Building a Subaru Forester for rough-roading

Subaru Forester

Buying and modifying a 4X4 is a long process. Yet custom car stories usually jump straight to here’s $50,000 worth of changes. Not this one…

This series will be different because we’re going to serialise it, cover all the tiny little changes that aren’t deemed important enough for regular custom features, and explain all the choices we made. And we’re not spending $50k either, not even including the cost of the car.

The first place to start with any serious car-buying project is the requirements, putting heart aside and thinking with your head. In our case, that was a first car for an 18-year-old; one she could take camping, was manual and wasn’t too big or expensive to run. It had to have a modicum of off-road capability, and be rated 5-star ANCAP safety, all for a budget of $10,000, or less. The manual transmission was so she truly learns how to drive, something you can only do if you own a manual. My daughter is one of the few young ladies in Australia who can drive manual off-road and on a racetrack – if there’s any more of you, post evidence in the comments.

One note on the ANCAP rating – they change over time, so a rating of 5 stars in, say, 2008 isn’t the same as 5 stars in 2020, but it’s better than 3 stars of the same era. Regardless of the rating, we wanted two key safety features; side airbags and stability control as research indicates these are two of the most critical safety items.

So our first choice we had to make was the type of car; road car, soft-roader, or a 4×4 with low range. A road car can be taken camping, but not very far, you wouldn’t go too well on desert tracks or in the High Country. Obviously a low-range 4X4, such as a Pajero or Prado could do the job, but they’re expensive and you don’t get a lot of that sort of vehicle for less than $10,000 – remember, we want easy-to-maintain reliability, and safety for $10k. So the focus narrowed in on a soft-roader, which we’ll define as a smallish SUV with all-wheel-drive.

Soft-roaders aren’t as capable as 4x4s for a few reasons. First, they lack ground clearance and their wheel diameter is smaller than a 4×4, but that’s really a function of their size and road-oriented design. There’s less excuse for the other disadvantage, which is a poor all-wheel-drive system that drives the front wheels first, and only activates the rear wheels when the front wheels lose traction, often overheating the centre clutch if pushed too hard. That’s the bane of pretty much all vehicles in this class, with one or two notable exceptions.

Nissan X-Trail

The Nissan X-Trail has a loyal following and indeed I’ve taken one to the top of Blue Rag (as well as unbogged a couple in sand), but I’m really not a fan of its all-wheel-drive system and in manual form it struggles a bit off-road. The Mazda Tribute/Ford Escape is quite capable, but most are autos and it has a 4-star rating. The Hyundai Santa Fe CM is a great car, as I know from running one on long-term test then buying it afterwards. There are a few manuals and it is good value, but only has a 4-star rating. The Land Rover Freelander 2 fits the bill, but manuals are rare and running costs are high.

Most soft-roaders can deal with sand when they are aired down, but beware overheating centre couplings which disconnect and leave the car in front-wheel-drive.

While most vehicles in this class lack low range, there are some options. The Pajero IO is too old and small, and has poor safety. The Suzuki Jimny is too small and lacks safety features. The Suzuki Grand Vitara is a real contender. Serious off-road capability, 5-star safety in later models, all-wheel-drive grip on the bitumen, and offers Suzuki resale. The diesels are tempting, manual only, and I recall being impressed when testing a new one. But, a new-car test can’t tell you what lies ahead, and the little diesels haven’t had the best run for reliability. A 2.7L petrol manual long wheelbase seemed the go. The only problem was a 4-star safety rating.

A fairly rare 3.2L V6 petrol Grand Vitara. Good if you can find one.

In the end, we settled on a Subaru Forester which ticked all the boxes. It’s the right size, plenty of them to choose from, has a proper full-time all-wheel-drive system, cheap to run, lots of modifications and expertise available, manual, and has a sort-of low range with a 1.2 reduction. They aren’t cheap to buy compared to some equivalents, but that’s because of the advantages above and it also means resale is never going to be a problem, especially as we don’t intend on doing a lot of mileage. Foresters were also the first car to score 5 star ANCAP rating, and it has side airbags as well as stability control. But, which Forester exactly?

Choose Your Forester

Subaru’s Forester was one of the original soft-roaders, or SUVs back in 1997, continuing a Subaru class of light car-like off-roaders that began with the Leone and Brumby in in the late ’70s. That first 1997 model was the SF, and lasted until 2002 when it was replaced by the SG which was sold until 2008.

Gen 1 Forester SFs of the Subaru Club.

A major update saw the introduction of the SH, on sale in Australia from March 2008 and that’s the model we’ve bought in base-spec X trim, price new at the time of $30,490 plus on-road costs. The SH was replaced by SJ in 2012 with a notable change to a CVT automatic, and in 2018 the current model SK was introduced which kept the CVT but dropped the manual transmission choice, and will add a hybrid powerplant option. Diesel Foresters were available from 2010 till 2018. A high-performance Forester has been available since 1997 with a more powerful engine, no low range and tuned suspension but that too was dropped with the introduction of the SK.

All Foresters are constant all-wheel-drive, as opposed to the on-demand model used by other carmakers which drives the front axle then the rears when required. This is good for handling and off-road performance but hurts fuel economy a little – our SH’s figure is 9.3L/100km, which isn’t great for a 1470kg SUV, and makes the range a little short even when paired with a largish 60L fuel tank. The SH’s petrol engine is a four-cylinder 2.5-litre horizontally opposed boxer engine good for 126kW and 229Nm of torque with a five-speed manual transmission and a 1.2:1 reduction “low” range. The Forester isn’t a quick car with the 0-100km/h taking 10.4 seconds. The tow rating is 750kg unbraked and 1400kg braked, although we don’t plan on towing much with it, the vehicle can at least tow my car trailer with a light load and certainly small campers or box trailers.

The Forester has always been a benchmark vehicle since its 1997 debut, and resale values are consistently high. You can see plenty of SFs on the road, and any gathering of people that enjoy the outdoors but aren’t 4×4 people like bushwalkers is sure to see more than a few Foresters. There are also owners’ clubs, and a thriving international enthusiast community plus a lot of aftermarket modifications. The Forester is definitely one of those safe, can’t really go wrong choices and it’s popular for a reason.

Erskine Falls, Victoria. Leonie, Outback and Forester. Any such outdoorsy place will see a disproportionately high number of Subies.

Having decided what we wanted, the next step was to actually buy the car. Stay tuned.

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