Since its introduction for the 1997 model year, Subaru‘s somewhat oddly proportioned Forester has been a welcomed alternative to more traditional SUVs, thanks to its uncanny ability to handle the road like a car, haul cargo like a small sport/utility vehicle, and scramble through a snow drift or a sand dune with equal aplomb. Subaru’s multi-talented trucklet enters 2006 with a significant freshening, including revisions to the standard, normally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and the optional turbocharged version. The model range has been simplified, making it easier for buyers to identify the right Forester for them. Together, these changes should help the Forester retain its status as a strong pick in the small-SUV class.
A thorough exterior update touched nearly all non-sheetmetal parts, including front and rear fascia, grille, headlamps, taillamps, rear glass, and C-pillar (now body colored). The alterations breathed fresh life into the Forester, giving it a more upscale presence and moving the front-end styling in the design direction exhibited by the new B9 Tribeca and updated Impreza. Even with these changes, however, the Forester still won’t be mistaken for anything else on the road, with its upright stance and very tall greenhouse. Visibility in all directions is excellent–including upward, thanks to a truly enormous power moonroof, standard on 2.5X Premium Package and 2.5XT Limited models. Front- and rear-seat ingress and egress are exceptionally easy, and a car-height rear bumper makes loading heavy objects into the cargo compartment no trouble at all. All Foresters feature 16-inch wheels–stamped steel on the base 2.5X, aluminum alloy on all others. The sporty 2.5XT is easily identified by its functional hood scoop, which feeds outside air to the turbocharger’s intercooler, and the upscale L.L. Bean Edition features a two-tone paint scheme.
Standard equipment on this five-seater includes air conditioning, an AM/FM/Weatherband stereo with single-disc CD player and four speakers; power windows, mirrors, and door locks; and a remote keyless entry system. The available Premium Package adds heated front seats with eight-way power adjustment for the driver, an automatic climate-control system, and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. The turbocharged 2.5XT Limited adds leather, and the L.L. Bean Edition sports logo-embossed front seats with perforated Alcantara side bolsters and a Momo wood and leather-wrapped steering wheel. All Forester models feature a standard 60/40-split folding rear seat, providing a maximum of 57.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity. For 2006, the rear seat now features a fold-down armrest, and the previously optional security system is now standard.
Upon its 2003 introduction, the current Forester earned the highest possible ratings (“Good”) in side-impact and 40-mph offset frontal crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which dubbed the Subaru the “best small SUV” it had tested. Front-seat passengers are protected by dual-stage front airbags and seat-mounted side-impact airbags, as well as seatbelt pre-tensioners and force limiters. All five seating positions get headrests and three-point seatbelts; outboard belts are height-adjustable. A four-channel/four-sensor anti-lock braking system is standard on all Foresters; the base 2.5X model gets front-disc/rear-drum brakes, all others get four-wheel discs. Stability control is not offered.
The Forester’s base engine, standard in 2.5X and 2.5X Premium Package, is a SOHC 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four with four valves per cylinder. Revised for 2006, the boxer-configuration engine now employs what Subaru has dubbed the i-Active Valve Lift System, which gives one of each cylinder’s two intake valves a “high” and a “low” position. At low revs, the two intake valves open at different positions, causing a swirl of fuel and air that aids combustion and boosts torque. At high revs, both valves assume the “high” position, letting in more air for higher horsepower. Horsepower is up from 165 to 173, and peak torque is unchanged at 166 lb-ft. The Forester 2.5XT Limited features a turbocharged and intercooled version of the 2.5-liter flat-four engine. Also revised for 2006, the turbocharged engine’s enhanced horsepower (230, up from 210; torque is unchanged at 235 lb-ft) arrives courtesy of a higher compression ratio (8.4:1, up from 8.2:1) and redesigned intake and exhaust systems. The turbo engine bests the output from all four-cylinders in the segment.A five-speed manual transmission, equipped with a clever Hill Holder device to prevent rollback during uphill starts, is standard with both engines. A new four-speed automatic is optional. First introduced on the 2005 Legacy, the auto transmission adjusts shift points based on inputs and load to optimize performance.
All-wheel drive, as with every Subaru model, is standard on the Forester, but it’s worth noting that there are two versions of the system here. Foresters with the manual gearbox feature all-wheel drive with a viscous-coupled locking center differential that splits the engine’s power 50/50 percent between the front and rear wheels. Slippage at the front or rear prompts the system to shunt power to the opposite axle to maintain traction. Foresters equipped with the automatic gearbox feature a more sophisticated electronically managed, continuously variable transfer clutch that can deliver power to the individual wheel or wheels that are best able to make use of it, and even performs such tricks as apportioning more torque to the rear wheels during acceleration, to take advantage of the rearward weight shift. A viscous limited-slip rear differential, which redirects power across the rear axle when slippage is detected, is standard with either gearbox on 2.5X Premium Package and 2.5XT Limited models.
On paper, the normally aspirated engine’s eight-horsepower bump for 2006 hardly seems noteworthy. On the road, however, the engine feels altogether new: A torque curve that peaks quicker and stays flatter gives the Forester a newfound spiritedness, and the increased power at higher revs greatly eases tasks like highway passing. As before, turbo lag on the XT Limited is noticeable but not noisome, and the four-wheel-driven thrust is decidedly un-SUV-like. Quite impressive, the force-fed Forester will leap to 60 mph in a tick under six seconds. The Forester’s minimum ground clearance increases from 7.5 to 8.1 inches for 2006 (7.9 inches for the turbocharged model), but thanks to recalibrated front and rear spring rates and damper valving, the additional height has no discernable effect on the Forester’s oft-praised road manners. Overall, the driving experience is far more carlike than that of other small SUVs, which can feel cumbersome and top-heavy during hard cornering, braking, and acceleration.
Subaru sets an example we’d welcome as an industry trend: powertrain performance increases for 2006 coupled with favorable fuel economy. The normally aspirated Forester is EPA-rated at 22 mpg in the city, 29 in the highway–not bad for a vehicle with permanent all-wheel drive. The turbocharged model consumes 19 mpg in town and 25 mpg on the Interstate, incrementally better than the previous year. When factoring the ownership costs, it’s important to note that premium fuel is recommended for the turbo engine. The Forester is protected with a traditional three-year/36,000-mile warranty, supplemented by a five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty.
More carlike than other small sport/utilities but every bit as commodious and capable, the freshened remains a jewel in a competitive segment.
In addition to significant modifications to the standard 2.5-liter normally aspirated engine and optional turbocharged version, yielding better drivability and improved power, the Forester sports restyled front and rear ends; revised suspension tuning and slightly augmented ground clearance; a standard theft-deterrent system; and a host of interior enhancements, including a new multifunction center console, cargo-compartment utility bars and hooks, a rear-seat armrest, and a longer bottom cushion on the rear seat for improved thigh support.
Aside from a multitude of dealer accessories, including racks for all manner of outdoor gear, the Forester offers few la carte options. The 2.5X Premium Package adds such goodies as the large moonroof to the base model, the L.L. Bean Edition ups the ante with such equipment as a self-leveling rear suspension, and the 2.5XT Limited adds that most desirable of options: horsepower.