Models Tested: Subaru Forester X Auto & Nissan Dualis ST CVT
Recommended retail price: Forester - $32,490; Dualis - $30,990
CarAdvice rating: Forester: 4/5 Dualis: 3.5/5
There was a line in the sitcom "Friends" once which I'll always remember. One of the girls was complaining about how they looked in photos. She mentioned the age old adage about the camera "adding five pounds." Ross turned to her and asked: "So, how many cameras did you have on you?"
These two cars are the opposite of someone who's conscious about their weight. Photos make these cars seem smaller than they actually are. It's quite deceptive until you look at one in real life, and realise that they actually have a decent amount of room in them. And that's the appeal. They're roomy, easy to drive, and you sit higher in them, meaning more forward visibility.
Soft-roaders have really boomed in the past few years, and Subaru claims it started the revolution with the original Forester. So what better to do than to line up the original with a newcomer.
The Dualis was introduced as an entry-level SUV, slotting in underneath the X-Trail, which is both bigger and heavier. Using a similar All-Mode on-demand 4WD system, the Dualis will tackle very light duty off-road work if necessary.
Both the Forester and Dualis are similarly priced and looking at the specs, people would have both on their shopping list, if this was the market they were going for. So, which one to buy?
Let's start with the looks. Of course, it's subjective, but the Forester looks a little classier, with the chrome surround on the grille, and a little nicer detailing in the creaselines around the wheel-arches. The Dualis counters with a shaped rear which is more stylish, but which also compromises rear headroom.
Taking a peek inside the cars, and it's obvious the Dualis has it.
The finish of the interior is nicer, as are the plastics with soft-touch surrounds in the centre stack, and door handles. The instrumentation is also a little less fussy, and although the Dualis misses out on wheel-mounted stereo controls (which the Forester gets), the stereo is easy to use, not to far away and uncluttered.
But the seats in the Dualis are a little strange. Initially seeming more cosseting and supportive than the Forester, the bolstering is a little too narrow, and the backrest dips away too low, meaning you end up with a slight hunch.
The Forester's seats are flatter, and a tad harder, but allow a little more freedom, and don't feel like they've been designed for size 2 women. They're also a heap more comfortable on long trips.
The rear seats are similar in both cars, but the Forester's space means that it's a clear winner in terms of passenger comfort.
The boot space is also larger in the Forester with a higher roofline contributing, as well as a slightly wider opening. So the Forester wins in the practicality department.
On the road the dynamic gap isn't so large. Both cars have very good handling for their size, and slap understeer in the face quite well.
There's a little bit of roll, but the ride in both is on the firmer side, showing their off-road aspirations. In truth it's more than acceptable, and apart from the odd bit of bump thump, there's little to complain about. Body control could be better on both though, with rebound damping a little soft. Let's call it even.
Wielding the cars about reveals more about the feel. The steering in the Forester is light, yet communicates pretty well. There's no slack around the straight-ahead and parking it is a breeze. The Dualis however is inconsistent in weight, but heavier and feels meatier. It has complete dead zone a degree or two off centre, meaning absolutely nothing, and then all of a sudden, you get response. Strange. It's also much like a Renault in feel, being very light at parking speeds, but then a lot heavier once your speed rises, but true feedback has disappeared.
Braking goes to the Dualis though. There's plenty of initial grab, but it's not overdone, and the feel is excellent. It keeps strong even after several hard stops, and never fails to satisfy. The Forester's brakes are typical of the older generation. They work fine, but feel like they could do with a little more bite. Still, on road or off you know exactly what stopping distance to take.
Sitting in the driver's seat, you'll also notice that visibility is shocking in the rear three quarter view of the Dualis. A tiny triangular window is your only view, potentially blocking cars and motorbikes. The slanting roof contributes to this, and it might be a design feature, but it's potentially dangerous. The Forester however, has brilliant visibilty all round, with a light and airy cabin, and a reasonably tall daylight opening.
NVH levels are very good in both cars, too. The Dualis with its CVT auto calls on a little engine noise while accelerating, but cruising is quiet and refined. The Forester also shifts from gear to gear creamily with just a four-speed auto, but on full throttle, the engine makes its presence felt. Thankfully both motors are smooth and linear in power. But the Dualis does pip the Forester in fuel economy, something which some buyers will take into consideration.
But it's off-road where the greatest difference is felt. Sure, some would argue that there's no point taking these things into the sand, because these cars will never go there. I disagree, as on the beach there are a lot of these kinds of cars. After all, why build something with ground clearance if you never take it over ground to clear?
The biggest setback for the Nissan was the CVT. Because it takes ages to wind up, the revs never get high enough to spin the wheels speedily through the sand. But because it's light, it does get across it. In the locked 4WD mode it's fine for gravel, dirt and reasonable compacted sand, but don't go into anything too hungry or you'll get stuck.
The Forester however uses its 220mm of clearance to get through just about everything. The nice, slightly rear-biased setup of its all-wheel-drive system simply grips and goes. Two things hurt the Forester X though; a lack of grunt and the automatic transmission. The XT version would fare better, as it has the power and torque to really get speed up.
But once you do in the X auto and it slips into second gear, as the ratios are lightyears apart for off-roading, it loses all of its momentum. Perhaps the manual with a dual-range tranny would be more suited to this sort of work.
Still, we're talking about climbing huge slippery slopes here, and not just small dunes. For what it is the Forester is outstanding, and where it goes for the price is amazing. It's just a pity that Subaru couldn't supply a manual version.
But it does help us to compare these two cars more equally. And when it's all said and done, the Forester is the better car. The ability off-road, its room, visibility, and the fact you get 6 airbags instead of 2 as standard swayed our decision here.
In isolation the Dualis isn't a bad car at all. But when compared with the Forester, it's found a little wanting.
Safety, comfort and practicality have nudged their way through, to become the champion defenders of the Forester's, ahem, legacy.
Photographs and review by Matt Brogan
Subaru Forester X Auto Specifications
Engine: 2.5-litre SOHC four cylinder petrol 16 valve
Power: 126kW @ 6,000rpm
Torque: 229Nm @ 4,000rpm
Safety: ABS, EBD, TCS, Dual Front, Side and Curtain (Front and rear) Air Bags
0-100km/h: 11.0 seconds
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Australia)
Fuel tank: 60 litres
Fuel consumption: 9.6 litres (Auto)
Fuel type: 91RON Unleaded
Weight: 1,490 (Auto)
Nissan Dualis ST CVT Specifications
Engine: 2.0-litre DOHC four cylinder petrol 16 valve
Power: 102kW @ 6,000rpm
Torque: 198Nm @ 4,000rpm
Safety: ABS, EBD, Dual Front Air Bags
NCAP rating: N/A
Fuel tank: 65 litres
Fuel consumption: 8.5 litres (Auto)
Fuel type: 91RON Unleaded
Weight: 1,451 (Auto)
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