First Drive: 2003 Subaru Forester subaru first drives
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Article and photos by Grant Yoxon

CFB Borden, Ontario – We are driving in convoy through a desert landscape, spread out about 100 metres apart. A relentless north west wind picks up the sand, obscuring the vehicle in front and quickly filling in the deep tire tracks between us. It would be easy to mistake this bleak place for the Sahara Desert or Baja California.

But this is not the Dakar Rally or the Baja 500. It is the Canadian press introduction of the 2003 Subaru Forester. And the desert we are traversing is a training area somewhere on Canadian Forces Base Borden – an ideal location, if not quite as exotic as the North African desert, to demonstrate the versatility of the new Forester and Subaru’s all-wheel drive (AWD) system.

First Drive: 2003 Subaru Forester subaru first drives
Bob McHugh, Senior
Technical Advisor at the British Columbia Automobile Association and Autos contributor pilots the 2003 Subaru Forester 2.5 XS down a sand dune at CFB Borden

First Drive: 2003 Subaru Forester subaru first drives
Journalists negotiate tough section of off-road course at Borden in the 2003 Subaru Forester 2.5 XS
Click image to enlarge.

During a full day of testing, journalists drove Subaru’s redesigned compact SUV on a variety of different surfaces, including freeways, highways and secondary roads, rough gravel back roads, a slalom course set up on a deteriorating old run way and a tough, off-road section through the soft and shifting sand of Borden’s back yard desert.

Introduced in 1997 as a 1998 model, the Subaru Forester was a crossover vehicle at a time when the term ‘crossover’ had not yet become fashionable. With all-wheel-drive, decent fuel economy, a functional interior and car-like road manners, the Forester blended the positive features of an SUV with the comfort and handling of a passenger car.

This was not a unique concept. Vehicles like the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4 also offered all-wheel drive systems and a car-based chassis.

What differentiated the Forester from some compact car-based SUVs was its all-wheel drive system. Subaru called it Full Time All Wheel Drive and it continues for 2003.

Unlike the CRV which operates in two-wheel-drive unless slippage occurs at the drive wheels, a Subaru with a manual transmission delivers 50% of the power to the front wheels and 50% to the rear wheels all the time. Wheel slippage at either the front or rear causes more power to shift to the other set of wheels, ensuring that the wheels with the best traction receive the most power. For automatics, the ratio is 60/40 under normal driving, but when slippage occurs under hard acceleration or on slippery surfaces, the system equalizes power 50/50 front and rear. A limited slip rear differential is also available. If one rear wheel loses traction, the differential automatically diverts power to the other wheel.

On Borden’s back lot, the 2003 Forester performed well despite sidewall-deep sand. At least none of us got stuck. If this was snow instead of sand, you would have wished you’d stayed home, but would be glad your vehicle had full time all-wheel drive.

First Drive: 2003 Subaru Forester subaru first drives
Richard Marsan, National Manager, Quality Assurance, Subaru Canada, explains the technical improvements on the 2003 Subaru Forester. Click image to enlarge.

All-wheel drive is the cornerstone of Subaru’s approach to automotive design and safety. As Richard Marsan, Subaru Canada’s National Manager, Quality Assurance explained, “At Subaru, all-wheel drive is not a commodity, it is a philosophy.”

With the 2003 Forester, Subaru has not strayed from the philosophy, but made numerous changes to improve safety, handling, comfort and functionality.

First, what hasn’t changed. The Forester retains the simple, symmetrical drivetrain and the 2.5 litre single overhead-cam four-cylinder “boxer” engine of the previous generation. This engine produces 165 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 166 lb.-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. The boxer engine is shorter and lower than V-shaped or inline engines. The lightweight engine is mounted longitudinally with the transmission placed directly behind it. Advantages of this layout include a lower centre of gravity and left-right balance which provide better handling and performance than one would expect in a SUV. The Forester’s long-travel, four-wheel independent suspension helps ensure optimal tire contact on a variety of road surfaces.

First Drive: 2003 Subaru Forester subaru first drives

First Drive: 2003 Subaru Forester subaru first drives

First Drive: 2003 Subaru Forester subaru first drives
Bob McHugh tests the hill holder clutch with 2003 Subaru Forester XS. Click image to enlarge.

How a vehicle handles, steers and stops – active safety features which help a driver avoid an accident – is just as important as passive safety features like seatbelts and airbags. To the inherent safety of all-wheel drive, the 2003 Forester adds a stronger, lighter body structure, larger 11.4 inch front brake rotors (anti-lock brakes are standard), available electronic brake force distribution, variable ratio rack and pinion steering, a slightly wider track, 16-inch wheels and tires and, on vehicles equipped with manual transmission, a hill holder clutch.

New passive safety technology includes a dual-stage deployment passenger front airbag, standard front seat side impact airbags, active front head restraints and front seat belts with pretensioners and force limiters.

On the slalom or in the dirt, the new Forester handled better than one would expect for an SUV, better in fact than many small cars I’ve driven. But I was less impressed with the power of the 2.5 litre boxer engine, which when coupled with the automatic transmission, is under-powered in the lower gears. Lower gear power is noticeably better with the manual transmission.

And it is a smooth shifting manual with a short travel clutch that makes manual shifting a breeze. In years past, when the clutch was cable operated, Subaru offered a hill holder feature. This disappeared when Subaru switched to a hydraulic clutch. But for 2003, the hill holder clutch is back. The hill holder, which allows the driver to release the brake on a slope without rolling back, works really well and makes starting off on an incline as easy as an automatic.

At a time when most new models are “bigger and better” than previous generations, Subaru has resisted the temptation to “upsize” the Forester, choosing instead to add features to optimize comfort and functionality.

The front seats feature more supportive bolstering that provides greater lateral support when cornering. An additional 13 mm of fore and aft travel allows more front leg room, while contouring of the seat back gives rear passengers the space they need. The driver’s seat height can also be adjusted.

First Drive: 2003 Subaru Forester subaru first drives
2003 Subaru Forester XS with leather

First Drive: 2003 Subaru Forester subaru first drives
2003 Subaru Forester XS with leather (rear cargo tray shown). Click image to enlarge.

The standard 60/40 split rear seatback can be lowered at a touch to provide a flat cargo floor. Both the floor and the seatbacks are carpeted and a durable full-size cargo mat is available either as an accessory or standard on upgraded models. The cargo area features a number of tie down points and hooks for grocery bags.

The centre console includes dual cup holders, a handy side storage compartment and a 12-volt accessory outlet, but was too low to be used as an arm rest.

Despite added features, the 2003 Forester is 40 kg lighter than 2002. An aluminum hood, bumper beams and roof rails reduce weight and, being far from the centre of gravity, improve handling. Aerodynamics have also been improved – the coefficient of drag has been reduced from 0.389 to 0.35, which should improve fuel economy.

Exterior changes include a new grille, contoured multi-reflector halogen headlamps, and a large contoured bumper cover with integrated fog lights. The Forester’s flared front fenders and “blister” type rear quarter panels are even more prominent than they were before. At the rear, the new Forester has redesigned triangular-shaped taillamps and a larger hatch opening.

The Subaru Forester, which went on sale this month, is available in two models, the 2.5 X, replacing the former L model, and the 2.5 XS. The 2.5 X, priced at $27, 995 includes substantially more standard equipment that the L and costs $400 less.

In addition to standard side airbags, the 2003 Forester 2.5 X includes 16-inch wheels and tires, an 80-watt AM/FM/Weatherband stereo with single-disc CD player, standard air conditioning, remote keyless entry system, a new remote fuel door release, variable intermittent windshield wipers and rear wiper/washer, green-tinted rear quarter and gate windows and a new dark upper sunshade band in the windshield.

As well as the limited slip differential, the 2.5 XS model, starting at $32,195, adds dual mode heated front seats, automatic climate control, upgraded upholstery, carpeting and interior trim, a black perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel, shifter handle and parking brake handle, and an in-dash 6 disc CD changer and cassette player. For $1700, buyers can add power moonroof, monotone paint and audio upgrade. A fully equipped Forester 2.5 XS with leather seating trim tops out at $35,495.

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