2003 Subaru Forester Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Subaru Forester SUV

(2.5L 4-cyl. AWD 5-speed Manual)

I've never done well in those contests that ask you to guess how many items are in a particular container. Such as, "How many gumballs are in this giant globe?" Or "How many politicians in Congress are scummy?" I dunno, a lot?

So how many mini-SUVs are being sold today? Ah-hah. Easy. Thanks to the Edmunds.com Web site, I can say with fair confidence that there are 13 different vehicles for 2003. Now all you have to do is pick one.

Easier said than done. Within this group of 13, there are two distinct subgroups. The first is the truck-based SUVs, with examples being the Nissan Xterra and Jeep Liberty. They are tough off-road but not as comfortable on city streets. The other, and more popular, group consists of the car-based crossover-style SUVs like the Honda CR-V, Saturn Vue and Toyota RAV4. Since 1998, the Subaru Forester has been a part of this second category.

Though not hugely popular, the Forester has been a success for Subaru. Our road test in 1998 wasn't all that favorable, commenting that, "The Forester is less attractive, less spacious, feels slower and rolls more in corners than the Legacy Outback. It also isn't nearly as much fun to drive as the Impreza Outback Sport." We concluded, however, Subaru did not design the Forester to cannibalize Impreza and Legacy Outback sales. Rather, "[the Forester was] designed to supplement them; to give SUV buyers the blocky box and big chrome grille they want, coupled with car-like handling, performance and user-friendliness. If you can get past certain styling elements, Subaru has accomplished the job."

The all-new 2003 Forester is significantly updated. As we reported in our first drive, the Forester has made strides in value, comfort, refinement and driving dynamics. Many of its mechanical components are similar to those of the Impreza Outback Sport, though it does offer more hardened styling, additional interior room, more ground clearance and more features.

We obtained two 2003 Subaru Foresters for evaluation. The first was a blue 2.5 XS with an automatic transmission, while the second was a red 2.5 XS with the Premium package and a manual transmission. Over the course of two weeks, we subjected the pair to city driving, long-distance highway travel, runs to home-improvement stores and light-duty off-roading.

Previous Subarus had a reputation for rather chintzy interiors, but the new Forester is a welcome departure. With the beige-colored interior, in particular, the Forester reminds us of highly regarded VW products like the Golf and Jetta. The instrument panel is symmetrical and modern looking, and the gauge cluster — straight out of the Impreza — features large and easy-to-read white-on-black gauges. Automatic transmission-equipped vehicles feature a helpful in-dash gear indicator. Another welcome improvement is the location of the clock, which is now mounted near the top of the dash.

The Forester's interior materials are better than average for this class, with an ample supply of soft-touch surfaces and attractive silver metallic trim for the center stack. Foresters in XS trim are more upscale than those in X trim, as they include upgraded upholstery and carpeting and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Should you want leather, it's available via the optional Premium package (on automatic transmission-equipped vehicles only, however).

The climate system is now controlled through three dials. Their operation is unusual in that the dials click in single steps rather than rotating completely. XS models have an automatic mode, as well. We found the three-dial design to work quite well. One editor noted, however, that the climate system, when placed in automatic mode, blew out air for excessively long periods of time even when it was obvious that the cabin had reached the desired temperature.

In terms of features, the Forester comes standard with items like 16-inch tires and wheels; a remote-release fuel door; three power points; a full-size spare tire; power windows, mirrors and locks; and keyless entry. In XS trim, the Forester also comes with alloy wheels, an in-dash six-disc CD changer, the aforementioned auto climate system and rear disc brakes with EBD. For safety, there are front seatbelt pre-tensioners and load limiters, three-point seatbelts for all passengers, antilock brakes, head- and chest-protecting side airbags for front passengers and front whiplash-reducing head restraints. If you want additional items, there's a host of them available, ranging from a cold-weather package to a kayak carrier. Watch the bottom line, though; our automatic-equipped Forester came in at more than $24,000, and that's lightly equipped.

We expect vehicles of this type to offer interior storage and cargo abilities above and beyond the average sedan or four-door hatchback. In this regard, the Forester only partially succeeds. The front door pockets and slots on the sunvisors are useful, but the center console's bin is small and there's no console-mounted cubby for loose and frequently accessed items like a cell phone. Perhaps Subaru thought the lidded and lined compartment on the top of the dash would suffice, but it's too inconvenient in that regard.

The rear cargo area fairs better. The rear liftgate is easy to raise, and it reveals 32 cubic feet of volume with the rear seats up. For reference, the Toyota RAV4 offers 29.2 cubic feet and the Honda CR-V holds 33.5. All Foresters get a cargo shade, a power point, two rear storage bins and three extra storage areas underneath the floor. The floor's lift-over height is low, and there are also two cargo tie-downs and two grocery-bag hooks. Owners should find these features useful for outdoor adventures, as well as more mundane shopping trips.

To carry larger items, the Forester's rear seats easily fold flat (the rear headrests don't have to be removed) to increase maximum capacity to 64.1 cubic feet. This is shy of most other vehicles in this class (the CR-V offers 72 cubic feet, for instance), but the shortage shouldn't be an issue for most uses. An adjustable roof rack is standard.

Most of us found the front seats to be comfortable. The driver seat is manually operated and it offers adjustable lumbar support. There's no standard center armrest for the driver, however. On the plus side, outward visibility is excellent. The liftgate's glass area is large, and the rear seat's center position has a small headrest and a shoulder belt that folds up into the headliner when not in use.

Rear passengers are obviously second-class citizens in the Forester. Rear legroom (33.7 inches) is adequate, but plenty of other vehicles in this class offer more. Our editors found that, while there was plenty of toe room, thigh support was lacking. Children should be fine in the backseat, but adults will likely find it to be uncomfortable over long durations of time. A rear-seat child seat anchor system is new; the anchor points are mounted on the headliner to reduce the chance of having the tethers interfering with loaded cargo (though this setup could hamper rear visibility). One other nice touch is the very large sunroof that is available as part of the optional premium package. Note, however, that it does reduce the rear headroom by almost 3 inches.

Once moving, the Forester offers up a pleasant and satisfying driving experience. Wind and road noise are average for the class. The only engine offered is a carry-over from the previous model, a 2.5-liter flat four. It's also now the entry-level engine for Subaru's entire lineup. It makes 165 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 166 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. It lacks some of the more advanced engine technologies that are becoming popular (such as variable valve timing), but its power output is equal to or better than other four-cylinder engines offered in this class. The EPA rates the automatic-equipped Forester at 21 city/26 highway. We averaged 22 mpg in combined (and fairly aggressive) driving.

If you really want power, though, V6-equipped SUVs like the Ford Escape (and its twin, the Mazda Tribute) or Saturn Vue offer more. Tow capacity when fitted with a Class I hitch is 2,400 pounds on manual-equipped Foresters or 2,000 pounds for those with automatics. Subaru offers an Impreza WRX engine (about 225 hp) in European-bound Foresters, but no word as to whether it will be offered here in the future.

To its advantage, the Forester weighs less than most of its competition. During our performance testing, the automatic-equipped Forester went from 0 to 60 mph in 9.9 seconds. The manual car was a bit faster at 9.4 seconds. The 200-hp V6-equipped Ford Escape is generally considered the jackrabbit of this class, and the last time we tested it, it did the 0-to-60-mph sprint in 9.3 seconds. We've also test a manual-equipped Honda CR-V; it did 0-to-60 in 8.7 seconds.

Other than the acceleration times, we noticed little difference between the two Foresters. As with all Subaru products, all-wheel drive is standard equipment. There is a slight difference as to the type of AWD system depending on what type of transmission the vehicle comes with. A mechanical all-wheel-drive system is offered on manual-equipped cars, and a more advanced electronically controlled system comes with the automatic transmission. During normal driving, we couldn't detect a difference between the two.

The automatic will likely be the choice for most buyers, though the return of the Hill Holder feature makes the choice of the manual a bit easier for those living in San Francisco. This useful system automatically holds the brakes down should the driver have to stop while climbing a hill. If the driver takes her foot off the brake pedal, the Forester will stay pat. This allows her to work the clutch and throttle without having to worry about rolling backwards. The brakes release automatically when forward motion is achieved. In general, it works well. But in some situations, we found the Hill Holder to be an annoyance. In particular, there were times we wanted to roll backwards, such as when parallel parking on a slight grade, or when needing to roll back down a steep hill when off-roading.

Why would you want to roll backwards when off-roading? How about when the Forester is stuck and forward progress is no longer possible? This happened to us when taking the manual-equipped Forester into the dirt. Make no mistake; this isn't a Jeep Wrangler, or even a Nissan Xterra. Compared to other car-based SUVs, though, the Forester's in-the-dirt capabilities are pretty similar. Ground clearance is 7.5 inches. The suspension's tuning isn't particularly soft, and consequently, the Forester's ride quality can be jarring when driving on harsh trails. But if you just need access to trailheads or camping spots, the Forester will do just fine.

On city streets, the Forester shines. Subaru notes that suspension design (MacPherson struts at all four corners) is similar to the previous Forester's but has been considerably improved to reduce body roll and refine the ride quality. The '03 Forester feels balanced, composed and never top-heavy. Driving quickly around corners is actually enjoyable because of excellent grip and a decent amount of road feel; one can tell the Forester has taken cues from the new Impreza platform. The steering is light and accurate with progressive weighting — this is certainly one of the most fun-to-drive mini-utes on the market.

But is that enough to solidify a Forester purchase? If all you want is a fun-to-drive car with some cargo room, an Impreza TS Sport Wagon would be a better choice. Similarly, a Legacy Wagon GT has more versatility, though it's not as capable off-road. So what we're left with is a conclusion that sounds similar to the one in our '98 road test. The Forester is an attractive package that does a decent job of everything. It's better than most mini-utes and certainly worth taking for a test drive. But if you want a vehicle that specializes in a particular field — whether it's performance, cargo room or off-road ability — you'll want to consider a few others before the Forester.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 8

Components: The Forester XS comes standard with a six-disc changer and tape deck in the dash and four door-mounted speakers. The X trim comes with a single disc player and the same full-range drivers. The test vehicle was equipped with all of the audio upgrades available from Subaru: two tweeters in the side mirror patches, a small subwoofer under the front passenger seat and upgraded door speakers.

Performance: The head unit is easy to use, quickly loads discs and has a unique twist-knob for scanning songs or skipping to the next track. The inclusion of a tape player is unusual for a six-disc head unit. The upgraded door speakers deliver strong vocals and midrange tones, but the real improvements come with the additional speakers. Tweeters in the sail panels bring a whole new dimension to the standard sound system by providing crisp highs and dramatically enhancing the soundstage. The stealthy subwoofer is completely hidden under the front passenger seat and pumps out quite a bit of rump-rattling bass. Unfortunately, the small driver often sounds boomy and has some trouble with ultra-low basslines.

Best Feature: One of the best factory six-disc in-dash changers around.

Worst Feature: Only four speakers come standard.

Conclusion: A great head unit and three upgrades turn Subaru's mediocre stock stereo into a real performer. — Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
I've come to enjoy the boxer four that Subaru now uses as the entry-level engine for every model in its lineup — it makes interesting sounds and it likes to rev, which is OK in vehicles with manual transmissions. But this doesn't work out so well with the automatic, which is loath to allow the needle much past the halfway point on the tach — if only Subaru would expand the use of the sportshift capability coming soon only to the automatic-equipped '03 Legacy GT. So acceleration isn't effortless, but the Forester will happily accompany you onto remote two-lane roads (or sandy trails), aided by a firm suspension that suppresses body roll as well as any mini-ute underpinnings might be expected to.

I would speculate that class-leading build quality and reliability are important to most Subaru buyers, so it might come down to a decision between the Forester and the CR-V (and possibly the Toyota RAV4) for a prospective buyer. And at that point, it would be hard for me to ignore the Honda's more flexible rear seat, superior engine performance and lower sticker price — even at the expense of the fun I would have with the Subaru.

Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick says:
Since Subaru introduced the Forester in 1998, it's become one of my favorite small utility vehicles. Its combination of size, safety and unassuming good looks just seem to fit my day-to-day needs perfectly. And after driving the new and improved 2003 version, I find it every bit as appealing as the first iteration.

I like the fact that it sits up high enough to offer a good view of the road ahead, but it doesn't force you to climb up into the driver seat or request a hand in climbing out. I prefer fewer trips to the gas station over raw power, so the Forester's standard four-cylinder engine suits me fine. As a mother of a small child, I find the Forester's lower stance much more convenient than most other mini-utes. Getting an awkward stroller in back is much easier with the Forester's lower load floor, and getting a child seat secured safely didn't require quite as much of a stretch. When I consider these factors along with the Forester's excellent crash test scores and standard all-wheel drive, I can' t help but wonder why anyone would need much else.

Consumer Commentary

The Forester X is a great value in terms of price, safety, and reliability. ABS and AWD are standard, and it has received good scores in all the crash tests. The driving position is great, even for short people like myself, and visibility is excellent. Handling is agile and stable, even when braking while turning hard. Lots of fun on dirt roads! I have no complaints. The only thing that could make this a better vehicle is to add a little more horsepower.AMGreer, July 03, 2002

We looked at several small SUV's including Santa Fe, Escape, Saturn Vue and Honda CRV. We didn't like the feel of the CRV, especially its dash-mounted shifter. We were unsure of the reliability and fuel economy of the others. We test-drove a 2002 Forester and the driving position was unsatisfactory for my wife, who is 5-feet tall. The 2003 Forester solved all the problems we had with the 2002 model. The dealer gave us a good discount, considering it was the first 2003 he sold. We hope this vehicle is going to be low-cost of ownership. — lykamitchell, June 21, 2002

I bought an '03 Forester X for my wife. So far, we're very happy (only 700 miles so far). Build quality and fit/finish are very good. Handling is excellent. The interior is not plush but firm and supportive. Visibility is excellent. The controls are easy to operate. Wind noise is acceptable. The auto tranny shifts smoothly. The ride is decent for a 99-inch wheelbase. So far, it's an awesome little crossover vehicle. The Forester appears to be what it presumes to be. Ace57, June 13, 2002

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