Anything essential is often out of sight, which is the case with the latest iteration of the Subaru Forester. First revealed in New York earlier this year, a quick glance at the comments section revealed some of you aren’t big fans of the “staid” design of the fifth-generation (SK) model.

While I admit the new look is more evolutionary rather than revolutionary, this “play safe” approach is a necessity given the fact that the Forester is one of Subaru’s more important global models. In the United States, by far Subaru’s biggest market, the Forester is the brand’s top-selling model, with over 10,000 units sold monthly for 59 months in a row – though it still trails behind other SUVs like the Nissan Rogue (X-Trail to us here) and Honda CR-V in the sales charts.

Nonetheless, it remains a popular choice among car buyers there, and this writer feels the possibility of driving away returning (and new) customers with something too outlandish from what is familiar is a big risk for Subaru to take.

However, this isn’t to say that the latest Forester is just a bunch of new styling cues and nothing else. The SUV rides on a new platform and continues to retain or improve upon many of the features that make it a solid option for something versatile with some go-anywhere capability. So, when we were given the chance to try the new SUV out in Taiwan, we had to see what’s what.

A short disclaimer before we proceed: the test drive session was a brief one that involved both a few laps on a small track and a short off-road excursion. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a chance to demonstrate the practicality improvements so we’ll have to wait for the car to arrive here before we can examine those aspects further.

One of the key shouting points of the new Forester is what lies beneath the familiar skin, namely the Subaru Global Platform (SGP). The architecture is already used for the Impreza and XV, boasting substantially higher levels of torsional rigidity (70 to 100% increase), better handling, a more comfortable ride, reduced NVH and improved passive safety performance.

Short of the last two items, the first three claims were well illustrated on the FIA-certified Lihpao Racing Park. In a straight line, the new Forester is less inclined to serve up a “floaty” feeling as compared to its predecessor, although it’s hard to ascertain ride comfort enhancements given the smoothness of the track – the fourth-generation (SJ) was already quite comfortable over bumps.

Taking on the corners, the new car displayed a lot less body roll compared to the SJ – a testament to the higher levels of rigidity offered by the SGP. The SK also gains Subaru’s Active Torque Vectoring system that helps improve steering capability by braking the inner front wheel, cutting out understeer on corner exits.

While this makes for a more dynamic vehicle to drive, the power-assisted steering, like before, is lacking in terms of speed and precision. Of course, this being a family SUV, the need for an ultra sporty steering feel isn’t on the top of the priority list.

What is still on said list is the need to make sure the Forester remains a capable vehicle when the tarmac ends. As part of Subaru’s core philosophies, Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive is present on the latest Forester, in this case linked to a 2.0 litre four-cylinder engine (156 PS and 196 Nm) and an updated Lineartronic CVT. The boxer engine is similar to the one used in the XV, with direct injection being one of the improvements.

The first showcase of the familiar technology is a section with cross rollers that tests the system’s ability to distribute power to wheels with traction. Considering we were able to move to the next portion of the off-road course without incident, I’m happy to report that it worked flawlessly. In situations where slip is detected on any wheel, power is reduced for that particular wheel and sent to more useful corners instead.

Part two involved rolling over a bumpy road to demonstrate the SGP’s ability to deal with uneven terrain, all while making good use of the 220 mm ground clearance available. Given the fact that the surface was made of large rocks, we did have our heads swung a fair bit but we didn’t have to deal with heavy shocks originating from beneath our feet.

Subaru’s X-Mode has been simplified as well, with the top-spec 2.0i-S EyeSight variant we were in coming with what the company calls ‘Special X-Mode’. Put simply, a rotary dial now makes it easier to swap between the ‘Snow/Dirt’ and ‘Deep Snow/Mud’ modes, where the latter now negates the need to manually switch off the traction control that can be disruptive in such situations.

Ascending the steep hill in ‘Deep Snow/Mud’ mode was an effortless affair as expected, and the Auto Vehicle Hold function allowed the vehicle to remain in position at an angle before the driver decides to set off.

Next up was the side ramp that again, tests the capabilities of the SGP and its higher use of high-strength steel. The objective here is to accelerate onto the side ramp and still remain in control even when the vehicle’s weight is shifted to one side. In most cases, approaching a side ramp is done at a slower pace, so to charge at a tilted ramp did make for a nervy situation.

While the experience was mildly violent, the Forester held its own and remained planted on the ground as we descended from the ramp. What followed was an off-road slalom that had the SAWD system and SGP working together to provide composure even when charging on loose dirt.

With that final stint, our brief moment with the new Forester came to an end. As first impressions go, the signs look promising but we can only give more insights when we are handed the keys to one on Malaysian shores.

What I can say is the latest-generation Forester is a lengthy leap forward from its predecessor from a driving perspective. While it may remain unseen to the common car buyer, the SGP is the essential ingredient that makes the new model more capable than before.

Not only does the SGP make the Forester better to drive, the cabin also benefits from a more elegant dashboard layout as well as additional stowage spaces. Despite the limited amount of time spent in back seats (while my fellow media colleagues had their turn), the legroom was more than sufficient as well.

As for the exterior design, that is a subjective matter and while some find it off-putting, I find no fault with a shape that is loved by many thousands who have bought one. If you share the same sentiment, this might be something you’ll want to look forward to.