Used 2003 Subaru Forester Review

Updated and improved, the new Forester is worth checking out for consumers looking for a versatile compact SUV.

what's new

Subaru's well-regarded Forester crossover sport-ute has been completely redesigned to be an even more enjoyable addition to your family. Engineers have given the tall wagon more interior room, a stiffer body structure, a revised chassis and more standard feature content -- all while keeping exterior dimensions the same and reducing the curb weight by 90 pounds.

vehicle overview

Introduction: 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 more refined styling of the 2003 Forester is identified by a larger, more pronounced grille, contoured multi-reflector halogen headlights and a contoured bumper cover with integral multi-reflector foglights. More sharply defined character lines, flared front fenders and "blister" type rear quarter-panels mark the profile of the new Forester. In the rear, the 2003 Forester is newly distinguished by a hexagonal rear gate framed by large, triangular taillights.

Subaru engineers optimized passenger room and comfort in the Forester. The Forester blends positive SUV attributes such as a high seating point and interior versatility with passenger car comfort, handling and fuel efficiency. Subaru designed and equipped it to compete with a wide array of SUVs. It comes with a 2.5-liter engine, all-wheel drive and seating for five. The exterior is about the same, but the interior is optimized for greater comfort and utility.

The 2003 Forester carries over the proven Subaru all-wheel-drive boxer engine and powertrain, some suspension components but little else. An all-new body structure has been optimized for rigidity, enhanced safety and light weight. While the new Forester has been measurably improved in almost every way, it weighs nearly 100 pounds less than its predecessor. Rest assured, Subaru didn't de-content to take out weight. On the contrary, the company added significantly to the standard equipment.

There's much to like about the Forester. 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."

Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options: The Forester is available in two trim 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; tilt steering; 16-inch wheels and tires; 100-watt AM/FM/weatherband CD audio; and remote keyless entry.

Uplevel 2.5 XS models have automatic climate control, aluminum alloy wheels, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter and upgraded interior upholstery and carpet. There are two major option packages available -- an optional cold weather package and a premium package -- as well as a number of small stand-alone utility items.

Powertrains and Performance: The 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine from the previous model carries over unchanged. It makes 165 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque. This is more power than most other four-cylinder compact SUVs can boast, though there are V6-equipped competitors out there with about 200 horsepower. Like all Subarus, the Forester comes standard with full-time all-wheel drive. Subaru also offers a Hill Holder clutch feature on manual transmission-equipped vehicles.

Safety: 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.

Active head restraints have also been added as standard equipment along with side impact airbags. Though the '03 Forester has not yet been tested by the NHTSA, the IIHS has given the vehicle a "good" rating for frontal-offset crashes, as well as a "best pick" for its compact SUV class.

Interior Design and Special Features: On the inside, the vehicle's dimensions remain relatively unchanged, although some skillful repackaging within the cabin results in slightly more passenger room. 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, a bit shy of the major players in this class.

Driving Impressions/Opinions: The 2.5-liter engine provides adequate, if not thrilling, performance. For those seeking maximum acceleration, we would recommend sticking with the standard five-speed manual transmission, as it makes the most of the engine's wide powerband.

The Forester, for the most part, is 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 some 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 are noticeably better than those found on previous models, with no noticeable fade and a good, solid pedal feel.

edmunds expert 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.