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.
2003 Subaru Forester Overview Edmunds experts have compiled a robust series of ratings and reviews for the 2003 Subaru Forester and all model years in our database. Our rich content includes expert reviews and recommendations for the 2003 Forester featuring deep dives into trim levels and features, performance, mpg, safety, interior, and driving. Edmunds also offers expert ratings, road test and performance data, long-term road tests, first-drive reviews, video reviews and more.
Our Review Process This review was written by a member of Edmunds' editorial team of expert car reviewers. Our team drives every car you can buy. We put the vehicles through rigorous testing, evaluating how they drive and comparing them in detail to their competitors.
We're also regular people like you, so we pay attention to all the different ways people use their cars every day. We want to know if there's enough room for our families and our weekend gear and whether or not our favorite drink fits in the cupholder. Our editors want to help you make the best decision on a car that fits your life.
Consumer ratings and reviews are also available for the 2003 Subaru Forester and all its trim types. Overall, Edmunds users rate the 2003 Forester 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. Edmunds consumer reviews allow users to sift through aggregated consumer reviews to understand what other drivers are saying about any vehicle in our database. Detailed rating breakdowns (including performance, comfort, value, interior, exterior design, build quality, and reliability) are available as well to provide shoppers with a comprehensive understanding of why customers like the 2003 Forester.
Review I absolutely love my 2003 subaru forester. It has never left me stranded and has required the least amount of repairs of any car I've owned. The only repairs that I've done on it are wear out parts like brakes and rotors. I've recently (105,000k) had the timing belt, water pump, and most of the fluids replaced just as a pre-emtive strike to keeping this vehicle running as best it can well into the 100k's.
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Available Subaru Forester 2003 Submodel Types: SUV, Wagon