Motoring: It's not a lumberjack, but you won't care

You should be able to get tartan and denim trim in a car called Forester, and a lifestyle option pack with axes and a chain-saw - but you can't. Subaru has missed a trick there, then. Frivolous? Not at all, says John Simister.

The Subaru is about nothing if not niche marketing, and niche marketing is a serious business. Exploit new trends, create demand where none existed, that's the idea.

Fat 4x4s of the Discovery and Shogun genre are variously practical workhorses, social status statements, or objects of derision, depending on your standpoint. This last view has taken a hold recently, because there are few sights dafter than that of a gas-guzzling, bull-barred, fat-tyred Tonka toy parked half on the pavement outside the school gates. The clever thing to do, if you want to combine a 4x4's usefulness with social sensibility, is to find one which is a little lower, less visually aggressive and less needlessly profligate with the Earth's natural resources. In short, you want an estate car and a 4x4 in one. And that's the new niche.

You've probably read about the Land Rover Freelander - seen the ads, had the mailshots. It's the highest profile of the "soft-roaders", and the best suited to all-terrain travel. But there are others: Toyota's RAV4 defined the breed, Honda's CRV enlarged it and the Forester, launched just before the Freelander, refined it.

Of them all, the Forester is the only one to have meaningful four-wheel drive happening all the time. The others only divert power to their rear wheels when the fronts are slithering. In practice it makes little difference one way or the other, because automatic all-wheel drive is always there when you need it, but it does give the Subaru an uncannily secure feeling when you're going quickly on a wet road.

Here is the Subaru's great strength. Relatively low in build, half-way in height between a full-size off-roader and an ordinary estate car, and with a low centre of gravity thanks partly to its unusual flat-four engine, the Forester is an entertaining drive. It corners quickly, steers accurately and rides well, calling for none of the relearning of motion physics that you need for a 4x4 of the tall and topply variety. Part of the prowess comes from the fact that under its loftier build, the Forester has broadly the same underpinnings as the Impreza Turbo, which is one of the most road- adhesive cars known to the world today.

True, the Forester goes squidgy in a bend long before the hot Impreza, as you might expect, but then it's also able to tackle fields and farmtracks, provided they're not too lumpy. A Freelander can venture further into the wilds, long after the Forester has pulped its underpinnings, but for the uses to which most will put an off-roader, the Forester should do just fine.

It's lively, too, the uneven and lazy beat of its flat-four disguising the fact that there's 122bhp on tap and vigorous acceleration provided you're prepared to work the engine hard. There's even an extra set of low-speed gear ratios, just as in a proper 4x4. It's frustratingly easy to operate the low-range selector lever instead of the hand brake, though, because they are right next to each other.

You step up into a Forester, but only slightly, and the driving position is normal and car-like apart from the extra space above your head. But not many cars give you an extra power socket in the back, and a plastic recess which is intended to double as a washing-up bowl. This is one of a claimed 20 storage areas - I confess I didn't count them all - which include a fishing-rod compartment (but not an axe-holder). Unlike many 4x4s, the Forester has its spare wheel stored conventionally inside, so it can have a conventional, lift-up tailgate. This is easier to live with than the over-engineered contraptions found elsewhere.

The Forester brings together the best aspects of an estate car and a 4x4. It's cheap, too, relatively speaking. It's no beauty - it looks a bit dated and square-cut, in fact - but neither is it kitsch. If they thought about it, a lot of people could need one quite badly.

SUBARU FORESTER

Specifications

Price: pounds 16,400. Engine: 1,994cc, four cylinders in horizontally opposed pairs, 16 valves, 122bhp at 5,600 rpm. Five-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive. Top speed 111mph, 0-60 in 10.3sec, 26-31mpg.

Rivals

Honda CRV LS: pounds 17,020. Noisy, otherwise average in every way. Options include a portable shower.

Land Rover Freelander Station Wagon i: pounds 17,995. Expensive next to Forester, but chunkier looks, better off-road ability, competitive on-road prowess.

Toyota RAV4 GX 5-door: pounds 17,463. Not particularly tough, but light weight gives lively if buzzy performance. Looks cute, feels cheaply made.

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