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Review: 2003 Subaru Forester XS

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SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide

2003 Subaru Forester XS
Base price: $20,545
Price as tested: $25,445

By Des Toups
	The Subaru Forester, new from the ground up for 2003, remains the 
car-lover's cute-ute. It's interesting to drive, it's reasonably roomy, and 
it has what surely must rank as the industry's largest sunroof. It's 
handsome. It can be loaded with luxuries such as heated leather seats, 
automatic climate control and a six-disc in-dash CD changer. It's easy to 
park and a relief at the gas pump, and even with every box on the option 
list checked, rolls into showrooms for $26,000.
	Of course, most of that was true for the 2002 model as well. The wholesale 
makeover nets a driver better brakes and hill-holding clutch on 
manual-transmission models, more airbags and a slightly more upright 
driving position.
	But the Forester is no roomier and no faster for 2003. In a segment where 
the bar has been raised dramatically forward in recent years – drive a new 
Toyota RAV-4 or Ford Escape – this timid remake allows the pack to catch up.
	Newer cute-utes enjoy carlike responsiveness. The redesigned Honda CR-V’s 
four-cylinder now produces 160 silky horsepower, and it’s quick when paired 
with a crisp automatic transmission. The Escape and its twin, the Mazda 
Tribute, with their 200-horsepower V-6, are veritable rockets.
	The Subaru carries over a 165-horsepower four-cylinder with its lumpy, 
old-Volkswagen engine note, the product of its trademark “boxer” piston 
arrangement (The pistons face each other horizontally rather than sit 
upright.) The Subaru is far from underpowered, but especially when hitched 
to a slow-shifting four-speed automatic, always sounds like it’s working hard.
	Subaru promises a turbocharged model, with 217 ponies, soon, which ought 
to make the relatively lightweight, 3,200-pound Forester positively haul 
(rivals such as the Jeep Liberty can weigh a half-ton more). In the 
meantime, those in search of a more sprightly Forester had best opt for the 
stick. This year the hill-holder clutch returns, using the parking brake to 
keep the car from rolling when stopped on an incline. Very handy, 
especially in gridlocked, hilly cities such as Seattle.
	Newer cute-utes are roomier, and here, too, Subaru has made little 
progress. The front seats are wider than before – a good thing – but the 
rear is still best suited for children. If the front passengers are tall, a 
rear-facing child seat is a tight fit in back.
	At least Subaru has rearranged the dashboard to put the radio at the 
driver’s fingertips rather than at the hard-to-reach bottom of the center 
stack, and there’s a more refined look to the whole interior. But there’s 
evidence of cost-cutting, too: The door pulls – an item a driver will touch 
a dozen times a day – feel like the cheap plastic they are, and the visors 
are covered in the flimsiest of vinyls. In general, though, the materials 
feel more substantial than those in the Escape or Saturn Vue, the 
atmosphere less plastic than in the Hyundai Santa Fe, and the feel more 
sophisticated than in the Honda CR-V.
	On the outside, the makeover is a success from most angles, though even 
current Forester owners might not notice how much has been done. The 
Forester looks bigger than before – it isn’t – and a black surround neatly 
extends the lines of the rear hatch. The front is redone in Japanese 
Anonymous; it looks just like the front of a Suzuki Esteem. In all, the 
Forester looks like what it is, a station wagon with a tall greenhouse, 
rather than a high-riding SUV-wannabe.
	If you believe that the ability to dodge an accident is the ultimate 
safety feature, then the Forester is the safest cute-ute you can buy. The 
Forester handles like a car, not a truck, aided for 2003 by quicker 
steering and the addition of 16-inch wheels and bigger tires (the more 
tire, the more grip). All the new little SUVs handle worlds better than 
their heavyweight brethren, but the Subaru imparts a comforting confidence. 
There’s little body lean, and the steering allows a lot of information 
about road conditions to reach the driver.
	Those bigger tires and new, bigger brake rotors with standard antilock 
give the Forester ferocious stopping power. If that’s not enough, a beefier 
frame, dual-stage front airbags and head-and-side airbags should help 
improve passengers’ chances in a collision. New crash-test ratings haven’t 
been released; the older model received a top “good” rating from the 
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system is as transparent as any, with no 
binding in tight corners or obvious friction in the drivetrain, yet it’s 
always splitting power between the front and rear tires. Most of its rivals 
wait until grip starts to erode, then send power to the rear wheels with a 
delay and clunk.
	EPA gas mileage numbers were unavailable, but the last-generation 
automatic Forester was rated at 22 city/27 highway. If anything, the newer 
model, which is more slippery to the wind and weighs less than before, 
should do better.
	The Forester’s winning personality, its agility and handy size, its 
buttoned-down feel and raft of luxury features should continue to win it 
friends. But with buyers demanding more space, more power and higher 
seating – three reasons the much-recalled Escape remains a best seller – 
the Subaru isn’t the obvious choice it was just two years ago.

Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has AutoWorld magazine, 
The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide.