To put that further into perspective, the new Forester is more powerful than performance-oriented lifestyle estates such as the Audi A4 1.8T Sport Avant and the Volvo V40 2.0T. Cheaper, too. The automatic transmission S-Turbo on sale now costs £22,750 and the manual, which is available from the first week in January, will cost £21,750. Were it not for import quota restrictions, Subaru believes it could sell as many Foresters in Britain a year as Land Rover does Freelanders. As it is, about 2,500 will be sold in 1999, half of them S-Turbos, and the waiting list could build up to match that of the floorpan-sharing Impreza if the numbers of 'official' Japanese imports to the UK continue to be restricted after 2000.
The Forester S-Turbo truly has no direct competitors. It's not a fully blown off-roader in the Land Rover sense, but it does have a respectable mud-plugging capability, and despite its power advantage it would be outdriven by a Volkswagen-Audi T-car on Tarmac with corners. It also sits lower than a Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V. What user-choosers get for their money is a hybrid that fits nicely into the UK market's 4x4 philosophy of requiring a roomy off-roader that is unlikely to be required to go off-road. It could also capture members of the GTI brigade previously dissuaded from smaller 4x4s because of their reputation for gutless petrol engines or a dislike of diesel.
Subaru has made a number of upgrades to help the Forester cope with the S-Turbo's extra power (the normal Forester delivers 120bhp) - and we put these through their paces on Wiltshire and Gloucestershire country roads at the car's UK press launch. It has larger diameter front and rear anti-roll bars, modified power steering for stronger on-centre feel and the addition of a limited-slip differential for the rear axle.
Self-levelling rear shock absorber units help maintain a constant ride height with 190mm ground clearance, and boost steering precision and handling agility. New Yokohama Geolander 215/60 tyres on five-spoke alloys are more than a cosmetic change: the S-Turbo feels far more secure on these at speed - the standard Forester's tyres are less forgiving. Rear drums have been replaced by 14in discs, and four-channel ABS is standard.
We drove only the five-speed manual at the launch event. This has 50:50 front-rear power split and centre differential with viscous coupling as well as the rear limited slip diff. Automatics have an Active Torque Split system to redistribute torque from axle to axle. The lack of rock and roll and overall good driving manners of the S-Turbo are remarkable.
Equipment levels are good for the price, too - air-conditioning, electric sunroof, heated front seats, driver, passenger and side airbags are included. Factory-fit grey leather trim for seats and door panels is an extra, although the consensus at the launch was that the black velour looked less tacky.
The seats were, however, comfortable and while the interior design itself and positioning of instruments and switches are nothing special, cabin and load area offer best-in-class space. Exterior differences between the S-Turbo and normal Forester include lower body mouldings, bonnet air intake, mesh grille, front fog lamps and alloy wheels.
Subaru has created a classic wolf in sheep's clothing with the S-Turbo. It's quick, handles surprisingly well and it's reasonably cheap. But fleets will find availability a problem. There's already a three-month waiting list for the 2.0 GLS, and the S-Turbo makes its natural sister look ordinary.