Firstly, the Forester gets two 2.0-litre flat-four engine flavours – a 150PS / 198Nm naturally aspirated (NA) one that's found in the entry-level 2.0i and mid-range 2.0i-P (Premium), while the 2.0 XT gets a more potent 241PS and 350Nm turbocharged mill. But for this excursion, it's the 2.0i-P costing RM9,540 more than 2.0i, but RM57,240-less than the 2.0 XT at RM153,700 on-the-road including GST that we'll be looking at. With the 2.0i-P being the middle child, it gets additional kit over the standard 2.0i, but not all the bells and whistles of the 2.0 XT.
The additionals include steering-responsive automatic-levelling LED headlamps, automatic wipers, SI Drive, electric-powered front seats with driver-side memory function, dual-zone climate controls, PIN-code access and keyless entry with push-start button. Other additional items include centre-mounted multi-info colour display, height-adjustable powered tail-gate, aluminium pedals, steering-wheel cruise control function, paddle-shifters, exhaust mufflers, front fog lamps and LED wing mirrors.However, it misses out on the panoramic roof, Alcantara upholstery, Harmann Kardon sound system, Siri eyes free with voice recognition command and twin-tipped exhaust mufflers as well as that turbocharged boxer flat-four engine in the 2.0 XT.
Our drive took us from Bangkok city down the western coast off the Gulf of Thailand to a remote destination around the coastal district of Hua Hin, which used to be a quiet fishing village during the 1920s, and somehow grew in popularity as a favourite destination for local Bangkok residents. During the drive, the Forester 2.0i-P at highway speeds pleasantly revealed a quiet cabin thanks to the provision of thicker windows to quell the wind noise coming off the large wing mirrors. And the addition of sound proofing materials around the base of the chassis and wheel arches that house the 17-inch wheels with 225/60 series tyres added to that effect.
Such a combination provided for a relatively more peaceful interior as the revised coils and dampers of the suspension system soaked up the uneven sections of Thailand's country roads by mitigating noise, vibration and harshness levels impressively well. In essence, the Forester has itself a quiet comfortable drive.Furthermore, the cabin's leather-wrapped power adjustable seats felt plush and there was a good amount of thigh and lumbar support, which came with the convenience of driver-side memory function.
To complete the experience was the electric power steering system's light and effortless feel that develops a nice heft once the Forester gets up to highway speeds. In terms of engine performance, powering off the line from standstill or putting the power down from a rolling start was dulled by the apparent lack of abruptness - leaving the Forester 2.0i-P to be perceived as more prey than predator, but at least when it comes to braking, it'll come biting as hard as the foot demands. We stopped off at Udom Potchana for lunch, where the group would split into two, with the first half (us) headed for the decommissioned Pran Buri South Airfield Hard Surface where a slalom and Moose test course awaited and the other half convened at the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park for some “dirt-time”.
At the decommissioned airfield, the Forester's road-holding abilities while on Continental ContiMaxContact MC5 tyres should be commended and as long as there's some throttle input around the bends. It'll also need to getting used to when it comes to its degree of suspension travel, but it'll be able to take sudden directional changes well while the rear-end keeps up without loosing much of its footing. To maintain the Forester's poise through the slalom, drivers need to go against initial reactions and keep feathering the throttle rather than lifting the foot off and by doing so, it brings about the onset of understeer.
So long as there's throttle input, it's all about feathering it and then steering the Forester in the intended direction and then wait for it to comply – so timing is tantamount. The Forester's front-rear weight balance will feel more front-hefty under heavy braking and that's only natural with a set of soft comfort-oriented suspension, but the low centre-of-gravity seemed to allow us to man-handle it through the slalom before jinking it through the Moose test rather compliantly. At our second venue, it was time to get this Japanese compact SUV well and truly soiled by literally throwing the Forester through a short course of loose dirt.
The 2.0-litre boxer-four engine isn't going to kick the dirt sky-high with its tyres under full throttle.It's just too calm and collected for that at low engine-speeds and the driver really needs to keep the engine revving high to put down the brunt of the engine's power. But that's just going to take too much fun out of the drive, but once we disengaged the vehicle dynamics control (VDC) programme, the level of driver-engagement simply took to the skies and the rear-end seemed to enjoy loosing its footing.
In such loose dirt, the difference with having VDC engaged is that the Forester will want to make the turn as quickly as possible depending on the amount of steering input, but without VDC it'll require some finesse to make it turn and will require the combination of steering input and throttle – more steering input and throttle gets it turning more, and that means more driver engagement. We admit the Forester isn't a particularly good-looking car, picking up where it's predecessor left-off more like it, and the 2.0-litre NA engine may not seem like the most exhilarating to drive with. However, owning one does have its promise of spaciousness, four-wheel traction, handling, a commanding view, nearly a pick-up truck's ride-height at 220mm and 505 (1,564 expanded) litres of cargo space.