EAGLE ROCK, Mo. -- Route 86 is a backwoods blacktop path through the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, and during our drive over this road a steady rain soaks the asphalt and fills potholes with tire-skipping puddles.
Yet we plow through the puddles without fear of tire slippage because the vehicle for this foray -- a new rendition for the Forester sport-utility wagon by Subaru of Japan -- applies the torque from a gutsy four-cylinder engine to all wheels through a four-wheel-drive mechanism which operates automatically.
It's constantly engaged so you don't have to fiddle with it by tugging at some cumbersome lever or decide when to push the right dashboard button in order to engage or cancel the four-wheel traction.
That leaves the driver free to focus on more important issues -- like steering and braking and driving safely.
Forester makes the driver's job easy because all mechanical aspects are direct and simple and efficient.
The easy-to-operate simplicity of Forester has been a primary factor driving sales since the wagon first appeared in Subaru's line as a 1998 model.
Subaru developed Forester as a different kind of sport-utility which eliminates the harsh ride and ungainly handling of a truck-based SUV by borrowing the chassis of a passenger car, namely Subaru's compact-class Impreza coupe.
And many of Forester's mechanical systems -- such as the four-wheel independent suspension system, the four-cylinder horizontally-opposed engine and Subaru's direct all-wheel-drive (AWD) system -- show up on other vehicles in the line.
Subaru's engines, with four cylinders opposed horizontally and set perpendicular to the drive line, employ equal-length drive shafts and function like boxers jabbing directly at one another so there's little vibration or residual torque steer.
Power from the engine moves directly through an intelligent transfer case for distribution to all of the wheels, with scant loss of energy in the process.
Because Subaru's AWD system is so efficient, there's only a modest sacrifice in fuel economy figures to use it.
Thus, Subaru's AWD design bursts the bubble of typical four-wheel-drive systems, which can cost a bundle initially, lap up fuel and make as much noise as a truck.
With the Subaru system, you end up with sure-footed, confidence-building traction hardware designed to keep the vehicle safely rooted on any type of road surface and for a price that's highly competitive with vehicles rigged for two-wheel-drive systems.
Forester was rebuilt in 2003 and earned optional turbo-charged power in 2004, with the 2006 models showing revised exterior designs, more equipment aboard and power boosts to the turbo-charged and naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder engines.
Trims cap at the deluxe Forester L.L.Bean edition with a new MOMO steering wheel added plus premium features.
Entry issue Forester 2.5 X offers a new Premium Package plus power moonroof, while Forester 2.5 XT Limited is the sole turbo model as rigged with leather upholstery and a power moonroof.
Subaru's four-cylinder boxer engine, with aluminum block and cylinder heads plus a cam on top, displaces 2.5 liters and features the i-Active valve lift system to optimize engine efficiency.
Output climbs to 173 hp at 6000 rpm with 166 lb-ft of torque at 6600 rpm.
This engine, tied to a five-speed manual transmission with hydraulic clutch and Hill Holder feature which blocks the wagon from rolling backward on a slope, fits in Forester 2.5 X and up-level 2.5 X Premium Package, with an electronic direct-control automatic four-speed transmission optional.
It also applies to the Forester L.L.Bean Edition but with the four-speed automatic added.
Subaru borrows from its sporty WRX performance car a turbo-charged and inter-cooled boxer four-pack to create a souped-up Forester, the 2.5 XT Limited.
The turbo plant, with twin cams and 2.5-liter displacement, also comes with i-Active valve controls.
It generates 230 hp at 5600 rpm and torque of 235 lb-ft at 3600 rpm.
Subaru's full-time AWD system operates automatically to disburse the engine's power to both front and rear wheels based on traction needs.
Different versions are used for manual and automatic transmissions. For the manual, a viscous-coupling device locks the center differential, while an electronically managed continuously variable transfer clutch works with the automatic transmission -- Subaru labels this system Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive.
Forester was one of the first SUVs stocking independent suspension elements, including lower L-arms with liquid-filled brushings and a stabilizer bar in front, and rear parallel links plus stabilizer bar. The arrangement brings more control for the driver on pavement and, when venturing off pavement, delivers a less jarring ride for passengers.
A similar suspension goes into the 2006 issues, although a rear cross brace was added to increase lateral rigidity. Also, the lower L-arm mounting point up front was modified to produce a smoother ride.
And the chassis ground clearance increases -- it rises to 8.1 inches on 2.5 X or 7.9 inches on 2.5 XT.
Forester 2.5 X the entry edition lists for $21,795 and contains a lot of standard equipment. The gear ranges from foglamps, a roof rack and folding power side mirrors outside to cabin air conditioning and a security system with remote keyless entry device, cruise control, power windows and door locks, a tilting steering wheel, rear window wiper/washer, rear folding seatback split 60/40, a cover over the cargo bay and a stereo 100-watt AM/FM/Weatherband radio with CD player and four speakers.
Forester 2.5 X Premium Package for $24,145 adds rear disc brakes and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), a viscous limited-slip rear differential, automatic climate controls, eight-way power driver's seat, an all-weather package and 120-watt audio kit with six-disc CD changer.
Forester L.L.Bean at $26,895 brings the automatic transmission, a self-leveling rear suspension and a custom appearance package, while the turbo-powered 2.5 XT Limited for $27,895 stocks leather seats, a sport gauge package and seven-speaker premium audio system.