Subaru’s Forester e-Boxer: looks blocky but packs a driving punch

New hybrid shows off the best – and the worst – of the iconoclastic Japanese brand

Subaru Forester
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Year: 2020
Fuel: Hybrid

While Subaru actually makes quite a few cars every year – just over one million – most of those are sold in the US, Japan and Australia. A mere 33,000 were sold to European buyers last year and, of those, a mere 195 found homes in Ireland. So far this year it has registered 37 new cars and has been overtaken by Porsche.

True, there’s a dedicated and loyal band of Subarists out there, but the Japanese car maker hardly seems to make things easy for itself by being almost bull-headedly stubborn about its products.

Let's examine the case of this Forester, Subaru's most popular model, and long a firm favourite with those who need to regularly traverse the rockier, boggier parts of the countryside. Subaru and Toyota have a reciprocal ownership of their respective shares – Toyota owns 20 per cent of Subaru, and Subaru in turn bought a chunk of Toyota – and the whole point of that was, so we thought, that Subaru could get its hands on Toyota's hybrid tech.

Subaru didn't do the apparently sensible thing and just lift the hybrid system from Toyota's excellent RAV4

And this new Forester e-Boxer hybrid does, at first glance, contain what looks suspiciously like a Toyota hybrid system. There’s a compact electric motor, being fed by a stack of lithium-ion batteries under the boot. It’s mounted in series with a petrol engine and driving the wheels through a CVT gearbox.


However, Subaru didn’t do the apparently sensible thing and just lift the hybrid system from Toyota’s excellent RAV4. Oh no. Subaru insisted on using its own 2.0-litre flat-four petrol engine (dubbed a “Boxer” because the horizontally opposed pistons punch at each other when the engine’s firing) and its traditional symmetrical all-wheel drive setup. Toyota, to give the RAV4 optional four-wheel drive, uses a rear-mounted electric motor, saving weight, fuel and emissions. Subaru’s system is purely mechanical, and therefore thirstier.

So, we’ve got a flat-four engine – a layout not generally noted for its economy – and a hefty four-wheel drive system. So don’t go expecting this hybrid to deliver Toyota-like economy figures. Subaru quotes WLTP fuel economy figures of 8.1 litres per 100km, and we scored 9.0 litres per 100km in our time with the car. Not appalling, perhaps, but not what you expect when you see the word “hybrid”.

Performance is also languid at best. True, thanks to the hybrid, there’s a little more oomph to the acceleration, but this is still a car that takes its time getting up to cruising speed, and does so with a high-rpm blare thanks to the CVT “box”. Memories of the wham-bam-thank-you-mama-san style of the old Impreza Turbos of the rallying era are fading fast.

So, it's thirsty. It's not very quick. It's quite expensive. And its styling can best be described as blocky. Hmmmm

Then there's the style. Now, I'm not personally too down on the Forester's looks, but I can see why you might be. It's upright, square-ish and arguably not very stylish. Subaru is an engineering company first and foremost (it used to be called Fuji Heavy Industries, and Subaru was merely a brand name) so it always considered styling as an unnecessary distraction from the work of bending steel and fettling components. Ditto the interiors, which, in spite of some great strides made in recent years in terms of cabin style, remain utilitarian and a little clunky in places.

Plus, they’re not cheap. Now Subaru Ireland has long pleaded the headaches on this point, and blamed the rise of the yen, but if Toyota can land a RAV4 Hybrid here for €35,000 or thereabouts, how come the Forester e-Boxer costs a minimum €45,545?

So, it’s thirsty. It’s not very quick. It’s quite expensive. And its styling can best be described as “blocky”. Hmmmm.

The thing is, though, I kind of love it. I know that the Forester is not a car for everyone, and I totally get that. I accept that it’s too thirsty for most tastes (Subaru’s eyes, as ever, are on its more successful US market, even though it has confirmed a commitment to the European market too). I get that not everyone’s going to love the styling. I don’t care.

For a start, the Forester is just delightful to drive. Once you’ve gathered the necessary speed, you’ll find that the light steering has excellent feel, and very direct – verging on properly sporty – responses. It’s enough to make the helms of most other rival SUVs feel very mushy and imprecise. The body lopes along on soft-ish springs, but there’s not too much roll in corners, and that heavy, complex four-wheel drive system means you never run out of traction.

Knee-deep snow? No bother. Howling winds and standing water? Barely noticed them

You sit high-ish, on hugely comfortable leather seats, with a great view out because Subaru is one of the few (only?) car makers who can square impressive safety credentials with thin windscreen pillars. Speaking of safety, the multi-award-winning “EyeSight” camera-based lane-keeping and braking system makes a mockery of most others’ efforts.

On top of which, it's properly rugged. Its lofty ride height and 4x4 status is no mere affectation. We managed to sample the Forester e-Boxer both in the deep snows of northern Finland, and in the driving rains of Storm Denis, and it performed in a manner that can only be described as "unstoppable". Knee-deep snow? No bother. Howling winds and standing water? Barely noticed them. The confidence that the Forester inspires in you when others are warily watching the barometer is something else.

So, yeah, it’s not for everyone. Not for many. Barely for a few, to be honest. That’s okay. Subaru is happy with that (albeit admitting that its Irish dealer network my have to shrink to fit, a little) and happy with its loyal band of buyers. Frankly, I’d be happy to be one of them.

The lowdown: Subaru Forester e-Boxer Hybrid XE Premium

Power: 2.0-litre flat-four-cylinder engine with 150hp, 194Nm torque, 12.3kW electric motor, CVT automatic transmission, four-wheel drive
Consumption: 8.1l/100km
Emissions: 154g/km (5mg/km NOx)
0-100km/h: 11.8 seconds
Price: From €45,545 (€49,245 as tested)
Verdict: Not for everyone, but that's okay

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring