Phil Lienert, Contributor
Honestly, the Subaru Forester never did it for me. I was not looking forward to this trip, driving the small SUV around southern Pennsylvania.
My day with the 2006 Subaru Forester was already off to a poor start, as I had accidentally downed a glass full of raw egg whites, which, at 6:30 a.m., I mistook for fresh-squeezed lemonade.
Clearly, I had every reason to disparage the car, but something miraculous happened along the way: Subaru made a believer out of me with the 2006 Forester.
What's the Glaring Difference, You Might Ask?
Well, the 2006 Forester is quite possibly the funnest SUV I've ever driven, especially the 2006 Forester 2.5 XT Limited, with its turbo version of the company's 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine and a five-speed manual transmission.
It's not that the 2005 Forester was underpowered, though. In fact, several previous Subaru Foresters have had the ability to achieve 0-to-60 times quicker than even the V6 Porsche Cayenne.
Part of the new fun, though, comes from Subaru's removal of the precatalytic converter, which bumps the output of the standard 2.5 X from 165 to 173 horsepower. Likewise, the Forester 2.5 XT Limited saw the horsepower rating of its turbocharged engine climb from 210 to 230. These tweaks allow the 2006 Subaru Forester to achieve class-leading power for four-cylinder entry-level SUVs and second place, behind the Saturn Vue, in the six-cylinder category — even though the Subie is merely powered by a flat four.
Those concerned that these new engines might be more burdensome, though, to both the environment and their gas card, shouldn't worry, as a secondary air pump has been added to all models to improve emissions.
Dynamic Suspension, Nimble Performance and Even Good Gas Mileage
The 2006 Forester's suspension has been made considerably firmer than that of the 2005 version, without any penalty in ride quality. The improved handling became immediately evident from the vehicle's performance on the surprisingly sporty roads of southern Pennsylvania. Both the 2.5 X Forester and 2.5 XT Limited Turbo Forester that we tested were incredibly nimble and zippy, which certainly proved to be useful for dodging the numerous Mennonite horse-and-buggy rigs that seemed to appear from out of nowhere.
Subaru has also improved the shift performance on all of the five-speed manual transmissions for 2006; and the two Foresters that we drove, both five-speed-equipped, had effortlessly engaging shift action. Gas mileage for the 2006 Foresters is better than most small SUVs, with these manual versions, in particular, capable of as much as 26 miles to the gallon. And the turbo Foresters lose an average of only 2 miles a gallon compared to the normally aspirated 2.5 X Foresters.
In addition to these welcome enhancements, Subaru has also redesigned the front and rear of the 2006 Forester, with new bumpers, grille, headlights and rear window. The ground clearance has been raised to 8.1 inches to make room for a new exhaust system, although the vehicle has maintained its traditionally low center of gravity, which makes it one of the least rollover-prone SUVs of any kind.
Despite its impressive performance, the 2006 Forester is no slouch when it comes to safety. Since its introduction in 1998, the Forester has racked up the safety awards and numerous accolades, not the least of which have come from the notoriously nitpicky Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (for frontal and side crash test ratings).
The 2006 safety package includes improved all-wheel drive, multiple airbags, a strengthened rear crossmember which increases the Forester's rigidity, front-seatbelt pre-tensioners and front-seat active head restraints.
The Subaru Advanced Front Airbag System is exactly how it is described: it determines the weight of the passenger and then determines how much force to use. The airbag shuts itself off if the "smart" system determines that the front-seat passenger weighs less than 60 pounds. The 2006 Forester even features head/chest side-impact airbags for front-seat occupants.
The standard Forester brake setup is efficient and effective. The only improvement I can think of in this department would be the inclusion of the Brembo brakes that are found on the Forester STi turbo, which is sold exclusively in Japan.
It's What's On the Inside That Counts
I can't say that I'm head over heels for the 2006 Forester's exterior, but then again, I will freely admit to having an anti-SUV bias. Considering this, I usually judge sport-utility vehicles on the basis of their interiors.
In regards to the cabin, the Forester was already quite impressive in its 2005 configuration. That which was good about the vehicle has been retained, and the Forester has received a few other interior delights such as more luxurious seat fabric (even on the base model), passenger seatback net pockets and increased cargo capacity.
Subaru has also added a multifunctional center console, which looks just fine and actually provides some function, although we found it to interfere slightly with our shifting in the manual models.
The top-end L.L. Bean Edition of the car has been upgraded with a MOMO wood and leather-wrapped steering wheel, a shock sensor for the security system, and an expansion of the waterproof storage surface to the cargo area sidewalls.
What Next for the Forester?
With its generous safety package and carlike ride, the Subaru Forester has traditionally been a big hit with women, who currently make up 60 percent of the vehicle's customers. For 2006, the target is men. The 230-hp 2.5 XT Limited should go a long way toward putting more Y chromosomes in the seats. With its promise of broader appeal, the 2006 Subaru Forester could very likely go on to sell in big-league quantities in North America, especially given its base price of $21,795 plus $595 destination (the 2.5 XT will go for $27,895).
While I have already admitted to not being entirely enamored with the 2006 Forester's looks, the drive is still fantastic, with horsepower and torque to spare. For what the vehicle is, I could only think of one improvement for the model lineup: the importation of the Japan-only Forester STi turbo, with its 265 hp .
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