Let the "look-at-me" crowd buy the big, hulking sport-utility vehicles adorned with lots of chrome. Let them hoist themselves up to get inside.
Sensible folks who don't need to be the center of attention and don't need a mini-workout each morning in the driveway will find plenty to like in Subaru's Forester, which was redesigned for 2003.
This second-generation Forester didn't generate attention during my test drive. Other drivers didn't seem to notice the new styling that makes this Forester look less like a station wagon and more like an SUV.
With new standard features, a new Hill Holder clutch and dressed-up interior, the 2003 Forester just continues to build on its already exemplary reputation as a durable, smartly sized SUV with a car-like ride.
Best of all, the Forester's pricing remains reasonable, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price close to $21,000.
To be sure, the Forester, with standard all-wheel drive and heavy-duty raised suspension, doesn't tower over other vehicles like some SUVs. I could see through and around many cars, but vans, trucks and other SUVs still blocked my view.
Nonetheless, the tester, the upscale 2003 Forester 2.5 XS, maneuvered with ease in city traffic.
Shorter in overall length than Saturn's VUE small SUV as well as Honda's CR-V, it slipped into compact parking spaces in the city without fuss.
The turning circle is just 34.8 feet vs. 38 feet in the VUE, but the CR-V's turning circle is a bit less, 33.8 feet.
Easy to ride in
The Forester's ride is comfortable; front seats include a bit more bolstering than they did in the 2002 model year.
At 5 feet 4 inches tall, I didn't have to squeeze down into the Forester or climb up to get inside. Door openings, front and rear, are accommodating even for bodies that aren't as flexible as they once were.
Both front- and rear-seat legroom is improved from the 2002 model. In fact, the 43.7 inches of front legroom in the 2003 Forester tops the 41.3 inches that's in the VUE and CR-V.
Riders in the Forester do hear road noise nearly all the time, though, and engine sounds come through during acceleration.
Wind noise is reduced from the predecessor model, but if you get Subaru's wonderfully huge, optional moonroof, you'll get wind noise from the roof rack crossbars.
One engine, for now
For 2003 Subaru retains the Forester's 2.5-liter single overhead cam horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. It's the only engine available and generates the same 165 horses as before, and the same 66 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
Mated to a five-speed manual transmission in the test Forester, the engine had enough to provide good power in many situations, such as when I was pulling out of parking lots.
However, I had to downshift at highway speeds on the interstate to get enough zip to pass slower cars with efficiency. Otherwise, the Forester would pass others at a pokey pace.
This will be rectified, I suspect, when Subaru adds a 210-horsepower turbocharged and intercooled 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine to the Forester line and calls the new model the Forester 2.5 XT. It's due in showrooms in summer of 2003.
Handy Hill Holder
The Forester's five-speed manual felt notchy, but includes a new feature this year called Hill Holder. Used in earlier Subarus, Hill Holder helps keep the Forester stopped on hills and makes hillside start-ups easier.
Basically, once the clutch and brake have been engaged fully at a hilly stop, the driver can step off the brake pedal — keeping the clutch in — without fear of rolling backward. Hill Holder releases as the driver lifts up on the clutch pedal.
This is a nice solution for drivers who fret about whether they can be quick enough with the pedals on hilly streets.
I felt slight road vibrations as I traveled. On severe road bumps, the vibrations were greater and there was an unsettling "ba-boom" sound.
The Forester's interior is nicely updated. Fabric seats had a jazzier pattern than I expected. Even the carpet looks plusher in the 2003 Forester, and window buttons are now illuminated at night.