There are off-roaders and there are soft-roaders, to borrow a phrase from the American motoring media.
Among the off-roaders, I guess, are vehicles like the Land Rover Defender at the utilitarian end of the spectrum and Nissan's rugged Patrol at the more luxurious.
Soft-roaders range from the small, like the Toyota RAV-4, to the unashamedly luxurious like the BMW X5.
The curious thing about most of them - some of the Defenders aside - off-roaders and soft-roaders alike is that they spend much of their time on sealed roads. That stands to reason; most buyers are from cities and towns and there are few unsealed roads in any NZ town.
Now the Subaru Forester would probably be lumped in with the soft-roaders, though it's perfectly capable off-road.
The first time we met the boxy small/medium station wagon was in the Waiuku Forest on the model's NZ launch some years ago.
On dirt and slippery sand tracks the Forester was perfectly at home, tearing bumps and surface shifts with disdain, bush-bashing like a rugged utilitarian ute rather than a comfortable, totally weatherproof family wagon.
It tracked its way down a heavily-rutted paper road (a road shown on the map, but which is unformed) in the Franklin coastal hills. Some of my colleagues were impressed by its behaviour there. I wasn't convinced by what it did there. I'd climbed and descended the same section of road in an old Auto Trader front-wheel drive Nissan Sentra Sportwagon a few weeks earlier while covering Targa NZ.
No, it was impressive in the forest and later on another paper road - this one with ruts so deep and surface so slippery that the Sentra would have bellied in the first few metres.
There the Forester was in its element, thumping its way over the rocks and slithering inexorably along the ruts, never faltering for a second.
The piece-de-resistance was a full-blooded charge through a reasonably deep ford.
I've never had any doubts that the Subaru middleweight could cut it when the going got tough.
Maybe it's not the vehicle for a trip through the jungles on Central America, but in the sort of terrain in which you might reasonably find yourself on a weekend afternoon, the Forester seems quite capable.
But its strong point is the way it gets you to the rough stuff.
For the Forester is a fine on-road tourer, as capable as any car and better than many.
We've been testing the new model Forester, fitted with the 112kW 2.5-litre, naturally-aspirated flat four-cylinder engine.
The boxer engine produces its maximum power - a 22 percent improvement - at 5600rpm and 223Nm of peak torque at 3600rpm.
Subaru says the second-generation Forester is stronger, lighter and more powerful.
The car we drove ran the five-speed manual gearbox, though a four-speed automatic is available too.
The manual's gearshift is quick, slick and surprisingly-smooth for an SUV. Out only gripe about the transmission is the beefer which sounds to tell you that you're in reverse gear.
Manual gearbox Foresters come with a dual range high/low transmission for better off-road performance.
The car has a good spread of torque and the 2.5-litre motor ensures strong performance.
It also has that nice, throaty beat that used to be such a popular feature of Subarus.
It's been more muted in recent times, but in the Forester it's back - not stridently, but still noticeably, and we like that.
The long-travel suspension gives a most un-SUV-like ride. Most bumps just cease to exist. You don't hear them as the tyres ride over them and you feel none but the sharpest.
The suspension and the meaty 215/60 R16 Yokohama Geolander tyres do a good job of insulating the car's passengers from road shock.
Handling? It's good, though it's biased towards understeer.
The steering is pleasantly light in tight manoeuvring but weights up nicely and provides good feel at open road speeds.
Turn-in to corners is crisp, much crisper than the SUV norm. Initially we found ourselves applying too much lock and having to wind some off.
Turn in to a corner, and the car tracks around nicely, tightening its line a tad as the rear wheels bite and help drive the Forester out of the band.
Roadholding is excellent and the Forester always feels secure.
The overall cornering feel is not unlike an Impreza on tiptoes. The tallish Geolanders and the Forester's 200mm ground clearance mean there's a little more lateral movement on the tyres than you'd get in an Impreza, but the SUV has the same feeling of unshakeable grip. It's especially noticeable on wet roads.
We were surprised to note some minor rattles, especially from the dashboard (very minor) and the tailgate (more strident).
But this was a press fleet vehicle and maybe it had been belted hard along rough terrain.
Comfort is good and there's ample legroom and headroom in both front and rear cabins.
Cabin width is 20mm greater than the old model's, at 1455mm. There is 4mm more headroom.
Rear passenger space is improved by 25mm. There's extra footroom beneath the front seats.
Standard safety equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes and an ABS anti-skid system and electronic brake force distribution. There are dual front airbags, and active headrests on the seats. The front seatbelts have pre-tensioners and the Forester gets a nod of approval for three lap/sash seatbelts for the rear seat occupants.
The new Forester has bold front-end styling with a titanium finish-type grille on all models. New window shapes and pillar design improve the field of vision.
The headlights incorporate parking lights and indicators in a single clear cluster.
Door sill height is 88mm lower to make the Forester easier to get into and out of.
The driver's seat is height adjustable using a dial-type control.
The instruments are where they should be right in front of the driver. The speedo is centrally-mounted.
Aluminium components including bonnet, roof rails, sunroof frames and front bumper beam help lower the centre of gravity. The alloy bonnet is 8kg lighter than an equivalent steel one, but is also more prone to denting.
Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) has been lowered by making changes to the rear differential mounting, dynamic dampers and reducing cross member weight.
Road noise is well-muted but there's a fair amount of wind noise at highway speed.
We've always liked the Forester, which offers good performance, excellent on-road handling and a secure feel. It's nice to drive and a nice vehicle to be in.
It's not the ultimate off-road machine, but the ultimate off-road vehicle would almost certainly not be this nice to drive. As it stands the Subaru offer a good compromise.
Story and pictures by Mike Stock