Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
With so-called "crossover" sport-utility vehicles all the rage, nearly every manufacturer in America is scrambling to churn out its version of the ultimate sedan/sport-ute/station wagon combo. Too bad Subaru already beat them to the punch five years ago.
That's when the original Forester debuted. With a tall roomy cabin, elevated driving position and full-time all-wheel drive, the Forester was a crossover utility vehicle before there was such a thing.
Fully redesigned for 2003, the Forester brings back all the things that made it popular the first time around, while adding new features and a fresh look in hopes of keeping all those newcomers on the scene at bay.
The 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine from the previous model carries over unchanged. With 165 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque, it provides adequate, if not thrilling, performance. After our short test drive, we would definitely recommend sticking with the standard five-speed manual transmission, as it makes the most of the engine's wide powerband. When asked why the Forester can't be equipped with the 3.0-liter six-cylinder from the larger Outback model, Subaru officials said that they wanted to maintain the Forester's nimble handling characteristics, a trait that would be compromised by the heavier engine.
Like all Subarus, the Forester comes standard with full-time all-wheel drive. Models equipped with the manual transmission use a continuous system that splits power 50/50 front to rear, while automatic-equipped Foresters get Active All-Wheel Drive that monitors available traction and transfers power accordingly. The suspension design remains the same, giving the Forester a generous 7.5 inches of ground clearance, although retuned struts and a slightly wider rear track have been incorporated to refine the ride quality and handling further.
Larger front brake rotors have been fitted to all models, while higher-line versions get rear discs and a new Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD) system. ABS is standard across the board. Subaru also concentrated on improved brake feel, something sorely lacking in the previous models. Returning for the first time in years is Subaru's innovative Hill Holder feature. Should you have to stop while climbing a hill, this ingenious system automatically holds the parking brake down, allowing you to concentrate on working the clutch. We tried it, and it worked perfectly, causing us to wonder why every manual-equipped car on the market doesn't offer this useful feature.
We also put the Forester's retuned suspension to the test on a controlled test track. It was, for the most part, stable and predictable even when pushed beyond its modest limits. The steering is a bit vague at speed, and the soft suspension tuning results in noticeable body roll, but for day-to-day driving, it's comfortable and controllable enough to be on par with the best-handling compact SUVs on the market. The beefed-up brakes were noticeably better than those found on previous models, with no noticeable fade and a good, solid pedal feel.
On the inside, the vehicle's dimensions remain relatively unchanged, although some skillful repackaging within the cabin results in slightly more passenger room. The driver seat gets simplified controls that allow for a greater range of adjustment both fore and aft and up and down. Active head restraints have also been added as standard equipment along with side impact airbags and a dual-stage front passenger airbag. Rear seat passengers get a slight increase in leg and foot room, but the rear quarters are still a little tight. Rear cargo room with the seats folded measures 64.1 cubic feet, just a cubic foot shy of the Ford Escape.
The Forester will be available in two trims levels: 2.5 X and 2.5 XS. The 2.5 X comes with the usual array of standard features like power windows, locks and mirrors; air conditioning; cruise control and tilt steering. But there are also 16-inch wheels and tires, a 100-watt AM/FM/weatherband CD stereo, remote keyless entry and the aforementioned front and side airbags for both the driver and front passenger.
Uplevel 2.5 XS models have automatic climate control; aluminum alloy wheels; a six-disc in-dash CD changer; a leather-wrapped steering wheel, shifter and parking brake; chrome door handles; and upgraded interior upholstery and carpet. Optional equipment includes a cold weather package with a limited-slip differential and heated seats, mirrors and windshield wipers. A Premium package that adds a monotone paint scheme, power sunroof and leather-trimmed upholstery on models equipped with the automatic transmission.
The overall look and feel of the interior has been improved a notch, but it's still more utilitarian than luxurious. Most of the materials are of respectable quality, but some of the plastic trim pieces still look cheap. Practical upgrades include cupholders that now reside in the center console rather than the dash, net-type door pockets for holding odd-sized belongings, an illuminated ignition switch and three easy-to-use dial climate controls.
There's much to like about the Forester. Sure, we would always like a little more power, but for a vehicle of this type, gut-wrenching acceleration isn't really necessary. The material upgrades yield a much more pleasant interior environment, and the exterior revisions do an admirable job of smoothing out the exterior lines. As an alternative to your average mini SUV, it presents a compelling case. It handles better, it's easier to maneuver, it's easier to get in and out of, and it has full-time all-wheel drive with plenty of ground clearance. If these are the things that are important to you, don't miss checking out the second generation of Subaru's "next big thing" when it hits dealers in May 2002.
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