COAL : 2006 Subaru Forester XT – Box, with Horses

Today’s episode of my COAL chronicles is about the replacement for the much-liked (but ultimately too cramped) Mazda 2, which left my stable in June of 2022. The main criteria for the replacement would be that it cost no more than the price the Mazda would fetch, while providing more space and practicality to better fit the needs of a young family. I was also looking for the safest possible vehicle, ideally with side and curtain airbags and stability control. It was obviously going to be older than the Mazda, but needed to be something that would be reliable as it would be the main family vehicle. Good fuel economy seemed like a desirable trait too, given the circumstances.

At first, I mainly focused on the Toyota Corolla (E161) Hybrid station wagon, JDM versions of which were freely available in our market at around my budget. It was the ultimate sensible choice; stellar economy, space and solid reliability. The only real concern was the fact that the ones within budget were around 7 to 8 years old, which meant their hybrid batteries were near the end of their useful life. Replacing these was a fairly large cost, and due to import issues, availability was a problem. Of course, I could just have found one that had already had the work done, but I think that part of me was looking for any excuse to discount this option. My wife was also not a fan of wagons in general, so when she also objected I was quite happy to forget about the Corolla Fielder (which is what the wagons are called on the JDM).

Magnificent in its ordinariness, is it not?


The next candidate was also a Corolla, but this time the previous model (E140 series) sedan. This model is likely familiar to those of you in the US as it is externally the same car, a bit larger than the JDM version (which we also got here). I was focused on the later facelift model, as those were sold with side and curtain airbags in our market. There was no shortage of choice, and I checked out and test-drove a couple. On paper, they fit the bill exactly, but when behind the wheel I just couldn’t bring myself to go ahead and buy one because they were so dull to drive. With a 1.6-litre four-cylinder and ancient four-speed automatic, there was really no driving pleasure to be had: you simply operated the vehicle until you got to your destination. Now I understand that this is perfectly fine for some folks, but I need to have driving involvement, even in a daily hack. And so the focus became wider, and I started thinking about compromising on one or two requirements to get something I’d enjoy owning

One of my closest friends is something of a Subaru evangelist, having owned half a dozen of them over the last decade, and he is particularly fond of Foresters. Thanks to him, I had plenty of seat time in these interesting little boxes, which led to the lightbulb moment: a Forester would probably meet basically all of my needs! Second (SG) and third (SH) generation models were available within my budget, so these were what we looked at. Sri Lanka has both JDM and the models available in the rest of the world, and while they were not common, they weren’t super rare either. The only hitch was, Forester owners tended to hang onto their cars, so finding good ones for sale took some doing. I was initially considering the third generation 2.5 Litre, non-turbo model (badged XS), as those were more likely to have been gently used and all of them had the side and curtain airbags fitted as standard, while the turbocharged XT models, which were mostly JDM, usually only had front airbags. Even the non-turbo model drove much better than any other similar vehicle, but it still did feel a bit rolly and slow-witted compared to my Mazda 2. The turbos were sharper, but you still felt the height and bulk (The SH was significantly heavier and larger in all dimensions than previous models, as Subaru made it more of a traditional CUV. Sales numbers make it obvious that this was the right call).

Definitely a bit on the bulky side, and feels it. 


I remembered that the previous SG model Forester that my friend owned certainly felt much sharper than the SH, so we decided to check one out, despite the deficit in airbags. So we tracked down a blue automatic XT which my friend had almost bought a few times over the years, and I took it for a drive. The moment I put my foot down and the flat-four got on boost, I immediately said “Yup, this is what I’m buying!” It just felt so lively from behind the wheel and went pretty hard too. The Forester had multiple previous owners (I’m the 10th!)  since being imported to Sri Lanka in 2010, but somehow they all seemed to have taken care of it and it was in good, original shape. The current owner was a Subaru enthusiast, having owned 5 of them previously, and he had maintained it quite well, within his capacity to do so. It had even had a low-mile engine and transmission (imported from Japan) recently fitted, as the previous transmission had been getting somewhat tired. Obviously I wanted my wife to sign off on it as well, so I took both her and the baby to see it and go for a drive. She had previously been not very positive about Foresters, saying they looked too much like station wagons, but this example changed her mind. She was probably also swayed by the fact that our daughter drifted off to sleep two minutes into the drive, possibly lulled by the burble of the boxer! Since this was in the middle of a fuel crisis, buyers weren’t exactly beating a path to his door, so we were able to agree on a price that I thought was fair, after getting an inspection done.

Not exactly pretty, but purposeful for sure.


Collection was delayed by almost two weeks because the tank was nearly empty and there was simply no fuel available, so in the end I had to resort to buying fuel on the black market just to get enough to get the car home. Luckily the location it was sitting at was a very short distance from my house, so getting it home went fairly smoothly. The first couple of months with the Forester were, let’s say, challenging, because it needed 95 RON petrol at a minimum and even 92 octane was barely available. So running it meant finding octane booster, stocking up, and religiously adding it every time I fueled up, while staying off boost and driving it as gently as possible. Since this is the first turbocharged vehicle I’ve owned, keeping my right foot light definitely took some major effort!

Most of these pictures were taken after a good detailing. It’s not usually this shiny. 


“Freddy the Forester”, as my wife christened it, is a 2006 Japanese Domestic Model Forester 2.0 XT automatic. As far as I’m aware, US versions of the SG Forester both Turbocharged and non were only available with the 2.5 Litre “EJ25” flat-four, while JDM models had both the 2.0l and 2.5l engines available in turbo and non-turbo forms. Keeping the JDM models and engines all figured out is almost impossible, but from what I’ve learned the engine in Freddy is basically the same as that fitted to an Impreza WRX of the same period, putting out 217 BHP at 5500 rpm and 227 lb/ft of torque from 3500 rpm. There’s a fair amount of turbo lag but once the boost gets on, this little box is pretty rapid indeed! Since it weighs under one and a half tons, those figures are enough to make the Forester sprint along at a very decent pace. Having plenty of available power and good brakes is definitely a good thing on our rather chaotic roads, as it makes overtaking much safer and the brakes also lead to increased confidence. Foresters of this age did not have electronic stability control, but the all-wheel drive helps it feel surefooted and stable in all conditions I’ve encountered so far. The automatic gearbox only has four speeds, but it is well programmed and responds quite well, if slower than more modern gearboxes like what my Mazda had. It also has the “Sportshift” manual gear selection option for more spirited driving, which also works pretty well, allowing you to hold gears all the way to redline, though the majority of acceleration happens between 3500 and 6000 ish rpm.

The heart of the beast. In stock form it is actually very quiet and smooth. 


So, in the “driving involvement” part of my requirements list, the Forester scores very highly. What about the rest of the list? Practicality and versatility is also very good, with a sizable cargo compartment, plenty of additional storage space, and lots of neat little touches dotted throughout that come in handy in day to day life. Passenger space is better than the Mazda but still not huge, as this is still a pretty compact vehicle. Still, the car seat fits properly and a front passenger can also be carried, so that’s a win! The rear seats have a small degree of adjustment in both recline and fore-aft movement, which is neat. The seats are also pretty comfy, with decent support for long driving days.

The driving environment is nice, and passenger space is pretty good too.


The only real issue I have is the ride quality, which is quite stiff and isn’t very comfortable on our poorly maintained roads. 17-inch wheels with rather hard compound tires are part of the problem, while it seems that the previous owner replaced the shocks with non-OEM items, which probably doesn’t help with the ride. The eventual plan is to switch to a good set of coilovers, as suspension technology has improved since these were new and better benefits can be had than going with OEM struts. The only other major downside is the fuel economy, or to be precise, lack thereof. I was prepared for it to be not great, but it’s actually a bit worse than that. In town driving will see 5-5.5 Km/l if driven sensibly, long distances ranges from 8-10 or so and I’ve seen around 12 on long highway runs where I was being gentle on the throttle. However you look at it, that isn’t very efficient, but I’m willing to put up with that because it meets our needs so well in most other ways.

The wheels are not Forester ones, but I like how they look.


Since it is now 17 years old, regular maintenance is needed to make sure that everything stays reliable, naturally. Since arriving, Freddy has needed a new timing belt and ancillaries, some suspension bushes and strut mounts, a rebuild of the power steering, some electrical work to cure issues with headlights and power windows, and finally body work to rectify a windscreen that had been poorly installed at some point in the past, which was leaking water into the cabin at a very slow rate. Fortunately, it was caught and sorted out before it became a serious problem. All this work has certainly cost quite a bit, but in return I have a vehicle that has capabilities far beyond anything else that is remotely available at the price, which I thoroughly enjoy driving. In my mind, that’s a pretty good deal.

At the moment the Forester is the newest and safest vehicle that I own, which of course means it’s the one my child goes in, so my wife drives it most of the time. I miss driving it every day if I’m honest, but I still do get plenty of wheel time, so that’s ok. I’ve thought about replacing it with a newer Forester with more airbags and such, but they simply don’t drive as nicely as this generation does, so Freddy the Forester will probably be sticking around for some time.

Freddy makes a great road trip car, especially on Sri Lankan roads.


Next week, we’ll be looking at a car that is pretty highly regarded here at CC and in the car world in general, and something I always wanted to own. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out quite as nicely as I was hoping they would…