THE COMPARATIVE ABSENCE of auto crime in Japan doesn't help motorists who live in a country where theft is rife. It is, therefore, difficult to explain to a Japanese engineer the need for good security in a vehicle, even if he does help produce the discerning car thief's favoured choice. Sadly, for many customers around the world, that has meant the increased chance of losing their vehicle and incurring high insurance costs.
All that is about to change, thanks to the hard work of importers in Britain, where car crime accounts for one-quarter of all offences. They have spent considerable time trying to get this message across to their Asian counterparts and appear to have won the day.
The latest model from Subaru is protected to the hilt - unfortunately these new measures have delayed the launch of the new Forester a couple of months, but they're worth the wait. Category I Thatcham-approved immobiliser, deadlocks for the first time, doorlock guards and shrouded opening mechanisms in the skins, reinforced ignition barrel and visible anti-theft markings are among the armoury of measures designed to foil the bad guys. Insurance premiums should reflect the effort, making the Forester more accessible to the younger driver.
Subaru has high hopes for the replacement Forester, a vehicle first launched in 1994. It has already sold more than 14,000 in Asia and the five-door, two-litre version is $188,888 at Motor Image (tel: 2396 8380) in Hong Kong. There's a burgeoning interest in sports-utility vehicles at the moment and many manufacturers have something good to offer in the range. The opposition is tough and includes the Land-Rover Freelander, Toyota RAV4, Honda CRV, Nissan X-Trail and Hyundai Santa Fe. So Subaru couldn't afford to have any chink in the armour, however small.
With increased security, the Forester is going to be a difficult car to beat. The old model was always a cracking car and the brand new version inherits all its qualities, honed and refined to put it back at the top of the tree. It looks better, with attractive lines, a bolder face and a groovy rump. There are new designations - X for the normally aspirated 2.0 and XT for the turbo. The boxer engine has been redesigned with new pistons, combustion chambers and injector heads. The result is improved performance, 12 per cent better fuel consumption and less C02.
The 2.0-litre turns out 125 brake horsepower, enough to give the manual a top speed of 179km/h, a 0-100km/h time of 10.9 seconds and an extra-urban fuel figure of more than 14.9km/litre. The turbo pushes out 177bhp for a top speed of 200km/h, a sprint time of 7.9 seconds and extra-urban fuel figure of 12.7km/litre.
The star of the show remains the handling, which is well ahead of the field. The reason Subaru persists with the flat-four engine, apart from its characterful engine note, is the low centre of gravity. SUVs tend to be high-sided and not terribly stable through the bends. The Forester carries its weight low so handles corners perfectly while still keeping decent ground clearance for any off-road antics. With 30 years' experience of all-wheel drive, the Forester couldn't fail to impress and, sure enough, is as limpet-like as anything in the range. It does the job brilliantly, without having to resort to electronic aids such as anti-skid control.
The Forester feels solid and secure on the road whether it is dry or wet. Off road it acquits itself just as well. The test track was wet, muddy and extremely slippery, yet despite being shod with standard road tyres it coped superbly with inclines, rocks and rivers.
Forester also gets a much better interior with nice trim materials and grainy plastics. The centre console is more modern, the dash more interesting and the car retains the myriad cubbyholes and storage areas that have made it such a practical vehicle in the past. Equipment levels are high and there's an all-weather pack of goodies that includes a huge glass sunroof, heated seats, mirrors and wiper blades. Safety-wise there are front and side airbags, Anti-lock Braking System and, for pedestrians, impact-absorbing aluminium bonnet and snap-off wiper blades, to reduce the potential for injuries.
The new Subaru is a fine car and will be popular once again with customers and thieves alike, only this time the ne'er-do-wells will find the Forester much less of a pushover to steal.