Mid way through a model's showroom life is when a manufacturer puts in a bit of an update. It's a common process amongst all the major manufacturers, as improvements in cosmetics, aesthetics, an added feature here and there are effective in prolonging the shelf life of the car, enabling it to compete against the newer competition. That's probably number 4 in the conventional playbook of the automotive industry.
It seems, however, that Subaru doesn't read from that same playbook when they worked on the Forester for its update. I say that because far as I can tell simply by looking at the 2016 Forester in the metal, the crossover looks almost exactly the same; if there's a nip or tuck that went on, I can't see it.
The reason behind that is because Subaru's engineers aren't plastic surgeons. They're doctors, and they worked on a lot more to improve the car that go far beyond skin deep. And that's what we'll find out when we put the Forester through its paces in Thailand for over 550 kilometers from Bangkok to Hua Hin and back again.
Just outside of our hotel was a very long group of Subaru Foresters, all of the new 2016 variety. Examining the updated crossover for the first time is really a game of spot the difference; you have to put photos of the two side by side just to tell that they remolded the grill, modified the headlamps, adjusted the taillamps, changed the wheels and put in a fin-type antenna. Minor stuff really.
There are two details worth noting though. Unusually enough, the Subarus we're looking at are not top-spec XT variants but the new 2.0i-P versions, but the look is that of the previous XT. Also, these right-hand drive models that we'll get behind the wheel of are not assembled in Japan; instead, they come from Motor Image's plant in Malaysia. We had to clarify these bits of information, and Subaru says that the 2.0i-P for the Philippine market will not have the XT's fascia. The Foresters we will also get will not come from Malaysia but from Fuji Heavy Industries's plant in Gunma Japan; the Motor Image plant in Malaysia will be producing Foresters for right-hand drive ASEAN markets.
So if it wasn't the skin, what did they change?
Subaru is, in a way, like Porsche; the shape and overall design remains the same, but what they work on is improving overall performance. They improve the recipe but retain the presentation, so to speak.
What Subaru changed for 2016 is reducing noise vibration and harshness (NVH). They did this by making the window panels thicker and adding sound insulation materials in key locations on the monocoque. Engineers also reworked the suspension with a beefier front crossmember, revised shocks and springs, and enhanced rear suspension alignment.
When I finally got behind the wheel of the Forester, the difference became apparent as well. They may have kept the exterior changes as subtle as possible, but the cabin certainly feels more premium from the driver's seat. The steering wheel feels better and has a new set of control buttons. The gauges have been upgraded, along with revisions to the material for the trim and a newer, more sophisticated audio unit with navigation; that last one will be extremely handy in Bangkok traffic.
Once on the road, it's easy to get familiarized with the Forester. The ones I've become accustomed to are the top tier XT variants, but this one is the mid grade Premium variant. The difference in performance is huge as XT versions get the FA20 DIT, a direct injection turbo intercooler flat-4 that makes 241 PS, while the mid and lower grades get the naturally aspirated FB20 with 150 PS. Still, the power is more than sufficient for this crossover and in typical Subaru fashion, all models get their proprietary Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, X-Mode integrated off-road drive system, as well as their Lineartronic continuously variable transmissions.
Negotiating Bangkok traffic is easy, as the engine responds well to throttle input when I want some go. The Lineartronic seems quieter than before; probably because most of the soundproofing material they added is on the firewall to block more of the noise from the powertrain. Maneuverability is great, with good visibility all around with the big greenhouse.
On the elevated Sri Rat expressway heading out of the city is a perfect place to stretch the Forester's legs. I prefer the power of the turbocharged XT, but this 2.0i-P will do. And fuel economy is quite decent too given that we weren't really being economical; 9.5 km/l at 99 km/h with plenty of overtaking and some traffic.
We've got a long drive ahead of us, as Subaru really planned this drive to be far more than their usual. Just to be clear, when Motor Image (the distributor of Subaru in most of the region) holds a regional launch and drive, the driving portion is usually confined to large concrete lot with a course laid out. So this 400+ kilometer drive on the first day is certainly a welcome treat for us gearheads in this convoy.
Once out of the motorways, we made our way into some rural roads south west of Bangkok, closer to the towns of Cha Am and Hua Hin. We pull into what looks like a massive pineapple plantation, and here amidst the plots of farmland and dirt trails did we get reacquainted with Subaru's X-Mode system.
X-Mode is a drive system that has programs to manage the traction control, stability control, transmission, engine response, the all-wheel drive system as well as the CVT. Under normal driving conditions, the Forester's S-AWD has a 60/40 front/rear torque split, but X-Mode changes that, optimizing the split so that traction is improved. The throttle response is also managed for a more linear delivery of torque, and if one or more wheels start slipping, X-Mode will kick in to send power to the wheels that can uses it. And there's also Hill Descent and other technologies to get you through a rough spot.
On the disused (and incomplete) Pran Buri airfield nearby, we were able to max out the new Forester on a slalom course, particularly with its ability to stay as stable as it can, even when pitched hard around a slalom. There was a lot of dust kicked up on this derelict airstrip, but later in the day, we were going to redefine what dust is.
After another hour of driving, we arrived at a seaside location. It's a simple place with no structure in sight, and it's here, on a flat piece of ground where Subaru arranged a neat little dirt course. And we were told to go all out.
Lap after lap, we started to get a feel for what this Subaru can do. They made their name rallying around the world and winning championships, and it still shows in the Forester's DNA. The controllability of this heavy crossover around such a tricky course is it's best characteristic, able to get sideways if pitched right, and able to minimize the understeer in the loose surface. When that was done, we went to another course, and were told to go even faster still. We obliged, with our confidence engaged with such a well sorted crossover.
The changes made by Subaru to the Forester may not be cosmetic, but the improvements are certainly meaningful. Sure, I still wish they revised the look a bit and changed more than just trim, but this revised Forester still has the goods where it counts the most.