,000 Qashqais alone in the same period.

Subaru Forester e-boxer

But, despite that, there is a lot of warmth for the brand. People like its cars, like the company, and love the dealers, and they keep going back, time and time again.

They’re promised tough SUVs that last – Subaru claims over 97% of the cars built in the last 10 years are still on the road – so I tried the new Forester e-Boxer in one of the toughest environments you can find.

Subaru Forester in the snow

Northern Finland in February is cold. Not ‘best put a hat on’ cold, but ‘stay out here for too long and you’re dead’ cold. I arrived on an unusually warm day, warm enough to have the locals talking about climate change, but the temperature was still reading -12°C. Over the next three days, it just got colder.

Cold temperatures aren’t kind to batteries, yet we had Subaru’s new mild-hybrid variant of the Forester. Called e-Boxer, it combines the Japanese firm’s traditional 2.0-litre flat four-cylinder petrol engine with a small electric motor and battery pack. It’s designed to aid the engine, providing a small power boost and taking some of the load off, resulting in improved economy and lower emissions at very little cost and complexity.

Adventures in Storyland

There’s 150hp, which is enough power but not overwhelming but, at low speeds, it can operate briefly on pure-electric power – even in Finland, just occasionally the engine would switch off, leaving us on battery power. Not for long though, as the demands of driving, heating turned on full, lots of lights and all four heated seats being switched on is enough to need more amps. It’s a nice engine when it’s running, but the switch between electric and petrol power isn’t as smooth as you might hope for, and a long way from being imperceptible.

The cabin is a comfortable and, thankfully, very warm environment. Built for comfort, the seats are wide of plush, with each of them heated on the SE Premium model I’m driving, and there’s plenty of equipment. The infotainment system is a tad awkward to use, but it’s better than you’ll find in some of Subaru’s Japanese rivals. Aside from that touchscreen, everything can be used easily with a prod, even when wearing gloves.

I’d usually talk about the car’s handling and ride, but ice-covered forest roads aren’t exactly representative of the county’s roads. However, the soft suspension absorbs the constant cracks and changes in the ice, and the four-wheel-drive system offers a reassuring amount of traction.

Leaving the road behind and exploring some of Finland’s beautiful wilderness, the all-terrain abilities of the Subaru Forester became essential. There’s 220mm of ground clearance, which should be enough to get past most obstacles, while the four-wheel-drive system is mechanical and permanent; heavier than some systems perhaps, but perfectly balanced and reassuringly reliable. It’s also strong enough to plough right through a soft snow bank…

First Drive: Alpine A110
Subaru Forester four wheel drive

As the temperature dropped to -16°C and the low sun started to disappear entirely, it was time to retire. The LED lights reflected across the snow and ice, bending as the wheels turned. Ice was forming along the bonnet, despite the warmth of the engine beneath.

The Subaru Forester felt rock-solid to drive, and like a member’s club inside, but I wasn’t going to push my luck any further. The next morning, after a frozen night interspersed with getting up to watch the northern lights, the Forester was covered in ice and thoroughly chilled. And it started first time. Properly tough, then.