Subaru Forester (2003)

"It gets you where you need to go in any weather, allows you to carry people, dogs or cargo and is inexpensive to own over its lifetime. What else do you really need?"
Good: inexpensive, roomy, hill-hold feature
Bad: ugly interior fabrics


Ever since this practical little wagon first came out, we've been fans of it. It's an unpretentious little car that does just about everything pretty well. It's not flashy. It's not fast. It's not luxurious. It's the automotive equivalent of a pair of sensible shoes. And while it's hard to love sensible shoes, you sure can appreciate them.

Based on the Impreza platform, the Subaru Forester is a sturdy, tallish all-wheel-drive wagon that's got some of the best features of SUVs without many of the downsides.

The Forester has been slightly redesigned for 2003. What used to be the L and S models are now the 2.5 X and 2.5 XS. The main upgrades include a beefier suspension, improved airbags, headrests and braking.

The driving experience in the Forester is very middle of the road, and entirely, completely, and utterly adequate. It's certainly not overpowered, but it's got everything you need. Handling, likewise, isn't spectacular, but there's absolutely nothing to complain about. Same with the ride: Comfortable enough. Our only complaint is that we found the Forester to be just a little bit noisy. But that's what the radio's for, right?

The all-wheel drive is a huge plus, especially if you live in an area where you get snow on a regular basis during the winter months. It's always on, so you never have to fuss with it or think about it. This is a car that will get you where you need to go in any weather.

The 2003 manual transmission Forester includes Subaru's "hill-hold" feature. This great little addition comes in handy when you're on a hill: step on the brake, and the hill-hold system will keep the car from rolling backwards into the Lincoln Town Car that's right on your bumper while you let out the clutch and get moving forward. It really works!

Two minor observations about the hill-hold feature: when you're trying to maneuver in a very small space -- for example, if you're parallel parking in between two cars that are parked too closely together -- you'll notice a little bit of a tug from the hill holder as you move back and forth. Second, in our experience at the garage, it can lead to premature wear on the clutch, if it's not properly adjusted.

There is a huge amount of headroom, good leg, shoulder and hip room -- and plenty of good space in the rear cargo area. This is an excellent dog vehicle (Editor's note: not that we would ever allow a dog or two dogs in a test vehicle). There's lots of good storage space inside: an enclosed bin on top of the dashboard, bins on the door and soft bins with nets on the back of the front seats.

The Forester's sunroof is enormous -- and we mean enormous. It goes almost halfway through the back seating area. The car is already tall and large, but the sunroof just adds to the pleasant, airy feel on the inside.

The materials and fabrics are fairly low end, but they do the trick -- they cover the seats. Subaru has a reputation for finding the tackiest fabrics available anywhere in the world and pouncing on them as seat cover materials. In one previous Subaru, we thought a dog had eaten multicolored dog biscuits, and then thrown up all over the interior. But the Forrester we drove was distinctly not bad....which is an improvement.

The automatic climate system is optional but is a nice feature that we'd recommend.

The Forester has all the basic accoutrements, and they're all in the place where you expect them. What's best about the Forester and its ergonomics, though, is that they're simple. It's unencumbered by a lot of complex electronics, displays and gadgets. We're becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the ergonomics of new vehicles, as manufacturers opt for glitz and technology over practicality and functionality. Subaru gets an A+ for ergonomics that are not distracting, are simple to use and well thought out. Good job, Subaru.

Subaru has made the Forester slightly less dowdy looking for 2003. It's a little tougher looking, to our eyes, and a little more stylish, especially in the rear.

Subarus, in general, have proven themselves to be exceptionally reliable -- though perhaps half a notch below Honda and Toyota. We would expect the Forester to be very reliable. And when the time comes for maintenance or repairs, you won't be looking at enormous boat payments. The Forester is relatively easy to work on and parts are reasonably priced.

The only people who might not be good matches for the Forrester are people who do predominately highway driving. The Forrester is certainly not unsafe but it's not a large car, either. And if you're on the highway a lot, you may want something bigger. That said, if you want a car that can serve you well, consider the Forrester. It won't impress your friends. It won't make potential mates swoon. But it'll get you where you need to go in any weather, allow you to carry people, dogs or cargo and be inexpensive to own over its lifetime. What else do you really need?

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