Subaru has a knack for going its own way. A decade ago, the company transformed its odd-looking (if not downright ugly) Legacy station wagon into the eye-catching (if not downright ugly) Outback wagon. It was a brilliant sales success right from the start; and in the process, the Outback single-handedly launched the Crossover War. Ever since, automakers have been falling over themselves to devise the most palatable mix of car-like comfort and truck-like cussedness in a vehicle that is neither pure car nor pure truck.
In 1997, Subaru fired a second salvo in the form of its Forester sport-utility wagon. The Forester combined boxy, toy-like styling with Subaru's trademark exotic powertrain to produce a most unlikely babe magnet. No, it's not that guys in Foresters are out there trolling for chicks. According to Subaru of America vice president Fred Adcock, fully two-thirds of Forester owners are female. Moreover, research indicates that Forester owners are the most highly educated buyers of Subarus overall.
So it was particularly instructive to test-drive recently the brand-new, second-generation Forester that is scheduled for debut in mid-May as a 2003 model. In an arch-competitive field that by now includes Jeep's Liberty, Ford's Escape, the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Isuzu Rodeo, Forester's role is no longer that of trailblazer in a new category of its own creation. Now, Subaru's challenge is to distinguish its latest iteration of crossover vehicle from a crowded field — to isolate the Forester from the trees, as it were.
Accordingly, the 2003 Forester is a shrewd blend of superficial innovation and principled conservatism. This is not to say that the superficial styling changes are insincere nor that the Forester's conservative engineering features are uncontemporary. Quite the opposite: The signature powertrain, which combines all-time all-wheel-drive with fully independent suspension and an unusual "H-pattern" four-cylinder motor, is the time-honored source of Subaru mystique. The new Forester's gentle streamlining is meant to catch the eye and draw attention to a vehicle that is lighter, roomier and more crash-worthy than its predecessor--but one that also does nothing to dilute Subaru's incomparable driving feel.