The beauty of all-wheel drive

Subaru Forester X

In 1972 Fuji Heavy Industries first started making a quirky looking 4WD station wagon with a 1.4 litre engine.

Its boxy shape and pillar-less doors reminded me of a car made of left-over body parts which might have been designed by Mary Shelley.

But the little wagons went well on un-made roads and owners praised their reliability.

There was independent suspension all round and amazingly the 4WD version only weighed 20 kg more than the 2WD wagon.

Later models even offered a low range and they gradually became the vehicle of choice for anyone heading to the ski slopes who couldn’t be bothered to crawl in the dirt to put on tyre chains.

Though they could go off-road ground clearance and a sedan under-body would always limit just how far off the beaten track you could go.

I remember in 1983 trekking across Fraser Island and having to pull over to let a convoy of Victorian’s pass.

The tracks were really rough back in those days and the leader of the group in a Nissan Patrol asked whether the terrain got any worse.

He wasn’t reassured by my reply about the obstacles ahead.

“Struth”, he said apologetically, “and we’ve got a bloody Subaru with us”.

My partner felt unnerved about previous remarks I’d made about the fairer sex and camping and I knew that any further comments that I made would have me labelled a misogynist.

And just like the fact that women outlast men by a mile, I’m sure the little Subaru made it somehow.

In 1998 Subaru switched to all wheel drive across its entire range before traction and stability control were common in average cars.

Whilst this configuration increased the drivetrain’s complexity this was more than off-set with improved traction especially on wet slippery roads.

And there was another major safety benefit as the longitudinal orientation of the engine and the driveshaft connecting the rear axle would dissipate kinetic energy behind the cabin in frontal impacts and this will always give Subaru a head start in any crash test.

The 1997 Forester was Subaru’s first attempt to really go off road and the model is now all-new for 2008.

The Forester is Subaru’s top seller and the new car is longer and higher and looks more like a 4WD rather than a wagon.

The pillarless door frames have gone and most of the extra length has gone into improving rear leg-room.

Compliments of a new variable valve timing setup the standard 2.5 litre engine now has 5 more kW and 3 more Nm of torque which I don’t think will be noticed by most drivers.

Maximum power is now at a thrashing 6,000 rpm so it’s only a hypothetical improvement.

Buyers will notice that the price has dropped by $1,500 and that traction control is now standard.

I was disappointed to see only four speeds in the automatic and it does seem like a long way back to third gear when the transmission kicks down.

Honda has five speeds in the CR-V and Nissan and Mitsubishi have CVT in the X-Trail and Outlander respectively.

Still, Subaru is still the only one with constant all wheel drive whilst the others make do with inferior on-demand systems which really don’t work as well as the real thing.

Doctors in a hurry might like to consider the Forester XT which for an extra $8,500 has 169 kW and only weighs 5 kg more than a WRX.

Though the 2008 Forester is still a “bloody Subaru” when it comes to tackling the really rough stuff, it is an affordable, safe and competent vehicle for the slippery dirt roads that rural doctors might come across.

Safe motoring,
Dr Clive Fraser

For: Cheaper and more powerful than the competition and it’s the only one with constant all wheel drive.

Against: If I was born with five fingers and five toes then my automatic should have at least five speeds.

This car would suit: Rural doctors and families.

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    Medical Motoring is an online record of the articles written by Dr Clive Fraser and published in the Australian Medicine magazine by the Australian Medical Association.