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2003 Subaru Forester

New design brings more room, better handling.

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by Sue Mead April 2003


Extensively revised for 2003, the second-generation Subaru Forester adds sports appeal and improved handling. The new Forester is roomier than before and comes with new features that move its image slightly upscale. Yet it still combines fuel efficiency, cargo room, safety, and the foul-weather advantages of all-wheel drive.

Introduced in the 1998 model year, the Forester mini-SUV soon became a household word. Subaru's answer to the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 carved a niche and achieved respectable sales. The Forester looked more rugged than Subaru's Impreza sedan and less like a wagon than the Outback. It also boasted a relatively high ground clearance, respectable stowage space for gear and a four-wheel-drive system adopted from Subaru's world champion rally cars.

The five-passenger Forester is part of a mixed heritage. Although Subaru has sold the best-selling imported wagon in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, the brand has not been easily categorized. Buyers have traditionally gone to Subaru for reliability, but just as many nowadays are more interested in performance. The Forester attempts to combine the best of both worlds. It works well as a grocery getter, and excels as a backcountry runabout for family camping trips. It's more powerful than the small SUVs in its class and is backed by a legendary four-wheel-drive system. It's also great on gas and comfortable enough for cross country road trips.

Model Lineup

The 2003 Subaru Forester comes in two versions: the basic 2.5X ($21,070) and the up-level 2.5XS ($22,895). (Suggested retail prices include destination charges.) The two models share basic equipment and drivetrains, but the XS offers additional comfort and safety features.

All Foresters come with Subaru's all-wheel-drive system, horizontally opposed 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and upgraded suspension components.

Both the 2.5 X and the 2.5 XS are available with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. The transmissions operate with two different all-wheel-drive systems: Manual transmissions use what Subaru calls Continuous All-Wheel Drive; automatic transmissions use Active All-Wheel Drive.

New standard features include a 100-watt stereo with CD player, remote keyless entry system, 16-inch sport wheels and variable intermittent windshield wipers. Upgraded standard safety features include a dual-stage deployment front passenger airbag, front-seat head/chest side-impact airbags, active front-seat head restraints, and pretensioners and force limiters on the front seatbelts. Standard on both models is a four-channel, four-sensor antilock brake system (ABS).

2.5 XS adds automatic climate control, Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), Gray Metallic finish lower body cladding, a six-disc CD changer and tricot sun visors. An optional XS Premium Package includes monotone exterior trim and body cladding, a power moonroof and optional leather upholstery with automatic transmission models. An All-Weather Package is also available.


Subaru Forester has undergone a headlamp-to-tailpipe upgrade for the 2003 model year. It was redesigned two years ago (for 2001) with a more streamlined look than its boxy predecessor.

In front, a large grille and contoured headlights cap a smooth bumper cover with integrated fog lights. A sculpted new aluminum hood improves sightlines for the driver, while reducing weight for improved handling.

The rear is significantly changed, with a unique hexagonal rear gate framed by triangular taillights and blister type rear quarter panels. The rear gate opening size is increased to aid with stowage of gear, and the effort it takes to close the gate has been reduced by 30 percent. Textured gray body cladding encases the lower third of base 2.5X versions. The cladding is a contrasting steel gray metallic on 2.5XS models, which come with larger gray metallic foldable, heated exterior mirrors. Bumpers have been designed to absorb impact up to 5 mph for reduced damage during parking lot dings.

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Forester has a bevy of available factory-installed accessories that add to its versatility. A supporter of Tread Lightly! and the official vehicle of groups like the American Canoe Association, Gary Fisher Bicycle Components, and the Professional Ski Instructors of America, Subaru offers components for carrying bikes, skis, kayaks and canoes on top of standard roof rails. A trailer harness connector comes standard.

Interior Features

In both trim levels, the new Forester adds increased comfort and functionality. A high seating point and adjustable driver's seat are aimed at improving visibility, with improved front seat bolstering and additional for/aft adjustment that increases seat travel. The driver's seat has increased height adjustment and the range of the tilt-adjustable steering column has been improved, as well. Back seat passengers get more leg and head room, with no reduction of cargo volume.

Remote keyless entry is standard. Also new are a 100-watt weatherband AM/FM/CD stereo, a motorcycle-style instrument cluster (shared with the Impreza series), a passenger-side stowage compartment, dual visor vanity mirrors with lids, dual sunglasses storage compartments, illuminated window switches on all doors, a rear window deicer and a remote release fuel door. Wiper blades are now larger, as is the swipe area to improve visibility in inclement weather. The inside rear view mirror is larger for improved visibility to the rear. And the rear wiper now wipes the high-mount stop lamp to keep it clear and more visible in bad weather.

New passive safety features include active front seat head restraints and assist grips for all seating positions. A middle rear seat headrest tucks in for improved driver visibility. Three-point safety belts are standard for all five seats. Child-seat tether anchors are included.

Forester's cargo area is average at 32.0 cubic feet but expands to 63.1 cubic feet with the rear seat folded down. Two 12-volt outlets are included, in the front cabin and the stowage area, and tie-downs for gear and groceries are standard. Additional stowage areas are provided in the center console. Power windows and locks are standard, as is a full-size spare tire.

The higher-end XS adds leather accents and a six-disc CD changer.

Driving Impressions

Not long ago, the notion of driving an SUV or crossover vehicle on a race track was preposterous or, at the very least, boring. But, today, with so much competition in this segment of the market, some manufacturers have taken to the racetrack to show their vehicle's sporty performance and handling characteristics in a safe environment. Such was the case with Subaru, wanting to assure our test drivers that its newest Forester model has improved performance that this Japanese manufacturer hopes will bump it up a class in its segment, and also align it more with other performance models such as the BMW X5 and the still-to-come Porsche Cayenne. Bumped up it is, but not in the league of these more sophisticated (and more costly) models.

Putting the Forester to the test at Talladega, a superspeedway outside Birmingham, Alabama, I approached the five-story banking with caution and excitement. Easing the Subaru Forester's throttle on to full power, I climbed to the top of the 33-degree grade and was quickly traveling at a speed of 100 mph. Level ground was a long way away and a sharp angle to my current path of travel, and looking down gave me a feeling of vertigo. However, the feedback that I got from this crossover SUV let me know that there was plenty of grip and good balance, and assured me that its speed and precarious perch were within reason in this controlled environment. It was quiet inside the Forester's cabin, which has a coefficient of drag improved by 10 percent, which means less wind noise and better fuel economy.

Next, I descended to the tarmac at the base of this famous raceway and navigated through a braking and lane-change exercise, a course set up to simulate emergency stopping and lane-change maneuvers.

The tires screeched as I slammed on the brakes and slid around sharp corners. The Forester maintained good directional stability, with little body roll (again a result of the placement of the engine) as I drove crisply through the snaking course. Four-channel, four-sensor anti-lock brakes with disc brakes in front and drum brakes in the rear are one of the Forester's primary safety features. Larger front brake rotors have been added to reduce stopping distances.

Here, I also found quick throttle response, as well as quick and easy gear shifts. Subaru's 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine delivers 165 horsepower at its peak, with an admirable 166 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Underneath the skin, Forester has a stronger, yet lighter, body structure, which helps reduce the weight of this year's model by almost 100 pounds. In theory, lighter is better because it results in better handling and shorter stopping distances. A rigid chassis is a key element to responsive handling and a quiet ride. Subaru also revised the suspension tuning for 2003.

Finally, I entered an area of the track where an obstacle course was set up with cement blocks to drive over. The Forester boasts an impressive 7.5-inches of ground clearance. Blocks of wood and other rough materials had been thrown down for us to drive on. The ride was surprisingly comfortable, a benefit of the Forester's upgraded suspension.

Following the track time, we took a 100-mile-long drive through the Talladega National Forest and the motorways surrounding the Birmingham area. Here, I found this crossover vehicle conjured up its passenger car roots and, thanks to its four-wheel independent suspension, gave a pleasant and responsive ride. Pluses were the all-new struts that help reduce noise, vibration, harshness, or NVH. Equal-length axle shafts help eliminate torque steer (when the steering pulls slightly to one side under power). Variable Gear Ratio rack-and-pinion steering means increased responsiveness, and a turning circle of 34.8 feet.

While offering sophisticated AWD and a bigger four-cylinder than most in the segment, the Forester also offers decent fuel economy; it gets 21 mpg in city driving, 27 mpg on the highway with the manual transmission, and the automatic transmission's economy is as good in both categories, at 21/26 city/highway.

As mentioned, manual transmissions come with Subaru's Continuous All-Wheel Drive, which employs a viscous coupling center differential that divides engine power 50/50 between the front and rear tires. That balance of power shifts to the front or rear tires when the system detects wheel slip, usually in wet or icy conditions.

Automatic transmissions come with Subaru's Active All-Wheel Drive, which employs a variable transfer clutch that is controlled electronically to deliver power where it is needed under slippage. The Active system also uses sensors to determine where the vehicle weight is transferred, delivering more power to the rear wheels under hard acceleration, for example, to eliminate front wheelspin.

Subaru has revived its Hill Holder clutch for easier starting on an incline for all manual transmission models. This unique and nifty feature is engaged when applying the brake and depressing the clutch on a hill. Release the brake while keeping the clutch fully depressed and it holds the car in place while you move your foot from the brake to the throttle.


The 2003 Subaru Forester has been greatly improved over last year's model, which was a capable, versatile vehicle. Neither the sexiest nor the most functional car on the dealer lot, the Forester matches Subaru engineering with the best features of the economy car, wagon, and SUV to make a vehicle that has the best of all worlds, but belongs to none. We appreciated the Premium Package with its leather interior trim and moonroof.

Model Line Overview

Model lineup: 2.5X ($21,070); 2.5XS ($22,895)
Engines: 2.5-liter inline-4
Transmissions: 4-speed automatic; 5-speed manual
Safety equipment (standard): ABS, height-adjustable front head restraints; 5-mph impact-absorbing bumpers; child seat safety tethers; daytime running lights, dual stage front airbags and front seat head and chest side airbags
Safety equipment (optional): N/A
Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in: Gunma, Japan

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): Subaru Forester 2.5 XS ($22,895)
Standard equipment: automatic climate control; sport design reclining front bucket seats with height-adjustable head restraints; driver's seat height and lumbar adjustments; 60/40 split fold-down rear seats; perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel, shifter handle and parking brake handle; rear seat headrest for all three seating positions; tilt-adjustable steering column; off-delay dome light; overhead console with dual sunglasses storage bin and dual map lights; 12-volt center console power outlet; upper dash storage pocket with lid and digital clock; four cup holders; power door locks; remote keyless entry system; power windows with driver's side one-touch auto-down feature; cruise control; AM/FM/Weatherband stereo with logic control cassette, 6-Disc in-dash CD changer and four speakers; in-glass antenna; cargo area: dual storage pockets, 3 under-floor storage compartments, under-floor storage bucket, 4 cargo tie-downs and 2 grocery bag hooks; cargo area cover; 12-volt cargo power outlet and cargo area light; All-Weather Package with dual-mode heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors, windshield wiper de-icer and a limited-slip rear differential
Options as tested (MSRP): Premium Package ($1,000) includes power moonroof, montone body color
Destination charge: ($525)
Gas guzzler tax: N/A
Price as tested (MSRP): $24,420
Layout: 4-wheel drive
Engine: 2.5-liter inline-4
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 165 @ 5600
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): 166 @ 4000
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 21/27 mpg
Wheelbase: 99.4 in.
Length/width/height: 175.2/68.1/62.6 in.
Track, f/r: 58.9/58.5 in.
Turning circle: 34.8 ft.
Seating capacity: N/A
Head/hip/leg room, f: 39.0/51.6/43.7 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m: N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r: 37.0/51.6/33.7 in.
Trunk volume: 62.7 cu. ft.
Payload: N/A
Towing capacity: 2,000 Lbs.
Suspension, f: struts with internal rebound springs, lower L-arms, liquid-filled L-arm brushings, coil springs and stabilizer bar
Suspension, r: struts with internal rebound springs, trailing arms, twin parallel links, coil springs and stabilizer bar
Ground clearance: 7.5 in.
Curb weight: 3185 lbs.
Tires: 215/60HR16 Yokohama Geolander G900 RWL M+S all-season
Brakes, f/r: disc/disc with EBD and 4-channel 4-sensor ABS
Fuel capacity: 15.9 gal.

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of June 27, 2002.
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-WANT-AWD - www.subaru.com

Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive, Inc.


This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2003 Subaru Forester - Autotrader