A used Subaru Forester could be the best winter car you can buy. A bold statement? Perhaps, but bear with me and I’ll explain why I think that’s the case. And then, if you’re still not convinced, I’ll present some alternative options.
So what makes a Forester so good when the weather turns bad? First, there’s Subaru’s relationship with international rallying. Because to fare well there, you need to build cars that are tough and reliable, as well as capable and fast. In the case of Subaru’s Legacy and Impreza rally and road cars, that means using a flat-four ‘boxer’ engine mounted low in the body to improve weight distribution, and combining it with four-wheel drive for high levels of grip. Which, of course, all help when it comes to coping with tricky conditions. As does the fact that a properly maintained Legacy can be as durable as a pair of wellington boots.
WHAT IS THE SUBARU FORESTER?
It is this boxer engine and four-wheel-drive system that serve as the fundamental ingredients in the Subaru Forester. Adding to the car’s do-anything and go-anywhere winter credentials, they are housed in a chunky SUV body, with useful ground clearance and plenty of space inside. A popular choice amongst farmers, doctors and anyone needing to get around whatever the weather, the Forester is robust enough – and has the hardware – to get through tricky conditions. Yet at the same time it offers the comfort and convenience of a conventional car. It is this versatility, combined with sensible prices and good stock availability, that makes it such an ideal winter machine.
WHAT FORESTER MODELS ARE THERE?
The first-generation Forester – called the SF – was launched in 1997. It was available with a 2.0-litre petrol engine in naturally-aspirated and turbocharged forms, with a choice of a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic gearbox. Because of the SF’s age, there are relatively few examples around these days. However, you can normally find a couple of SF Foresters advertised on CarGurus for less than £1,500.
If it’s an SF Forester that interests you, bear in mind that non-turbocharged versions come with a low-range gearbox, which may be useful if you plan on really putting the car to work.
The second-generation Forester was called the SG and arrived in 2002. As you’d expect, there were a number of significant improvements over the SF, mostly thanks to it sharing a platform with the then-new Impreza. It was smartly styled, more refined, and had a broader range of engines making for a better driving experience.
FORESTER SF VS FORESTER SG
The range of SG-generation Foresters available to used buyers is also considerably wider. Even the basic X trim gets headlamp washers, heated mirrors and windscreen wiper deicer. For a proper winter car, however, look for an XE model or above, which add heated seats and air conditioning, both of which are desirable features for winter driving. Keep an eye out too for cars with the optional All Weather Pack, which adds side airbags, alloy wheels, electric sunroof, front fog lights, heated seats and cruise control.
The engine line-up consists of 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre petrol options, both with and without a turbocharger. Which one you choose depends largely on what kind of fuel bills you can stomach. We found examples from as little as £1,200 in the CarGurus classifieds, and up to £7,000 for a one-owner 2007 2.0 XEn with just 30,000 miles on the clock.
In response to market demand, subsequent Forester models moved away from the tall estate car template in favour of something more like a conventional SUV. The third generation SH model also introduced Subaru’s first diesel boxer engine. Although fuel consumption was better than for the petrol models, the lack of low-down torque meant the diesel Forester didn’t perform quite as well as the competition.
COMMON PROBLEMS WITH A USED SUBARU FORESTER
With any used purchase, evidence of regular maintenance is a must. And that’s particularly the case with a used SF or SG Forester. The reason for this is that, when properly serviced, Foresters are strong and reliable cars. However, neglect can result in big bills; as the boxer is an ‘interference’ engine, a failed cambelt can effectively destroy the engine. Cambelt changes are usually accompanied by replacement belt tensioners and a water pump, so check that these have been done as part of the servicing.
Given the likelihood it might have done some off-roading, any used Forester should be checked for evidence of damage or poor repairs. Light scratches and imperfections are to be expected on any decade-old car, but anything more significant may indicate a previous accident. It is important to check for rust too, as regular exposure to water and mud can cause problems underneath the car. Interiors are hardy, but avoid a working vehicle unless the price reflects the hard use it’s been subjected to. As with any used car, check all electrical equipment works properly, too.
In most cases, the problems you might encounter with a used Forester are similar to what you’ll see in many other used cars. Where the Subaru differs is in how robust it is, how durable its mechanical components can be when properly cared for, and how capable it is when conditions get tricky. For ultimate capability you’ll want to fit a set of winter tyres. But even without them, a used Subaru Forester can make for a relatively inexpensive and a highly effective winter car.
Alternatively, if you’re not taken by the idea of a Forester, here are three alternatives that might fit the bill.
THREE MORE WINTER CAR CONTENDERS
The original Ford Kuga is now over ten years old, making it something of a bargain on the used market. Go for a Titanium X model and you get heated seats, headlamp washers and Ford’s excellent heated windscreen. Engine choice was limited, but the higher power 161bhp 2.0-litre diesel can be specified with four-wheel-drive. Although it’s not really an off-roader, add winter tyres to an AWD Titanium X and you’ll be ready for any kind of weather. We found a 2009 Kuga Titanium 4×4 for under £3,000 in the CarGurus classifieds.
SKODA OCTAVIA SCOUT
Skoda has offered its Octavia models with four-wheel-drive from the beginning, but the second generation model introduced in 2004 added the Scout model. Designed to cope with tougher conditions without going fully off-road, the estate-only Scout brings with it a raised ride height, chunky bumpers and underbody protection. Of the two petrol and two diesel engine options, the 2.0-litre TDI CR diesel has the best mix of economy and performance, and you can get it with a manual or DSG gearbox. We found a 2008 model for just £2,795.
AUDI A6 ALLROAD
Audi was one of the first manufacturers to take a conventional estate car and beef it up with off-roader design features, but the A6 Allroad is more capable than you might think. As well as Audi’s quattro four-wheel-drive system, 2.7-litre V6-powered Allroads come with adjustable air suspension which can be raised and lowered on demand. This is ideal if the going gets tricky because it gives you a bit more ground clearance to play with. Add in a typically comfortable Audi cabin and high levels of refinement, and you have an ideal winter car. Searching on CarGurus turned up a 2009 A6 Allroad 2.7 TD for £3,500.
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