Buying Used: Subaru Forester S3 (2008-2012)

Subaru's third generation Forester found a way to combine off-road competence with plentiful interior space

People wanting a cheap small 4WD had traditionally looked to Subaru and were devastated in 1992 when the L Series disappeared. Five years elapsed before the Forester arrived to again fulfil their needs and during the subsequent decade fill a number of niches without ever losing its focus as a versatile 'all road' performer.

By 2008 when the third generation design was launched, the Forester was all grown up; comfortable, spacious and well-equipped yet still affordable. And there was a diesel engine on the horizon.  

Stung by criticism that its 'family' Forester wagon was too cramped to happily accommodate growing families, Subaru made the development of a more spacious Forester a priority. Arriving in Australia during 2008, the longer and wider wagon was only slightly more powerful than its predecessor (up 5kW for the standard 2.5i) but there was still a 169kW XT turbo version.

The revamped body sat on an extended wheelbase that put an extra 90mm into the part that accommodated passengers. The body was also broadened for extra shoulder space and seat-up luggage space expanded by 15 per cent to a healthy 450 litres.

A basic X model sold in 2008 with five-speed manual transmission would cost $30,490 and came with Subaru's usual selection of included gear; air-con, CD player, ABS, a limited-slip differential, traction control and air-bags everywhere.

Since the introduction of the original Liberty, Subaru had been vigorous in its pursuit of the safest-possible design and S3 Foresters all qualified for Five Star ANCAP occupant protection rankings.

The XS with the same engine and transmission options – a 2.5-litre 'atmo' flat four with five-speed manual or four-speed auto – cost at least $3000 more but added alloy wheels, a CD changer, fog-lights and remote central locking. If you wanted leather trim, an electric sunroof and other comfort items then a five-sped XS Premium at $37,490 offered very decent value.

With its punchy turbocharged engine and upgrades to the transmission, brakes and suspension the XT Forester was sold initially at $38,990. It then sustained a $500 price jump before settling back to the original price and remaining there until withdrawn in 2012.

Subaru owners who had long desired the low-down torque and fuel efficiency of a diesel-engine version had to wait until 2010 and even then there were compromises.

The expanded range included 2.0D models in basic and Premium trim, but diesel Foresters came only with manual transmission – six-speeds in place of the petrol car's five.

The engine delivered a punchy 108kW of power and 53 per cent more torque than the 2.5 from very low engine speeds. Base-models were priced from $35,990 but a lot of buyers saw value in the $39,990 Premium with leather, a sunroof, electric seat adjuster and Xenon headlights.

These Foresters all came with Data Dot anti-theft coding, MP3 compatibility, a full-sized spare wheel, fog-lights and roof-rails. Ski-racks were popular with the many Subaru owners who enjoyed a weekend trip to the snow.

In 2011 the price of a Forester Premium climbed to $47,990 but it gained five-speed automatic transmission with paddle-shifts, a reversing camera, DVD player and in-dash navigation.

Rounding out the range ahead of the Forester's S4 update was a turbo-engined S Edition. Costing $51,000 it sent power soaring to 193kW and was sold here only in five-speed automatic form.

Off-road adventuring is safest when confined to made tracks and well-travelled sections of beach. The Forester's engine characteristic and gearing are well-suited to rougher environments but the standard chassis offers insufficient clearance and wheel travel to perform in extreme conditions. After-market 'lift kits' that permit fitting of slightly taller tyres are available but they create their own set of problems.

If tacking really rough stuff or soft tracks doesn't interest you, then spend a little extra on an XT and look for a back-road upon which to unleash it.

Whether on second-rate bitumen or floating across corrugations that jangle the teeth of more rigidly sprung 4WDs, the Forester oozes chassis sophistication.

Those who want to rush from a standing start to the open-road speed limit will find 0-100km/h arriving just shy of seven seconds.

That still won't tick all the boxes for boy (or girl) racers who want pin-accurate steering response and ferocious grip levels but remember this is a tall family freighter on soft springs and baggy tyres. Those who want a road-going racer should perhaps buy something else.

About the only comfort issue when pushing a Forester along is that the seats don't grip like those in a WRX or Spec B Liberty and bracing with your left foot and shoulders gets tiring.

Turbo versions will rarely be bought for their frugality and fuel consumption can quickly head to the wrong side of 15L/100km if you exploit the performance. Feather footing will return figures in the region of a quite reasonable 10L/100km; only 1.5L/100 worse than the 2.5i.

If your driving is dominated by stop-start urban running then you quite likely won't enjoy the six-speed diesel or take full advantage of its fuel-saving abilities. Light-throttle, open-road cruising is the 2.0D's forte and here it will go close to Subaru's claimed 5.7L/100km.

Reversing a Forester was always reasonably easy, with good vision via those big windows and bigger mirrors. If you can find the extra money, a later model premium with the reversing camera provides added protection.  Xenon headlights significantly improve depth and beam intensity that was an issue with early Foresters.

>> Some six-speed manual Foresters were recalled to replace units with lubrication flaws that could lead to component damage. Insist on seeing the service history for any car you're considering and check if this work has been done.
>> Inspect on a hoist if possible for scrapes and crushing under the front air-dam , to the floors and sills. Drive-shaft boots, tyre walls and the exhaust system can also have their lives dramatically reduced by off-road use.
>> If a Forester has been lifted for improved clearance, look for rub marks on the inner guards and suspension components due to fouling when the car is carrying a load of driving off-road.
>> With the engine cold, check the coolant level and when warm look around cylinder heads (from underneath if you can) for leaks due to head-gasket faults.
>> XT versions in particular suffer clutch wear and damage drive-line components due to owner abuse. Drive slowly in a high gear then floor the throttle to check for a slipping clutch and listen for clunks.
>> Changing the camshaft timing belts every five years or 100,000 kilometres is essential and experts recommend doing belt tensioners, guides and the water pump at the same time too. Properly-maintained Subaru engines can exceed 400,000 before needing a rebuild.

Design & Function: 16/20
Safety: 16/20
Practicality: 15/20
Value for Money: 14/20
Wow Factor: 12/20 (XT Turbo)
SCORE: 73/100

ALSO CONSIDER: Honda CR-V, Nissan X-TRAIL, Suzuki Grand Vitara

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