Due on sale in October, the new model makes the most of lightweight parts to improve fuel consumption and offer the lowest benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax band of any mid-sized SUV on sale.
Although there will be no diesel, the new Forester will still offer a lower BIK band than both petrol and diesel rivals. Subaru is claiming that with a benefit-in-kind tax band of 22% for the 2.0-litre manual – compared with 27% for the equivalent outgoing model – the new Forester will command a lower rate of tax than even the best diesel SUVs. Despite some having lower CO2 emissions, such as the Nissan X-trail, Toyota RAV4 and Suzuki Grand Vitara 2.0 TD, they are penalised with the 3% diesel supplement.
Harvey France, Subaru business sales and used cars manager, said: 'Our job is to get our product on company choice lists and we have rarely been able to say our product is a class leader in terms of tax.
'We now have two products in the Legacy Outback and new Forester which are leaders in their particular fields. The new Forester's fuel economy is better than every petrol rival and better than many diesel SUVs. This is good news on an environmental front but also looking at it from a running costs perspective.'
More than 40% of Subarus are bought with company cash, and France is hoping more company car drivers will get the message about the new Forester.
Out of total Forester sales of 2,091 in 2001 39% were sold to businesses and fleets, and the company is expecting an increase of 50% in total sales during 2003, partly due to the improvements on the new Forester and also because of the continued growth in the SUV market.
Subaru is remaining tight-lipped about prices for the new Forester, which should be announced around the time of the British International Motor Show in October.
Customers can expect a small increase from current levels, however, at £15,495 for the entry-level car, as all new models will have climate control, CD player and rear limited slip differential as standard.
Security has also been given a boost for the UK market and Subaru is hoping for an improvement of at least two insurance groups comparing equivalent new and existing models, although Thatcham is not assessing the car until September.
France said: 'We are unusual in this sector in offering a standard car plus a high performance version, as well as automatic transmissions on both versions. The Forester will perform the role of a load-carrying estate and has the benefit of off-road capability. And people who drive them also buy into our rallying heritage.'
For some people the glaring omission in the Subaru range is a diesel, but Subaru is not prepared to slot in another manufacturer's engine into the car to compromise its values.
Sam Burton, Subaru managing director, said: 'We are a niche player and we are currently catering for 78% of the new car market by offering an all-petrol line-up. Subarus are famous for their 'boxer' engines with a low centre of gravity and four-wheel drive. If we were to take a diesel engine from another manufacturer, it would not be a boxer engine and would totally transform the balance of the car.
'There is a diesel boxer engine being evaluated in the laboratory, but at the moment it is a long way from production.'
Behind the wheel
THE Forester has always looked more estate car than SUV, mainly because it seems to disguise its 7.5 inches of ground clearance – the same as a Freelander – rather well.
The new car is more distinctive than the existing model with a more aggressive looking front end and sharper rear light clusters. It is slightly shorter than before, although repositioning the front seats has liberated more interior space, and the car is wider.
Cars with the optional 'weather pack' are distinguished from the standard Forester – the Forester X – by grey metallic bumpers and lower body cladding and also have front fog lamps, side airbags with head and chest protection, an electric sunroof, alloy wheels, cruise control and heated front seats.
The other distinguishing feature in the Forester range is the former S Turbo, now badged XT, which has the now traditional hole in the centre of the bonnet to direct air at the intercooler.
All models boast permanent four-wheel drive, but normally- aspirated cars have a low-ratio facility to allow the car to be used in mud or on steep inclines.
Interior quality is much improved – thanks in part to the efforts of UK importer and distributor IM Group who convinced Subaru in Japan that European markets demand materials that look more expensive and well crafted.
The result is a soft-touch dimpled mid section of the dashboard and tops of the doors with a hard – but not hard looking – plastic top to the dashboard. While these materials are black, the lower section of the dashboard is a light grey and the centre console is metallic effect plastic with a smart CD/radio and damped cupholder and storage compartment.
The 2.0-litre boxer engine still crackles into life before settling down to an off-beat burble and for the normally-aspirated car at least, performance seems adequate rather than sparkling.
Greater use of aluminium means that, with the help of the engine, an even lower centre of gravity is maintained, making the Forester utterly car-like to drive.
The Forester shrugs off tight bends like they are gentle curves and when speed is too high, it results in a progressive four-wheel drift until the four-wheel drive system pulls the car along its desired trajectory. The steering comes to life when on the move and makes hustling the Forester around country lanes effortless.
The car has an easy-going nature in town, with maximum torque coming in at 3,600rpm, and can be managed with few gearchanges.
It manages to combine its spirited handling with a smooth ride which is only unsettled by deeper potholes and imperfections on the road. Off road the Forester is surprisingly capable on muddy and slippery surfaces and the ground clearance is just enough to cope with the majority of ruts on well-used tracks. Low ratio mode comes in handy when circumstances are more challenging and it would come out quite well in a contest against its major rivals – none of which have a low-ratio option.
The XT is a slightly different proposition, offering the ground clearance of the standard car (actually it's 5mm higher), but with hot-hatchback performance. With 174bhp and 181lb-ft of torque it's more like a performance estate such as an Audi A4 Avant or BMW 3-series Touring.
However, the penalty is sub-30mpg fuel consumption and benefit-in-kind liability starting at 29%.
THE new Forester continues to plough its own furrow as a 'cross-over' vehicle in the SUV sector offering car-like performance with considerable off-road ability. The improvements in fuel consumption should please fleet managers and drivers will like the lower tax liability on the normally aspirated car. It's a great all-rounder.