2006 Subaru Forester Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Significant improvements for a versatile vehicle.
Before so-called crossover vehicles were trendy, there was the Subaru Forester. The Forester was one of the first vehicles to combine some of the best attributes of a sport-utility vehicle with the ride and driving dynamics of a car. The number of vehicles with this mix of car and truck characteristics has increased, to be sure, but a thoroughly revised 2006 model keeps Forester near the head of the pack.
The market research firm Polk has concluded that Forester inspires higher owner loyalty than just about any vehicle in production. That's easy to understand. Forester delivers the SUV features its buyers want, including a high seating position, good cargo space and a superb all-wheel-drive system with a modicum of off-road capability. It's perfect for unpaved backcountry roads or logging trails, the conditions most of us encounter when we venture off the pavement. Yet Forester also offers fuel mileage and ride comfort that's more like a car, in a compact, maneuverable package. On the road it delivers good handling and brake performance. It's more practical than the typical SUV for prowling the urban jungle and better for handling treacherous weather on the highway.
The 2006 Subaru Forester benefits from what those in the car business call a mid-cycle refresh, which means changes are fairly extensive but it isn't a ground-up redesign. All Foresters get at least a modest increase in horsepower, thanks to internal changes in their unusual horizontally opposed engines. The turbocharged Forester 2.5XT Limited gets the biggest boost, making it one of the more exhilarating vehicles of its type to drive. Forester still offers either a manual or automatic transmission, and all-wheel drive is standard on all models.
The 2006 Forester has been restyled front and rear, creating a slightly more serious, less cutesy look. Inside, subtle changes add comfort and convenience, particularly in the back seat. An alarm and security system are now standard. The suspension has been revised in an effort to improve ride comfort, adding a bit more ground clearance for off-road forays.
We're not crazy about all the changes in the 2006 Forester, but in total they improve a car (or is that an SUV?) that was very good to begin with. Forester has amassed a good reliability record since its introduction eight years ago. It has performed very well in laboratory crash tests and it comes with a high level of standard safety equipment. It can tow up to 2400 pounds. In short, the Forester still offers a combination of SUV capability, fuel-efficiency, on-road performance and versatility that's tough to beat.
The Subaru Forester model line has been simplified for 2006. Three of the four variants are powered by the base, normally aspirated engine. The turbocharged 2.5XT Limited is the most powerful Forester, and also the most expensive.
The 2.5X ($21,795) is the least expensive, and it gets more standard equipment for 2006, including a security system and more cargo-securing aids behind the rear seat. This base Forester comes well-equipped, with features such as a 100-watt AM/FM/Weatherband stereo with single-CD player and four speakers, 60/40 split rear folding seatbacks with a center armrest, air conditioning with an air filtration system, a cargo area cover, cruise control, digital outside temperature indicator, fog lights, foldable power side-view mirrors, power windows, a rear window wiper/washer, remote keyless entry, a roof rack and tilt steering.
Subaru remains one of only a few carmakers using horizontally-opposed engines, with the cylinders laid flat so the pistons punch outward like a boxer. Forester's 2.5-liter four-cylinder gets internal improvements for 2006, including variable valve lift, which increase peak horsepower by eight to 173. A four-speed automatic transmission ($800) is available on the three models that come standard with a 5-speed manual.
The Forester 2.5X Premium ($24,145) adds a 120-watt stereo with six-disc in-dash CD changer and better speakers, 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, an eight-way power driver's seat, heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors, automatic climate control, a leather- wrapped-steering wheel and shift knob and a power moonroof.
The Forester L.L. Bean Edition ($26,895) remains the top normally aspirated model and the only Forester with a standard automatic transmission (so keep that in mind when comparing prices). Additional functional items, compared to the 2.5X Premium, include an auto-dimming rearview mirror with built-in compass, a shock sensor in the security system and a self-leveling rear suspension. Yet the L.L. Bean's big draw may be the appearance package, with its unique wheels and colors and contrasting metallic lower-body cladding. Inside, it features beige seats trimmed with leather and Alcantara fabric, a Momo wood-and-leather steering wheel, hard, water-resistant material in the cargo hold and stitched L.L Bean logos on the front seats and floor mats.
The turbocharged 2.5XT Limited ($27,895) gets even more power for 2006. It's high-performance engine has dual overhead cams, with variable valve timing and lift for a smooth, even power band. Improvements to the intercooler, among other things, increase peak horsepower by 20 to 230. In addition to equipment offered in the 2.5X Premium, the 2.5XT Limited adds leather-trimmed seats, a seven-speaker audio system with sub-woofer and a sport gauge package.
All Foresters come with antilock brakes. All but the 2.5X also have electronic brake-force distribution, which evenly proportions brake force as grip under the tires changes. All are equipped with dual-stage front-impact airbags, front-passenger side-impact airbags and active front head restraints designed to minimize whiplash injuries.
Subaru promotes Forester as an active lifestyle vehicle through marketing arrangements with groups such as the American Canoe Association and the Professional Ski Instructors of America. In that vein, the company offers a host of factory- and dealer-installed accessories that increase Forester's versatility, including racks for carrying bikes, skis, kayaks and canoes on top of the standard roof rails.
The 2006 Subaru Forester has been restyled front and rear, though those who knows the Forester won't confuse it with any other car. The new grille is a bit larger, and the headlights and taillight clusters have been reshaped. The net effect is slightly more serious, perhaps more rugged, maybe a bit less frumpy. In the Forester's case, however, frumpy has always been endearing, so we're not sure the changes are an improvement.
Subaru fanatics, and believe us, there are plenty of them out there, will immediately notice the new Forester's slightly taller stance. With adjustments to the suspension, ground clearance has been increased from 7.5 inches to 8.1 inches (7.9 inches on the 2.5 XT Limited) to enhance all-road driving capability. That half-inch is a significant difference.
The Forester isn't likely to turn a lot of heads, although it's sculpted aluminum hood, and particularly the working air scoop on the 2.5XT Limited, subtly scream for attention. Compared to the typical mid-size SUV, the Forester is a small vehicle, but it makes efficient use of interior space. It is, by intent, a fairly boxy machine, and its beauty lies more in its functional design. Despite its upright shape, the Forester is impressively aerodynamic, with a sedan-grade 0.36 coefficient of drag. Other things equal, the more aerodynamic a vehicle is, the less wind noise inside and the better its fuel economy.
The standard roof rack remains flat black. Yet for years, less-expensive Foresters had unpainted gray lower body cladding that only cluttered up the car's shape. For 2006, the lower bumpers and protective cladding are painted to match the body on all variants except the L.L. Bean Edition, which has a contrasting metallic finish down low. It's a welcome improvement, and gives the vehicle a classier look. All Foresters except the base 2.5X also get larger body-color side mirrors with integrated turn signals.
The Subaru Forester is not a tall vehicle, compared to the typical SUV. Yet its seating position is high, providing more of the commanding view that many buyers seek in an SUV. Forward visibility is less likely to be obstructed by other vehicles than it is in the typical sedan. Indeed, visibility is great in all directions. The driver peers through an expansive windshield and big side glass with thin A-pillars. A wide rearview mirror and big outside mirrors provide an excellent view rearward. The driver's seat is simple to adjust, but it can be tailored for a wide variety of tastes and sizes, and it has good bolstering. The adjustable steering wheel has good range.
Interior enhancements for 2006 are subtle, but welcome. A new center console has more storage space and a sliding armrest that's just right for elbow resting. It also has an extra set of cup holders that can be flipped forward or back for use by either front or rear-seat passengers. The base Forester 2.5X now has a net pocket on the front-passenger seatback, and the seat fabric has been upgraded.
Rear-seat passengers get good leg and head room, even with the optional moonroof, and now they get even more thigh support. The bottom rear cushion has been extended forward two inches, without reducing leg room, and Subaru has added a fold-down armrest with storage in the rear seatback.
Materials inside the Forester have been steadily upgraded over the years, to the point where all are decent quality. The instrument panel and controls are efficiently designed. Three big HVAC knobs make it easy to adjust temperature and airflow. The upgrade stereo in our 2.5XT Limited produced good quality sound, and like most things on the Forester, the buttons are better than ever (in this case, bigger). The gauge cluster is highly legible. We like the fluorescent-look backlighting on the XT turbo best.
The optional leather interior looks and feels stylish. For 2006, the Forester L.L. Bean adds a new MOMO wood and leather-wrapped steering wheel and matching shifter handle. The water-resistant surface on its cargo area floor and rear seatback has been expanded to the cargo area sidewalls. All these touches are nice, but Forester's interior materials are good in all cases, and we'd rather put the extra money for the L.L. Bean package toward the higher-performance XT turbo.
The Forester has great cargo capacity for its size. Lowering the 60/40 split rear seat increases that capacity from 32 cubic feet to 56.4 cubic feet. That's comparable or slightly less than compact SUVs like the Ford Escape or Honda CRV, and those who put a premium on cargo space should note: The lower headliner on Foresters equipped with the moonroof robs more than a cubic foot of cargo volume.
The standard retractable cargo cover sits high enough to accommodate taller objects like a big cooler. For 2006, there are more hooks and tie-down options than ever in the Forester's cargo hold. A side storage pocket contains a 12-volt power outlet, and there's another 12-volt outlet in the front center console.
Despite its compact dimensions, Forester accommodates the needs and physique of a wide range of people. It also protects them well in an accident. Passive safety features are among the best in small SUVs, and Forester has earned the highest possible ratings for crashworthiness in 40-mph frontal and 30-mph side impact crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
We would never recommend the Subaru Forester for off-road torture tests such as the Rubicon Trail through the Sierra Nevada mountains, but we can heartily endorse it for the sort of excursion off the beaten path that's more realistic for most people. The Forester is perfect transport to find an obscure campsite over logging trails in the Pacific Northwest, for example, or for pulling a small trailer through the forest to a hidden lake in Minnesota, or for getting to a Michigan trout stream on a sandy two-track. Moreover, the Forester is excellent for inclement weather in just about any locale. Its variable all-wheel drive system works better in driving snow on the interstate than the typical dual-range four-wheel drive system in truck-based SUVs.
Consider this. The Forester is much better than nearly any SUV that comes to mind for driving the way most people drive most of the time: on paved roads, back and forth to work, to dinner and a movie, or collecting the kids at school. It rides better. It's more nimble and it gets better mileage. The Forester is also more pleasant, even more fun to drive, than just about any SUV. It will run circles around most of them. It handles more like a car and can be driven like a car. On an icy mountain road snaking along a bottomless precipice in a driving storm, we'd prefer to be in a Forester than in a truck-based SUV. The reason is that it stops and turns better.
The 2006 Forester 2.5XT Limited we tested goes past fun and approaches exciting. The XT's turbocharged, intercooled 2.5-liter, dual-overhead cam, four-cylinder engine makes 235 pound-feet of torque, or more than 40 percent more than the base Forester engine. For 2006, improvements to its variable valve-timing system (VVT) and intercooler increase horsepower by 20 to 230. That gives the XT a power-to-weight ratio on par with the Ford Mustang.
Yet the XT engine isn't the least bit peaky or finicky. Thanks to Subaru's experience with turbocharged engines from years racing in the World Rally Championship, there are no turbo lags or bugs, period. The VVT helps, too, by eliminating the compromises in a fixed-timing engine and delivering an amazing balance of lower-rpm torque and free-breathing horsepower. Horsepower peaks low enough to be effective in most driving situations, while off-the-line torque comes on strong as low as 2500 rpm.
Simply put, the Forester XT Limited is very fast, and the power is so steady and even that there's almost no clue it's a turbocharged engine. It's so much fun that you'll want to floor the gas pedal at every opportunity, just to feel the exhilarating rush of acceleration.
There's a drawback, to be sure. The XT requires more expensive premium fuel to get the full effect. Other Foresters do not, nor do many SUVs. There's also a mileage penalty. Our XT automatic delivers 21 mpg city, 26 highway, according to the EPA. That's less than normally aspirated Foresters (23/28 automatic, 22/29 manual), but still a lot more than most SUVs.
The standard Forester engine delivers decent acceleration, to be sure. It can't match the exhilaration underfoot with the turbo, but a driver will never pound the steering wheel shouting 'faster!' while merging onto a crowded freeway. Subaru's horizontally opposed engines (called 'boxers' because the pistons repeatedly punch outward) share their design concept with Porsche's highly regarded boxer engines. The advantage is good power in a compact package, and a low block-height that helps lower the center of mass in the car. Subaru has perfected this design. Subaru's four-cylinder engine isn't as smooth as some, but company engineers have done a good job insulating the Forester's interior from the vibration.
The five-speed manual transmission works well. The gear ratios deliver a good mix of acceleration and quiet cruising, even if the throws between gears are long. The Forester's s.
Even as 'crossover' vehicles proliferate, few can match the versatility built into the Subaru Forester. Forester brings it all, or almost all: great all-weather, all-road capability, solid dynamic performance on pavement, passenger/cargo flexibility, lots of useful features, fuel economy, lots of safety equipment and good crash-test scores at a reasonable price. It can even be fun to drive. The turbocharged XT Limited delivers acceleration that's a visceral rush.
Subaru Forester 2.5X ($21,795); 2.5X Premium ($24,145); L.L. Bean Edition ($26,895); 2.5 XT Limited ($27,895).
Options As Tested
4-speed automatic transmission ($800); rear cargo tray ($75).
Subaru Forester 2.5 XT Limited ($27,895).
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