The first Subaru Forester arrived for 1998 and was ahead of its time because it was among the first car-based sport-utility vehicles. Now called "crossovers," such vehicles are becoming increasingly popular.
The 2006 Forester is based on Subaru's Impreza sedan. It thus can be called a now-fashionable crossover, although it's officially a compact SUV.
Subaru has come a long way since it sold small, cheap economy cars in the 1970s. The Forester was revised for 2003 with crisper styling and more room, refinement, comfort and safety items. And an early 2004 version got a horsepower-boosting turbocharger and hood scoop to attract younger folks.
The latest Forester gets more major revisions. It still looks pretty bland despite revised styling up front, with a new grille, headlight clusters, hood, bumper and fenders—besides a new taillight cluster and rear body trim panel.
The oversized hood scoop looks cartoonish, although at least it's a functional scoop and not some silly cosmetic add-on.
Faster and Generally Better
There's also additional power, besides refined drivetrain, suspension and brake systems. The new Forester goes faster, with better handling, an improved ride and surer braking.
Hidden are strategic items such as a strengthened rear crossmember. It increases lateral rigidity to help improve handling, as do revised coil spring rates and shock absorber valving.
Also helping improve performance are revisions to the 5-speed manual gearbox and four-speed automatic transmission, although the Forester really should have a more modern 5-speed automatic.
Ground clearance is up to 8.1 inches from 7.5 inches to enhance all-road, all-weather driving capability. The solidly constructed Forester is surprisingly capable during fairly rugged off-road driving. But it's mainly designed for slippery, rotten roads. It's not for nothing that Subarus long have scored well during rotten New England winters.
Horsepower of the compact, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, with its Porsche-style opposed piston design, is increased from 210 to 230, thanks to higher compression and a redesigned intake-exhaust system.
The added power makes the 2006 Forester a hot rod crossover, able to do 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds with the manual transmission. And new emissions controls let the engine meet a stricter Low Emissions Vehicle regulation.
The non-turbocharged base 4-cylinder's horsepower jumps from 165 to 173. That's not a major increase, but this engine has a new variable-valve lift system that makes it more responsive.
The base engine is rated at 20 mpg in the city and 26 on highways with the manual gearbox and 21 and 26 with the automatic. The turbo engine delivers 22 and 29 with the manual and 23 and 28 with the automatic. The regular engine only needs 87-octane gasoline, but the turbo engine calls for 91-octane.
List prices range from $21,795 to $27,895. The base Forester 2.5 X has air conditioning, an AM/FM/Weatherband stereo with CD player, power mirrors, windows and door locks with remote keyless entry, split-folding rear seatbacks, anti-lock brakes—and new body color bumpers and side cladding.
Huge Power Sunroof
Step up to the 2.5 XT with the Premium Package and added are a huge power glass sunroof that even covers a good part of the rear seat area. This trim level also has automatic climate control, power driver's seat, alloy wheels, a 6-disc CD changer, along with heated front seats, windshield wiper de-icer and heated body color side mirrors with turn signals.
The L.L.Bean Edition's extra equipment includes an automatic transmission (an $800 option for other trim levels), a new wood-and-leather steering wheel and unique alloy wheels. This is the only version with a self-leveling rear suspension.
The top-line XT Limited is the only Forester with the turbo engine, and it also adds leather upholstery and an upgraded audio system.
Fun to Drive
The Forester is generally fun to drive, particularly with the turbo engine, and there seemingly is a trim level for nearly everyone. This is among the most car-like, comfortable crossover vehicles, although the ride sometimes gets a little bouncy.
The steering is rather heavy, but not objectionably so, and is quick and accurate. The low-set engine helps provide a low center of gravity and enhances the Forester's car-like handling. The standard, unusually good all-wheel-drive system provides good road grip. The brake pedal is almost too soft, but its linear action allows smooth stops.
The manual shifter provides easy fast gear changes, even without the $345 short-throw shifter option. However, it works with a stiff, rather long-throw clutch that can be a pain in stop-and-go traffic.
A downshift from fifth to fourth gear is needed for quick passing on open roads, and the engine registers a high 3000 rpm at 70 mph—although high-speed cruising is no problem.
It's easy getting in the quiet, nicely designed interior, which has supportive front seats, easily read gauges and large climate controls. Occupants sit fairly high and four fit comfortably, although a tall rear passenger will want more legroom if a driver moves his seat back a lot.
Front cupholders are OK, but the pop-out dual rear ones look so flimsy that I'd be reluctant to put even moderately heavy beverage containers in them. Curiously, the front armrest swings back 180 degrees to provide two additional rear cupholders, which are more substantial.
Cost-cutting is shown by no lights for the sun visor vanity mirrors and an awkward manual hood prop.
High Crash-Test Ratings
Front-seat side airbags are standard, but side-curtain airbags are not available. However, the Forester has received high crash-test ratings.
The hatch has no separate-opening window, but the roomy cargo area has a low, wide opening and can be enlarged by flipping the rear seatbacks forward.
The Forester is a sound alternative to larger, less efficient sport-utility vehicles. Now, if Subaru would only do something about its styling.