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.
2003 Subaru Forester
At its heart, a Subaru is all about engineering for traction. The Forester's 2.5-liter displacement is at the practical upper limit for a four-cylinder engine. It's possible because of the inherent self-balancing nature of an opposed-cylinder or "boxer" layout. This smooth power is then distributed by an "always on" transfer system that drives all four wheels all the time--unlike competing systems that switch on and off or shift from front to rear as road conditions vary. The Subaru drivetrain is lightweight and compact; its heaviest element is the flat H-pattern motor that sits naturally low and uniquely close to the vehicle's center of gravity.
Driving the new Forester during its media introduction, whether through the foothills of Alabama's Talladega National Forest or along the imposing 33-degree banks at Talladega Superspeedway, confirms that the "Subaru feel" remains intact. The center driveline means that throttle response is quick and gear shifts are precise, particularly with the crisp five-speed manual transmission. All-wheel drive means that the all-independent suspension absorbs cornering loads predictably and with much less of the weight transfer that complicates handling with front- or rear-drive powertrains. The boxer motor's low center of gravity contributes to a dramatic reduction in "top heaviness" or body roll that is so prevalent in high-riding sport-utility vehicles. Just the same, Forester's own ride height is a fairly lofty 7.5 inches — enough to clear a concrete block in the road.
For a boxy wagon, the new Forester is a handling champ, and the compact four-cylinder motor is a big part of this equation. When tilted sideways at 33 degrees at top speed, moreover, stable handing is much appreciated. The same motor that contributes to Forester's aplomb, however, finds itself outmatched by a NASCAR superspeedway. In these entertaining but unrealistic conditions, Forester's 165 horsepower finds itself at the mercy of the headwinds, even though the new body design reduces wind resistance by slightly more than 10 percent. But in the more practical setting of the real world, it's actually the 166 ft-lb of torque that gives Forester its start-and-stop friskiness.
The Forester's new "aero" look is the most conspicuous result of a chassis redesign that has resulted in a lighter yet stronger and roomier passenger cabin for five. Subaru's proprietary safety cage design is predicated on withstanding front and rear as well as side impacts, and standard side-impact airbags for front occupants further enhance the Forester's defenses in this area.
Rear leg and hip room have increased in the second-generation Forester without encroaching on the 32 cu. ft. of open cargo space behind the rear seat. Seat design is comfortable front and rear, and Subaru has been conscious to create a bit more upscale feel for interior design,particularly in the selection of fabrics and plastics. Just the same, this aspect remains Forester's chief vulnerability: the interior retains a vestige of "budget" feel about it.
Arguably, a budget feel is not inappropriate for a compact sport-utility vehicle that will likely start at $21,000 for the base Forester, rising to about $23,500 for the up-level XS model. (Specific pricing data is still a few weeks away.) An auto transmission should add $900 or so, and a top-of-the-line Forester XS, with leather seats and moonroof, will probably sticker for about $26,500. As usual for Subaru, Forester's prices will remain a cut above the majority of its rivals. The company's perennial challenge is to justify the reasons why. If Subaru can count on a well-educated customer base, that certainly helps a lot. As for catering to a wellspring of women's intuition, well, that's a stroke of genius.
2003 Subaru Forester
Base price: $21,000-$26,500 (est.)
Engine: 2.5-liter flat four, 165 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 175.2 x 68.1 x 62.6 in
Wheelbase: 99.4 in
Curb weight: N/A
EPA City/Hwy: 21/27 mpg (manual); 21/26 (auto)
Safety equipment: Dual front and side impact airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, Electronic Brake Distribution
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, power windows, CD player, hill-holder clutch (manual only)
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles