- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

When you get right down to it, most automotive manufacturers haven’t spent much time putting “sport” into their sport utility vehicles.

With a few notable exceptions, the bulk (pun intended) of them are lumbering, truck-based beasts of burden used mostly by families as a macho alternative to the more practical minivan. Among those exceptions is one that may come as a surprise — the 2006 Subaru Forester.

When it was introduced in 1997, the Forester was the first of a new breed that is only now gaining widespread popularity — the crossover vehicle.

It had a tall cabin, high seating position, all-wheel drive and the appearance of a small SUV, but it was car-based, built on the compact Impreza platform, and it shared a lot of mechanical features with the Impreza and midsize Subaru Outback wagon.

The key features were practicality, comfort and SUV-beating fuel efficiency. However, the operative “S” word was sensible, not sporty.

The idea that fun and Forester might be used in the same sentence began to take root in the 2004 model year when Subaru offered a turbocharged version of the standard four-cylinder boxer engine on the upscale 2.5 XT model, boosting horsepower from an adequate but uninspiring 165 to a smile-inducing 210.

For 2006, all versions of the Forester have undergone a more thorough revision.

Modifications to the base engine raise horsepower modestly from 165 to 173, but also make the engine more responsive throughout its power band.

The turbocharged power plant, available only in the top-of-the-line 2.5 XT Limited model, adds 20 horses for a total of 230.

Handling is improved with a stronger rear cross member that improves chassis rigidity and the ride has been improved through a modification to the front suspension.

In addition, spring rates and shock-absorber valving have been tweaked at all four corners. Even the brake booster has been modified to improve pedal feel.

The five-speed manual transmission has been strengthened and the four-speed automatic shifter has been revised to improve traction and to adapt shift points based on driver input. Both transmissions have revised gear ratios to boost performance and fuel mileage.

Exterior changes include a new grille, headlights, bumper, hood and fenders in front and new taillights and a body-color trim panel at the rear. All but the base X model get bigger side mirrors with integrated turn signals.

The model I tested was the 2.5 XT Limited with five-speed manual transmission.

This car not only performs better than any Subaru I had driven before, it is genuinely fast. The folks at Subaru say the small SUV will scoot from a stop to 60 mph in under six seconds, and I’m sure they are right on the mark.

But the power boost is most appreciated in passing situations, when the turbo engine makes short work of the climb from 50 to 80 mph.

During my week with it, the Forester averaged between 15 and 23 miles per gallon of gas in a variety of driving conditions. The EPA lists fuel consumption at 20 mpg city and 26 on the highway.

The high center of gravity (there are eight inches of ground clearance) and somewhat sluggish rack-and-pinion steering rule out any really aggressive back-road maneuvers. But the Forester, kept within its limits, takes corners without most of the body sway common to SUVs and the steering is at least predictable and sensibly weighted.

The antilock brakes, discs in front and drums at the rear, were nicely modulated and, with electronic brake force distribution, brought the Forester to a safe, quick stop when a deer bounded onto the road.

Inside, there is room for four adults, five on short hops. Rear-seat legroom is a bit tight for adults more than 6 feet tall.

The Forester’s long list of safety features, which includes an automatic hill holder on manual transmission models, has earned it the “best small SUV” title from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Nearly 30 cubic feet of cargo space are available with the rear seatback in place and approximately 60 cubic feet are on tap with the rear seatback folded.

Thanks to the roomy hatch opening, I was able to haul a sofa from the auction house to my home.

The couch stuck out the back a bit, but there was no danger of it falling out.

Towing capacity is rated at 2,400 pounds for manual transmission models, 2,000 for vehicles equipped with the automatic shifter.

A laundry list of options, from leather upholstery and automatic climate control to a premium sound system and power sunroof, come standard on the 2.5XT Limited.

The price is $28,490, including destination charges.

The hot-rod Forester is a lot more fun than any that have come before and that’s good news for the driver.

But, in the final analysis, it’s the first “S” word — sensible — that still rules the day.

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