Subaru Forester: Mountains to climb
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Stopped at the peak of a mountain range in Otago, with The Hobbit-esque landscape to the side and below us Alexandra, it feels as if Subaru New Zealand is trying to prove a point with the new Forester.
The previous evening, Subaru managing director Wallis Dumper emphasised that the Forester was one of the original crossover-SUVs and that buyers were more inclined to use the vehicle to head off-road for a spot of mountain biking or kayaking. Well, if bike fans had the drive programme at the official launch they'd probably forget the day job and hit the road permanently.
The fourth-generation Forester is 35mm longer than the previous model, with a 25mm increase in the wheelbase. The A-pillar has been moved forward and the side mirrors positioned on the door panels to create better front vision, while the rear is lowered to help with aerodynamics.
The rear is narrower but the interior offers more space - and plenty of height for mountain bikes to be stored - a selling point for previous models.
On offer at present are five models - with number six, a 2-litre diesel, expected here in May - with all-wheel-drive, air-con, automatic stop-start for fuel economy, multi-function display and reversing camera standard across the range.
Starting the line-up is the 2-litre six-speed manual petrol ($39,990), then the 2.5-litre manual ($44,990), CVT auto ($45,490), Sport model ($47,990) and Premium ($54,990) with the $59,990 2-litre diesel XT
The two Premium models have leather seats, 18-inch wheels (over the 17in of the other models) and powered rear gate - where a swipe of your foot under the rear tailgate makes the boot open, ideal when your arms are loaded with shopping bags. The XT boosts a new direct-injection turbocharged boxer engine paired to the Lineartronic transmission.
Subaru NZ is using the line "it can if you can" to promote the Forester - so to show what it "can" do, we headed out of Queenstown, through Cromwell then across the dirt and rocky mountain road to Alexandra.
This track not only showed the vehicle's AWD ability - which is boosted by its 220mm ground clearance - but it also helped test the X-Mode function (pictured above) in the automatic models. Engaged at below 40km/h, it takes control of the vehicle and uses hill-descent control to creep down the rocky, steep decline of the road.
Once on the flat roads of Alexandra it is a lunch break at the former gold-mining town of St Bathans with permanent human residents of six, plus Jack the black labrador and the pub's ghost, Rosie.
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Subaru NZ again decided to show the capabilities of the Forester by turning off the main road and taking the Thomson Gorge track, a summer-only road that the gold miners forged and which is now favoured by hikers.
The SUV easily coped with the dirt track and its cattle residents - the only challenge was opening and closing the many gates along the track to keep the bovines in check.
Then it was on to the tarsealed road towards Queenstown, with the only obstacle I encountered a local in a Range Rover who took every windy bend from Wanaka at 10km/h - with my Forester itching to show the driver just how it's done: brake before the corner, and accelerate out of it and let the AWD do the work if the going gets tough.
While not in the price bracket of the Range Rover, the Forester sits in a crowded category.
When introduced in 1997, it followed Honda's CRV into the New Zealand market and has been a solid performer for Subaru. The previous box-shaped models are now popular with teen owners, who reckon it looks "cool", says Subaru NZ boss Dumper.
But the crossover/SUV segment is set to overtake hatchbacks this year as the biggest sellers in New Zealand - and Subaru's all-new mid-sized AWD is taking on the soon-to-be-launched Toyota RAV4 (see page 9) plus solid Korean performers Kia Sportage (starting at $32,240) and Hyundai's ix35 (from $40,490).
Not that the competition is rattling Dumper, who points to his range's 4WD credentials.
"We are sticking to our roots," he says. "While other SUV manufacturers are offering 2WD models, we are staying 100 per cent all-wheel-drive all the time and improving the technology to offer a wider range of capability.
"Kiwis with an active lifestyle can be even more assured of reaching and returning from that remote hiking, fishing or hunting spot, and the top of the road to the remotest skifield."