By Jeremy Cato

The compact all-wheel-drive Subaru Forester first went on sale in the 1998 model year, and it has been replaced by Gen II for the ’03 model year.

The most noticeable difference between Gen I and II is that II looks more like a sport-utility vehicle and doesn’t so closely resemble a station wagon as Gen I did. There are other refinements to Gen II, but what’s important for this used car report is this: Gen I has shown itself to be a very good vehicle.

What recalls and service issues there have been are best termed “minor.” That means prices on the used vehicle market remain strong. If you do come across a real bargain, find out why the price is so cheap. Those in the know, know the Forester is a quality piece.

That’s particularly interesting because the Forester and the Outback before it pioneered crossover vehicles that blend the best that cars and sport-utility vehicles have to offer. Both are car-based — Forester off the Impreza platform, Outback off the Legacy platform. This is a case of an auto manufacturer getting a product right the first time out of the box.

In any case, both Forester and Outback boast full-time all-wheel-drive, the feature that attracts so many folks to SUVs (sport-utility vehicles). But unlike most truck-based SUVs, both also boast car-like ride and handling and, more important, car-like fuel economy. In sum, the Forester is a wonderfully versatile all-weather wagon that has proven to have excellent quality and reliability.

Yet while there’s a lot of mechanical smarts at work here, you, the driver, will likely never notice any of Subaru’s genius. The Forester’s car-like road manners, easy entry and exit and comfortable step-in height, belie its surefooted skills in the rough or slippery stuff.

In terms of size, the Forester is closest to the taller Toyota RAV4, although the styling of this wide and planted Subaru is not nearly as playful as the Toyota’s. Other rivals include the Honda CR-V and the Jeep Cherokee. All the Forester’s rivals are taller, but in overall length the Forester is closest to the Jeep Cherokee.

The Forester will carry four adults, but overall dimensions are tighter than the CR-V. Everyone will like the 10-gallon-hat head room; however, those in back will feel like they’re riding economy class. Knee room is pretty tight if you top six feet.

Up front, the space is generous and the solid-feeling buckets are both adjustable and eye-catching in their durable-looking fabrics. The instrument layout is tidy, but drivers will find the pedals a tad bunched together.

One drawback of the Forester’s tall stance is that it gets blown about a bit in gusty winds and by big trucks. Also, when the road surfaces get super busted up, the ride quality grows choppy.

For power, the boxer four engine, which has its cylinders horizontally opposing each other, is generally free of vibrations common to many four-bangers. The reason: the opposing cylinders cancel out the shakes. But despite hefty horsepower numbers, some drivers will find themselves wanting more muscle in passing mode. And when revs rise, things get pretty buzzy, too.

But these are relatively small potatoes. When it comes to the big stuff – quality, durability, reliability, versatility – the Forester is a top-notch product.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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