Subaru Forester Hybrid S Review (2020): Bright Spark?

MY20 Subaru Forester Hybrid S

Subaru has taken its first very small steps into the world of hybridisation with the Forester and XV Hybrid models. Here we review the top-spec Subaru Forester Hybrid S.

Here at MotoFomo we’re a big fan of the Subaru Forester. It’s a comfortable and capable soft-roader that’ll go further once the bitumen ends than anything else you’d cross-shop it with. But while it might not look like it, visually speaking, this Forester Hybrid S is a big deal for the Japanese car maker.

Sure, Subaru might be late to the hybrid party by the standards of other car makers, but Subaru as a brand is never one to rush. It had found its niche with all of its cars and stayed within its lane… but with the world demanding greener machinery, Subaru has been forced to change with the times.

MY20 Subaru Forester Hybrid S

The hybrid Subaru Forester launched in Australia in February this year and we’ve just spent a week rolling around in the Forester Hybrid S which is the top-spec model. You can also get the Hybrid L. So, has Subaru’s late arrival to the hybrid party been a success? Let’s find out.

What is the Subaru Forester Hybrid?

Simple, it’s a conventional Forester with a smaller 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine mated to a small electric motor and battery pack. Those who know their Foresters will know the regular range runs a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine.

Don’t get too excited about the hybrid side of things. The 2.0L engine is no rocket ship and with the electric motor only helping out with 12.3kW and 66Nm of torque, when other hybrid setups are offering more, the Forester Hybrid relies more on its petrol engine with the electric motor only helping out in very specific situations like slow driving in a car park. But we’ll get more into this later in the review.

MY20 Subaru Forester Hybrid S

The other key difference with the Forester Hybrid is that there’s no spare wheel, instead you get a tyre repair kit with the space eaten by the battery pack. The boot is ever so slightly bigger than the non-Hybrid Forester.

In terms of pricing, the rule of thumb is that e-Boxer Foresters cost around $3000 more than their non-hybrid equivalent. Our top-spec Hybrid S test car carries sticker price of $45,990 plus on-road costs. That puts it in the mix with the Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid and the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV ES (ADAS). Both cost around $45k or more before on-road costs.

What’s the Subaru Forester Hybrid S like to drive?

A quick refresher. The Forester Hybrid shares the same engine and electric motor setup as the smaller and lighter XV Hybrid. The 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine makes 110kW at 6000rpm and 196Nm of torque at 4000rpm. The electric motor which is powered by a small 8.8kWh battery pack is good for just 12.3kW and 66Nm of torque which is enough to whisper the thing along in electric drive alone at speeds of up to 40km/h for less than two kilometres. But, in the real world, if my experience is anything to go by, it’ll be nigh on impossible to get anywhere near that. Yep, Subaru’s first foray into hybrid is very much the babiest of baby steps.

MY20 Subaru Forester Hybrid S

While most hybrids we’ve tested over the years will start up in electric mode, the Forester fires up its petrol engine instead when you press the starter button. And there’s no EV mode button to force it to run off the battery. In our week with the thing we only noticed a handful of times when it was actually in pure electric mode, and those times were all in the same place, an underground car park where we were crawling along at around 5km/h. All that’s needed to get it to switch from electric to petrol is the lightest of big toe flexes on the throttle.

Okay, so the whole hybrid thing is pretty darn mild, but what’s the rest of the car like? Well, it’s typical Forester and that means it’s good. That said, the smaller engine and electric motor don’t bridge the gap to the bigger engined Foresters which have more power and torque and feel gruntier everywhere.

MY20 Subaru Forester Hybrid S

That’s not to say the Forester Hybrid feels dull. It doesn’t. In our week, it handled highway runs, school runs and shopping runs and whether you’re travelling solo or with the family it’s more than swift enough to keep up with traffic. Overtaking on hills can be a little, let’s say, interesting. Yes, it’ll do it, but the nature of the CVT on the back of the engine, and the smaller engine, heavier vehicle and very mild help from the electric motor mean that uphill overtaking can feel like it takes longer than it should. You can’t say that about the non-hybrid Forester.

Perhaps that’s a little unfair. See, hybrid drivetrains are designed for stop-start traffic where the electric motor can be relied on to whisper along a few metres at a time and save fuel. So, if you live out in the sticks, you’re better off sticking with a regular Forester and putting the $3k you would have spent on the hybrid variant towards fuel…that’s a lot of fuel.

Beyond the engine, the Forester’s ride and handling is very good. Indeed, the way this thing tips into a corner and shrugs off imperfections in the road is excellent. The Forester is a rare vehicle (in this segment) that combines ride comfort with body control resulting in an enjoyable driving experience.

Head away from the bitumen and the tall tyres and comfortable ride keeps the Forester at the head of the soft-road SUV pack when it comes to ride and handling on rough roads. And then if the road turns gnarlier, Subaru’s excellent X-Mode (traction control system) and permanent all-wheel drive (rather than the on-demand systems on competitors) with its 60:40 front to rear split means you’ll go a lot further off-road in a Forester than anything else you’ll cross-shop it with. And with 225mm of ground clearance and decent angles (see specs table) it’s no wonder there are plenty of people actually using Foresters for overlanding adventures.

MY20 Subaru Forester Hybrid S

Some tests I’ve seen have suggested the Forester Hybrid’s steering is a little slow. Hmmm. I don’t agree at all. The steering is nice and direct in its action with good weight on-centre and enough feel that you actually feel connected to what’s going on…so many of this car’s competitors feel like you’re using an old PlayStation steering wheel.

What’s the interior of the Forester Hybrid S like?

Being the top-spec model there’s plenty of leather and soft touch materials around the place. Indeed, the interior is the best Forester interior with less hard, scratchy plastic around the place than ever before.

Don’t misunderstand me, though, the interior’s quality is good but it’s more practical and family-friendly than premium. But then, none of the other vehicles in this segment with the exception of, say, the Mazda CX-5 (although it’s not a hybrid) feel particularly premium. They all, instead, go for this sort of hard-wearing but comfortable feel. And, in that regard the Forester succeeds.

MY20 Subaru Forester Hybrid S

The dashboard is dominated by the touchscreen infotainment system which offers Apple and Android connectivity and is easy to use with a hassle-free menu structure, should you step away from just using your phone’s interface. Other controls, like climate, are well marked and easy to use on the fly.

The front seats are comfortable but those of us with long legs will find them a little short in the base. There’s plenty of adjustability and vision right around the Forester from the driver’s seat is excellent. Climb into the back and, again, there’s more than enough room for two adults to sit comfortably with good head, shoulder and legroom. Kids will find it comfortable too with big deep windows and the large overhead glass roof allowing a good view out and plenty of sunlight in (there are air vents and USB charging points too). The rear seats can be reclined. The whole cabin feels light and breezy.

The boot is a smidgen bigger than the boot in non-hybrid models but only by a few litres and, to be fair, you’d be hard pressed to pick the extra room. The boot itself is a good shape and loading and unloading is nice and easy thanks to the flat load lip. The automatic tailgate is nice and responsive, especially if it detects an overhead obstacle which will see it shy away rather than just keep opening up against the object and damaging the door.

The boring but important stuff you need to know about the Forester Hybrid

Being the top-spec model, the Forester Hybrid S gets plenty of kit for your coin, and when it comes to safety, well, that’s a real highlight. See, Subaru’s EyeSight system has evolved over the years and is now very good indeed.

In the past we’ve had these systems disable in heavy rain or bright sunshine, but in our week with the Forester we experienced three days of heavy rain (more than 20mm every day) and the EyeSight system never once turned itself off.

And Subaru has added to the system with its driver monitoring system, essentially you can set it to remember your seating preferences, climate and even mirror adjustment, and from there it’ll keep an eye on you to make sure you’re not distracted behind the wheel. It called me out once or twice too, although I was simply turning my head with my eyes still on the road. Still, it’s a good thing to have.

MY20 Subaru Forester Hybrid S

Some have called the autonomous emergency braking system over eager but I didn’t get that feeling, only once getting a warning when I was in an underground car park and it felt I was going to crash into a wall on a ramp…I wasn’t. There’s lane keeping assist and blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert with braking, permanent all-wheel drive, obviously, and more, and the Forester carries a five-star ANCAP rating awarded in 2019.

Warranty is the industry standard five years with unlimited kilometres and there’s capped price servicing across five years, with services expected every 12 months or 12,500km. Or you can upfront for three- or five-year service plans and save a little coin. Each service, if you’re paying each visit, across five years is capped at $350.25, $588.31, $354.83, $784.77 and $354.86.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Price
Performance
Ride and Handling
Fun Factor
Safety
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Isaac Bober has been writing about cars and 4x4s for more than 20 years, has worked on some of the country's biggest motoring magazines (remember what they were?), and launched Practical Motoring. Now he's back, back again... to share dad jokes and much more.

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