With Subaru having hinted towards electrifying its models for some time now, and having earlier this year announced its aim for 40 percent of its vehicles sold globally to be EVs and hybrids by 2030, it’s certainly about time the company finally got around to adding some hybrid models to its lineup as a first step towards accomplishing those plans.
Thankfully, then, it has done just that with the launch of its all-new ‘e-Boxer’ hybrid drivetrain in two of its most popular models – the Impreza-based XV small SUV and the mid-sizer you see here, the Forester – which promises to deliver something Subaru owners of old may not be entirely familiar with, which is good fuel economy.
As a two-time former Forester owner, however, and a fan of this current-gen model that was first introduced back in 2018, I was naturally quite intrigued to see how Subaru’s very important first attempt at electrification – important not just because of the company’s future sales targets, but because the lengthy waiting list for Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid shows the demand for electrification in this class – has gone down when the opportunity to get myself acquainted with the new Hybrid range presented itself.
While the regular straightforward petrol Forester range consists of four variants – 2.5i, 2.5i-L, 2.5i-Premium, and 2.5i-S – the new hybrid driveline is offered in only two of those specifications. The Hybrid L, shown here in green, gets the ball rolling at $39,990 while the Hybrid S, pictured in blue, steps that up to $45,990 – each charging a $4500 price increase over the equivalent petrol model.
Getting hands on with both models, it’s clear most of that money goes on the more techy drivetrain as the spec additions and changes are fairly minimal. Both models now feature heated front seats as standard – even the L with its cloth upholstery – with the buttons for them housed on a new climate control unit, while the L gains some additional chrome brightwork on the outside for things like the door handles and fog light surrounds, and both models gain some gloss black trim around the rear window and a smattering of ‘e-Boxer’ badges that visually mimic its engine’s horizontally-opposed pistons, but otherwise the spec simply mirrors that of their conventional counterparts.
That’s no bad thing though as the current Forester has always been a well-equipped bus with some surprisingly advanced technology – most notably a facial recognition system that, once your profile is configured in the system, greets you by name and adjusts the temperature, seat, and mirrors to your preferred settings automatically. Tied in with it is an eye-tracking monitor that will alert the driver when they take their eyes off the road ahead – a smart way of deterring texting while driving.
Also on the safety front, Subaru’s EyeSight driver assist system – which runs off a stereo camera unit mounted at the top of the windscreen – is fitted as standard across the Hybrid range, as it is on the standard Forester range as well, meaning you get adaptive cruise control (which is still one of the smoothest and most quick-witted systems of its kind), lane centring control, emergency lane keep assist, autonomous emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert all as standard.
In terms of day-to-day gadgetry, both L and S grades feature Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring, digital radio, dual-zone climate control, adaptive LED headlights, and a handy three-camera system with front, rear, and side views as standard, while the S model also gains leather seats with power adjustment up front and memory for the driver, TomTom satellite navigation, a Harman Kardon audio system, a powered tailgate, a massive glass sunroof, an additional drive mode selection button on the steering wheel, and a more advanced version of the X-Mode traction control system.
The most notable improvement the S model gains over the L, however, is not just the addition of sat nav to its ‘Starlink’ infotainment system, but a larger 8.0-inch screen for the system itself, as the L features an almost embarrassingly small 6.5-inch screen that, while running largely the same system, just looks sub-par and out of place.
In all Forester models the screen setup is a unique one, though, with a screen atop the dash housing an advanced trip computer that includes a graphic showing when petrol and electric power are being utilised, and one in the gauge cluster for things like the speed and driver assistance settings in addition to the standard infotainment system display. It may perhaps look like an information overload to some at first, but I find it an incredibly intuitive and well-arranged system – once you get used to it – that delivers a good amount and array of information.
The base model’s small infotainment screen aside, though, the interiors of both are a nice place to be with acres of space both front and rear, and an array of interior materials that all feel fairly plush and inoffensive. Subaru’s typically excellent build quality is certainly on full display here, too, as it all feels incredibly well bolted together.
Clearly, though, with both presenting almost identically to their conventional counterparts, it’s the e-Boxer hybrid system itself that’s what really matters here.
The primary source of power is a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated flat-four with direct injection that makes 110kW at 6000rpm and 196Nm at 4000rpm, while an electric motor that makes 12.3kW – yes, to the decimal – and 66Nm is added into the mix to solely power the car off the line and also in conjunction with the petrol engine.
The energy that drives the electric motor is derived from a mere 0.568kWh lithium-ion battery pack located under the boot floor, while the power from the engine and electric motor combo is sent to all four wheels through Subaru’s famed rally-developed Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system through a CVT automatic with a seven-speed manual mode.
For the most part, the Forester Hybrid is perfectly nice to drive, feeling smooth, quiet, and fairly refined. Admittedly, the CVT here does occasionally rev flare more than in the regular petrol Forester but it’s well-behaved for the most part, although it’s really let down by the tall gearing of its manual mode – something it has in common with a number of other Subarus featuring this transmission – that fails to extract any real performance out of it, meaning you’re better off just leaving it in D.
What’s a real shame though is that the electric motor in this equation is simply not powerful enough to propel this 1.6-tonne car on its own – Subaru claims it can take the car up to 40km/h solely depending on the conditions, but I found the petrol engine would kick back in before you’d even hit double digits.
The majority of the time, then, you’re left relying on the petrol engine, and while the electric motor can add some much needed zing to it, it’s to the same effect as putting a single chilli seed in a paella – realistically, you’re not going to notice it, meaning it often feels under-engined compared to the regular model’s 2.5-litre flat-four with 139kW and 239Nm, although the hybrid at least has enough power there to perform overtaking manoeuvres safely given the minor electric boost.
With the electric motor not really being able to power this thing itself all that much, it means the only time the petrol engine really shuts off is when you’re coasting downhill or slowing to a stop, meaning it acts more like a mild hybrid system than the true hybrid it’s being billed as and technically is.
As a result, the fuel economy benefits, while there, aren’t really all that great. In both cars I tested it hovered around the 7.9L/100km mark against a claim of 6.7L/100km, while a look back through my records shows the 2.5-litre current-gen Foresters I’ve previously tested averaging around 9.2L/100km on the same roads and in fairly similar conditions. Sure, it’s an improvement, and relatively consistent with Subaru’s claims of a 19 percent fuel use reduction on the urban cycle and nine percent on the combined cycle, but considering the $4500 premium you’re paying, it’ll take a long time to pay the difference back.
It’s a shame that this hybrid drivetrain feels a bit underdone as the rest of the Forester is a damn good car. It feels nice and secure on the road with MacPherson strut front suspension and – rather impressively – double wishbone rear suspension, handling quite well with responsive steering and fairly well-controlled body roll. Of course, the layout of its boxer engine helps it maintain a lower centre of gravity, too, only aiding its handling characteristics.
The ride quality, particularly on the L’s smaller 17-inch wheels, is absolutely beautiful as well with it doing a very impressive job of ironing out road imperfections even on heavily corrugated dirt roads. On the S model’s admittedly more stylish 18-inch rims and lower-profile tyres the ride can feel a little bit busier, admittedly, but either way, impressive comfort is something it definitely delivers in spades.
While there’s nothing inherently and egregiously wrong about the Forester Hybrid and the way it drives with this powertrain, it’s just that the numbers don’t really add up for it in terms of fuel economy, performance, and price.
And that’s a real shame, as not only is the Forester an otherwise utterly pleasant car packed with some very clever tech, but it unfortunately sets the company off to a questionable start when it comes to wanting to build up its image in the hybrid and EV space.
With the pre-existing 2.5-litre petrol model already being an easy car to recommend to those looking at buying an SUV this size, perhaps unless you’re only going to be driving exclusively in town where you’ll see the greatest benefits of a hybrid system and not notice the lack of grunt, I’d advise you save the four-odd grand and stick with the regular Foz for now.
2020 Subaru Forester Hybrid List Price, Hybrid L: $39,990 | Hybrid S: $45,990
Pros: Incredibly smooth ride on all road surfaces and nicely balanced through the corners, cavernous interior, clever facial recognition and EyeSight driver assistance systems
Cons: Fuel economy improvement is negligible, feels under-engined when you really floor it, big step up in price compared to the regular model
In a nutshell: The Forester itself is a good car filled with great tech meaning it’s easy to recommend, but this hybrid version unfortunately feels a tad underdone. Unless you’re going to be driving it exclusively around town where you’ll likely see the biggest benefits of the hybrid system, save yourself the four grand and go for the regular model would be my advice.
2020 Subaru Forester Hybrid L:
2020 Subaru Forester Hybrid S:
Full Disclosure: The vehicles tested here were provided by Subaru Australia for a week each and with a full tank of fuel in both.