2006 Subaru Forester XT Test Drive

2006 Subaru Forester XT front view
2006 Subaru Forester XT. Photo © Subaru of America

Lots of vehicles toe the line between car and SUV, but few walk right down the middle the way the Forester does. Drive the Forester and you'll see that, despite its SUV-like profile and SUV-like off-road abilities, it's got the soul of a car -- and a pretty sporty one at that. Forester gets several improvements for 2006, making it more likable than ever. $22,420 base, $29,365 as tested, EPA estimates 21 MPG city/26 MPG highway.

Model lineup changes; safety stays the same

Subaru has made a bevy of changes to the Forester this year. For starters, the styling has been tweaked, including a new nose; luckily it missed out on the three-piece grille that afflicts Subaru's B9 Tribeca and Impreza. Other changes include a simplified 4-model lineup: X, X with Premium Package, L. L. Bean Edition and XT. The latter, the only turbocharged Forester, comes bundled with last year's Premium Package, so if you want to go fast you'll have to shell out over $28,000 and live with such inconveniences as leather seats, power moonroof, and automatic climate control. Isn't life hard?

Safety has always been a Forester strong point. While many small SUVs and crossovers claim truck status, the Forester meets US safety standards for cars. Antilock brakes and front-seat-mounted side airbags come standard, but side-curtain airbags aren't available. XT and Bean models get turn signals mounted in the side mirrors. One important feature is the Forester's standard all-wheel-drive system, which gives it excellent accident-avoidance handling in all conditions. This year it gets an extra half-inch-or-so of ground clearance, improving its ability to drive over snow and rough terrain. (Did it really need improvement?)

Simplicity and storage

The Forester's dashboard won't win any design competitions, but it's simple and easy to use. I especially like the Forester's automatic climate controls: A classic 3-dial setup with "automatic" settings for fan speed and airflow. Anyone who's ever had to divide their attention between driving and trying to stop the damn automatic climate control from blowing gale-force winds into their face will appreciate the simplicity.

With so many tall cars and wagons on the road, the Forester's upright driving position is not the novelty it once was. I found all the seats comfortable; the room is generous up front and tight but habitable in the back. Storage space abounds, from the big bin atop the dash to small pockets in the passenger's footwell.

The Forester's tall roofline eases loading of bulky cargo, but its shorter length means its cargo bay can't accommodate as much as a mid-size wagon. My tester had an optional ($75) cargo mat, a thick rubber affair that makes cleaning the bay a simple matter of pulling out the mat and hosing it off.

Rust Belt residents will like the All Weather package, standard in all but the X: Heated front seats and side mirrors and an electric de-icer grid that keeps the windshield wipers from freezing to the glass.

Underhood improvements

Subaru has improved the non-turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in the XT and L. L. Bean models with a new variable valve timing (VVT) system. On paper, the engine shows an 8 horsepower increase to 173. In real world driving, VVT should make the engine feel much more powerful and responsive by improving its torque (pulling power) characteristics at various engine speeds.

I couldn't say for sure because Subaru supplied me with the XT, powered by the same 230 horsepower turbocharged 2.5-liter engine found in the hot-rod Impreza WRX. The XT's big hood scoop isn't just for show; it directs air over the engine's intercooler, which helps increase power. The engine is now up to 230 hp -- enough, Subaru says, for the stick-shift to make the 0-60 run in a sports-car-like 6 seconds or less. I drove the automatic; aside from the whistle of the turbo and a notable burst of power above 3,700 RPM, it pulls like a V6. One of my few complaints concerns the gear selector, which makes it easy to slip past Drive and into 3rd. Driving around in 3rd won't hurt anything but it will burn more gas.

Fuel economy estimates for the automatic XT are 21 MPG city/26 MPG highway, not too far below the non-turbo stickshift's estimates of 22/29.

The few, the chosen, the Forester buyers

If you live where it snows, chances are you're already sold on the Forester's foul-weather abilities. When the snow flies, Subarus are usually the last cars to get stuck. But the Forester's all-wheel-drive also improves grip in the rain and even on dry roads. To me, the ability to avoid an accident by steering around potential trouble is one of the most important safety features a car can have. Here the Forester has a distinct advantage over many cars and SUVs.

The Forester's uniqueness makes it hard to compare directly with other cars. In terms of interior space and off-road abilities, the Forester is similar to small SUVs like the Hyundai Santa Fe and Mazda CX-7. But its handling and fuel economy are in a different league, that of mid-size wagons like the Mazda 6 and Volkswagen Passat.

And don't forget the Forester's turbocharged engine, which makes it a lot of fun to drive.

My advice is that anyone shopping for a wagon, a small SUV, or just something that's small, unconventional and enjoyable should test drive a Forester. The Forester is not a car with mass appeal; it's a niche product. If you're one of the few for whom it was designed, chances are you're going to love it.

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