New car review: Subaru Forester Hybrid L

Subaru inserts a hybrid drivetrain into its well proven Forester SUV.

Subaru has made its first move on the journey to electrification by introducing hybrid versions of its two most popular models – the Forester and XV.

The company says buyers can expect more electrified Subaru models in the future, including plug-in hybrids and full EVs.

The move comes just months after fellow Japanese brand Mazda also introduced its first hybrid in the form of the Mazda3 Skyactiv-X M Hybrid, but almost two decades after Toyota launched its ground-breaking Prius.

Toyota has since sold more than 15 million hybrid vehicles globally and in excess of 150,000 in Australia, including 27,300 hybrids delivered between January and July this year.  

It’s fair to say that hybrid technology has come of age and for Subaru it’s a case of better late than never with the outstanding sales success of the rival Toyota RAV4 hybrid providing a handy pointer to where the technology might best be deployed. 

The mid-size SUV market is a crowded and highly competitive space but there are still only a handful of hybrid models available. 

Lexus, Mercedes and Volvo each offer an all-wheel-drive hybrid model at the premium end of the segment but in the mass market, choices are limited to Mitsubishi’s more expensive Outlander PHEV or plug-in hybrid (from $47,390), and Toyota’s RAV4 2.5-litre petrol-electric. 

The Forester Hybrid’s pricing is almost bang on the RAV4’s but unlike the petrol Forester where there are four grades available, Subaru offers only two hybrid grades – the Hybrid L as tested here ($39,990), and the top-of-the-range Hybrid S ($45,990). 

To give this some perspective, that’s $3050 and $3000 more expensive respectively than their similarly specified 2.5-litre petrol-only Forester equivalents.

For anyone focused purely on the bottom line, as opposed to the environmental benefits of emitting less CO2, it’s possible to calculate the payback period for the additional purchase price of the hybrid. 

Subaru Forester Hybrid L

To do this you simply take the differences in official fuel consumption between the hybrid and the petrol, assume the officially agreed annual distance travelled of 15,000km, throw in the current Brisbane average unleaded price of $1.25/litre, and voila, the Casio spits out an answer. 

To the first point, the Forester Hybrid’s claimed fuel savings over the Forester 2.5-litre are a significant 19% for the urban cycle (7.5L/100km versus 9.3L/100km) and a still-worthwhile 9% for the combined cycle (6.7L/100km versus 7.4L/100km). 

Not surprisingly, given that hybrids realise their maximum benefit in urban driving, thanks to the ability of the battery and electric motor to assist the petrol engine during stop-start acceleration, there’s not much benefit out on the highway (6.2L/100km versus 6.3L/100km), where the petrol engine is at its most efficient and doing all of the work.

Based on the above, using a Forester Hybrid exclusively in urban running will see a saving on fuel of around $338 per annum, which equates to a roughly nine-year break-even on the extra purchase price. 

Running the same rule over extra-urban (highway) running yields far more marginal gains, with the break-even point now a distant 160-years. 

In between, on the combined cycle, where the official fuel consumption improvement is 0.7L/100km, amortisation is nearly 23 years. 

So, depending on whether you do most of your driving in the urban or extra-urban setting, the Forster hybrid could either be seen as a marginal long-term investment, or one your accountant would scoff at.   

The other side of the equation, and the topic likely to be of more interest to anyone looking for a greener alternative to a simple internal combustion vehicle, is the issue of tailpipe emissions. 

On the supplied combined cycle figures and assuming the same annual distance travelled, the Forester Hybrid’s CO2 emissions would be 240kg per year less than the petrol model. 

That’s worthwhile but so too is noting that the RAV4 AWD hybrid’s official figures are 43grams/km or 645kg per annum better again than Subaru Hybrid. 

Subaru Forester Hybrid L

Given the pair’s near identical purchase price, the Toyota would logically be the better choice for environmentally conscious buyers. 

On the features and equipment front the Forester Hybrid shares a virtually identical list of standard equipment, safety and driver assistance features as its petrol equivalent. 

There are a few very minor cosmetic changes to exterior trims and garnishes and a discrete eBoxer badge on the rump, but that’s about all that sets it apart visually.

Going some small way to justify its higher price tag, however, is the fact the Hybrid L also gets LED front fog lights, premium fabric trim, and an energy flow display inside.

Placement of the high-voltage lithium-ion battery pack under the cargo area floor helps keep the Hybrid L’s centre of gravity low and prevents any loss of cargo space. 

There is even a modest 11 litres of extra load space compared with the petrol models, although this is achieved at the expense of a full-size spare wheel which is replaced by a compressor and sealant “mobility kit”. The latter is a first for Subaru and, in our view, a not-so-commendable attribute in an AWD SUV that’s capable of mild off-road adventures.

Powering the Forester Hybrid is Subaru’s familiar 2.0-litre Boxer petrol engine (110kW, 196Nm) along with a 12.3kW permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor that’s cleverly integrated into the Lineartronic CVT auto gearbox unit. 

The eBoxer logic adjusts power split between petrol and electric to suit driving conditions. 

There is straight motor assist EV driving, electric-plus-petrol engine and petrol-engine-only propulsion.

Regenerative braking and coasting with foot off the throttle both enable charging of the traction battery pack. 

There is also a pedestrian alert sound-emitting-system for low speed (24km/h or less) EV only operation.

Subaru Forester Hybrid L

The EV-only driving range is very limited and only at very low speeds and light throttle openings. 

Subaru claims the EV mode is good for up to 40km/h, depending on vehicle and battery condition but in our week of testing anything above 25km/h seemed to be the limit before the petrol engine chimed in, even when barely leaning on the throttle. 

Around town the petrol-electric powertrain performs its duties well enough but getting off the line with any real urgency, such as when entering a lane of moving traffic, causes a short but disconcerting stutter as the Boxer engine fires into life.

Out on the open road and under hard acceleration the powertrain builds speed rather than accelerates with conviction.

As with the petrol Forester, supple suspension holds the Hybrid L in good stead both on and off the bitumen, comfortably blotting out the worst bumps. 

While the setup lacks the sporting edge of some of its more firmly suspended category classmates, it nonetheless delivers confidently secure AWD roadholding that will satisfy many medium SUV buyers.

A happy combination of comfortable seating, decent rear occupant space, a useful 509 litres of cargo space that expands to 1779 litres with the flat-folding rear seats down, shopping bag hooks, multiple 12v power outlets (including one in the cargo area), USB ports for both rows, rear air vents, and three child restraint points give the ever-practical Forester genuine family appeal. So too does its light and airy cabin, which provides good all-round visibility.

Subaru provides a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty on the vehicle and an eight year/160,000km warranty on the high-voltage drive battery pack. 

The company’s capped price servicing stretches to five years/62,500km, with 12-month/12,500km scheduled service intervals.

Total costs over the five-year capped price service period stand at $2433, which is a modest $44 more than for the petrol model.   

The RAV4 AWD hybrid was a class winner in our 2019 Australia’s Best Cars awards and we are also fans of the current generation petrol Forester. 

Putting the two together should have produced a winner but we remain unconvinced by the Forester Hybrid due to its higher purchase price, relatively long payback on the technology, and the fact it offers no improvement to the driving experience of its petrol-only sibling.

Key stats

MLP: $39,990
ENGINE: 2.0-litre eBoxer petrol and electric motor hybrid
ANCAP CRASH RATING: 5 stars (2019) 
FUEL CONSUMPTION (combined cycle, litres/100km): 6.7 (152g/km CO₂)

For

Comfortable ride, light and airy cabin, good visibility, spacious and practical, good safety features. 

Against

Higher purchase price for modest fuel savings, mobility kit – no spare, limited electric-only range.