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Buying a Used Subaru Forester: Everything You Need to Know

The Subaru Forester was one of the first compact crossovers to gain acceptance with the general car-buying public. With its tall roof, roomy interior, and standard all-wheel-drive system, the Forester has remained a family favorite. Toss in Subaru’s excellent resale values, good fuel economy, top-rate safety and crash test scores plus a reasonable price, and it’s no wonder the Forester remains a top seller.

While early models competed head-on with competitors such as the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, and the Ford Escape, newer versions such as the turbocharged XT trim are often compared with more expensive performance crossovers like the Volvo XC40, the BMW X3, and the Acura RDX. Though the Forester has grown larger over the years, it’s never lost sight of its core audience, which is why it makes such a great used car choice.

1st Generation (1998-2002)

Built using the popular Impreza sedan platform, the first Forester stood out for its high roof, tall side glass, and additional ground clearance. Where the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4 were front-wheel-drive models with the option of AWD, the latter came standard on every Forester, making it a favorite of those living in places where snow is the norm. The standard engine was a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed flat-four (the cylinders lay on their sides rather than upright as in a V or in-line configuration).

This design allowed for a very low center of gravity, which in turn exempted the Forester from having to carry a government-mandated rollover warning sticker. Horsepower was a respectable 165, and buyers had the option of a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic. Fuel economy hovered around 30 miles per gallon.

Subaru Forester L

More upscale in appearance and content than the RAV4 or the CR-V, the Forester L included air conditioning, power windows, cruise control, anti-lock brakes, fog lights, and a cassette deck, while the S trim added heated windshield wipers, heated side mirrors, and heated seats, as well as a limited-slip rear differential, 4-wheel disc brakes, 16-in alloy wheels, and a 6-disc CD player. The Forester received a modest face-lift in 2000, and in 2001 a new S Premium trim was added to the lineup.

For the most part, these cars were very durable and didn’t give owners many issues, aside from the well-documented cases of blown head gaskets occurring around 100,000 miles. Also problematic over time are the frameless windows that allow water and wind to leak into the car. If you end up having to replace the head gaskets, to do it right, the repair will run about $2,000-$3,000, but that should buy you another 100,000 or more, providing the rest of the engine is in good shape. It’s also worth noting in areas that use lots of road salt, rust issues around the rear suspension and behind the plastic body cladding can be problematic. Find a 1st Generation Subaru Forester for sale

2nd Generation (2003-2008)

The 2003 redesign didn’t really change much. The tall greenhouse was still there, as was the boxy appearance. Seating for five also remained, with generous cargo space behind the rear seat. Most of the Forester’s improvements happened under the skin. More use of aluminum helped reduce weight, while new safety features included standard front side-impact airbags. Oh, and if you like big moonroofs, this generation’s got a really big moonroof. The Forester aced every crash test and quickly earned a reputation as a safe, sensible crossover that could tackle light off-road situations.

It was also a champ in the snow. In 2004, the XT trim was introduced, bringing with it a 224-hp turbocharged 2.5-liter engine. These models are easily spotted thanks to their larger wheel/tire setup and big hood scoop. Performance fans will be thrilled to know this engine and turbocharger can be upgraded with parts from the WRX STI. In 2005, the Forester L.L Bean edition arrived featuring an auto-leveling rear suspension, 2-tone paint, and unique leather seats, but by 2008, the auto-leveling suspension was gone.

Like the first-generation Forester, this one also suffered from head gasket issues. During this time, all of the 2.5-liter engines used a rubber timing belt as opposed to a chain. It is very important to remember to change this belt every 100,000 miles. Failure to do so could result in the belt breaking while the engine is running, resulting in catastrophic engine failure. While most owners report loving this generation Forester, some common complaints revolve around early versions of the VDC automatic transmission, long-term seat comfort, rear-seat legroom, and poor sounding stereos (that last one is easily remedied). Find a 2nd Generation Subaru Forester for sale

3rd Generation (2009-2013)

With the release of the third-generation Subaru Forester, the boxy, upright wagon was jettisoned in favor of a more traditional crossover SUV design. Larger in every dimension, the 2009 Forester included a more accommodating rear seat, a larger cargo bay, improved ride and handling, and 8.7 inches of ground clearance. Inside, the Forester featured new options such as steering-wheel audio controls, Bluetooth-enabled navigation radio, and a premium sound system. It also offered excellent all-around visibility thanks to thin A and D-pillars combined with tall side glass.

Along with six standard airbags, the Forester gained Vehicle Dynamic Control, which is Subaru speak for electronic traction and stability control. The panoramic moonroof returned, as did the L.L. Bean trim but only for a few months in 2009, after which it became known as the Limited. The standard engine remained a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder matched to either a 5-speed manual with incline start assist or a new 4-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

The XT retained its 224-hp 2.5-liter turbocharged engine but could only be attached to the 4-speed automatic. In 2011, the Forester got a major upgrade to its 2.5-liter engine, that being a proper metal timing chain in place of the previous engine’s rubber timing belt. 2011 Foresters also got some new features such as a rear backup camera, Tom-Tom navigation, and, on Touring trims, HID headlights.

While this generation also excelled in owner satisfaction, some did complain about the ridiculously low passenger seat that lacked height adjustment. Other issues include the infamous head gasket failure (although not as common after 2012), weak brakes, excessive oil consumption, tiny buttons on the steering wheel and radio, and a lot of squeaking and creaking from the dash and door panels. Potential buyers should also note that the same model year Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Chevrolet Equinox offer larger interiors and more cargo space. Find a 3rd Generation Subaru Forester for sale

4th Generation (20142018)

The 2014 Forester took a big leap forward, bringing a larger interior, improved ergonomics, and vastly better fuel economy. The styling is more aggressive, and the seating position for both driver and passenger much higher than in the previous Forester. The standard engine remained a 170-hp 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, with a new 250-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged engine replacing the previous 2.5-liter engine in the XT trim.

The big news for this generation was the addition of a CVT automatic that drastically improved fuel economy, earning an estimated 31-mpg highway for the non-turbo models. A 6-speed manual was offered on the base and Premium trim, but sadly not on the turbocharged XT. As a fig leaf to performance fans, the XT was equipped with the Si Drive automatic from the WRX, featuring paddle shifters and simulated stepped shift points.

The fourth-generation Forester drives and handles better than the previous generation, and the later version featured more updated options such as the EyeSight collision avoidance system, a Harman/Kardon audio upgrade, HID headlights, and keyless entry with push-button start. Early customer complaints include excessive oil consumption, poor Bluetooth connectivity for cell phones, and a rear hatch that doesn’t open high enough to accommodate people over six feet tall. Find a 4th Generation Subaru Forester for sale

5th Generation (2019-Present)

The Subaru Forester was fully redesigned for 2019. Its dimensions remain similar to a more mainstream compact crossover, but it retains its quirky character and off-road chops. Of course, all-wheel drive is still standard on every model. The sole engine option is a naturally aspirated flat-four, which has been called underpowered, but it’s pretty good on gas. The 5th generation Forester is well-equipped with a nice list of standard features, which includes a 6.5-inch infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, automatic climate control, LED headlights, and more.

This generation of the Forester can get pretty nice as you work your way up the model range. The mid-range Premium trim adds hill-descent control and a power moonroof while going all the way up to the Touring model adds leather seats, an 8-inch touchscreen with navigation, premium audio, a heated steering wheel, and more safety tech. Since the 5th generation Forester is still pretty new, expect to find used examples around the $20,000 mark. Find a 4th Generation Subaru Forester for sale

Which Subaru Forester Is Right For Me?

If your used car budget is hovering in the $5,000 to $8,500 range, we’d hunt down a well-maintained second-generation 2003-2008 Subaru Forester. The boxy design offers great visibility, and the turbocharged XT with the manual transmission is a blast to drive. Even a standard non-turbo model makes an enjoyable used vehicle, with numerous luxury features like heated leather seats, a panoramic sunroof, and heated windshield wipers. You’ll likely want to update the audio with a more modern system featuring Bluetooth, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay. Just remember the head gasket issues and be sure to get a full repair history for the car, if possible.

Those seeking to spend a bit more should jump to the fifth-generation Forester, preferably a 2016 or newer, as these models don’t suffer the oil consumption issues that plagued some 2014 and 2015 models. The big interior, good fuel economy, and available turbocharged engine make this a very practical SUV, and the excellent safety and crash test scores plus high resale values don’t hurt either.

If you go with a model older than six years, a private party sale may be advantageous both for the ability to negotiate a better price and the possibility that the owner kept meticulous repair and maintenance records. A car only a few years old might be better bought from a dealer that can provide an inspection as well as some type of warranty. Find a Subaru Forester for sale

Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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