2003 Subaru Forester
2003 Subaru Forester; photo by Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase; photos by Laurance Yap and Grant Yoxon

Discuss this story in the forum at CarTalkCanada

Find this vehicle in Autos’s Classified Ads

Finding that one ‘do-it-all’ car is tough. Pick a fun car, and it’ll have a tiny back seat and no trunk, while that practical choice offers no driving satisfaction whatsoever.

Since its introduction in 1998, Subaru’s Forester was a solid entry in the small SUV segment but was never particularly athletic, though its Impreza-based underpinnings made sure it was at least competent. In 2003, Subaru gave the Forester a facelift, but there would be nothing new under the hood until 2004. That’s when this Subie got a turbocharged version of the company’s 2.5-litre boxer four motor in the XT model. Finally, here was a practical small ‘ute that was also a blast to drive.

The redesigned ’03 Forester kept its tall roofline, but like earlier models, this car’s relatively low ground clearance and seating position kept the centre of gravity low and handling responsive without too much body roll in corners.

Where the new-for-2004 turbocharged models really shone was in a straight line. With 210 horsepower, 0-100 km/h acceleration times were in the six second range – very impressive for this class of vehicle. A five-speed manual transmission was standard across the line, too, a rarity in small SUVs. For the XT, it all adds up to a very swift vehicle that blends into the background: perfect for avoiding the watchful eye of law enforcement.

Things got even better in 2005, when horsepower for the turbocharged XT increased to 235 (it was rated at 230 in 2006 when new horsepower measurement standards took effect) and in 2006, the base Forester got a slight power bump to 173 from 165.

2003 Subaru Forester
2003 Subaru Forester; photo by Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

The new turbocharged engine was a little thirstier, however: Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption ratings ranged from 11.4 to 13 L/100 km in the city and 8.5 to 9.3 L/100 km on the highway for the XT, while ratings for non-turbo Foresters went from 10.4 to 11.3 L/100 km city and 8.3 to 9.3 L/100 km on the highway. Newer models use less fuel, according to NRCan, while transmission choice has less to do with the variances. Keep in mind that the XT’s turbocharged engine needs premium fuel for peak performance, while non-turbo Foresters will happily drink regular unleaded.

Subarus tend to be pretty solid reliability-wise. Early Foresters suffered from some engine head gasket issues, but this problem is non-existent in 2000 and newer models. The Impreza (which, again, lends its platform and many parts to the Forester) has a bit of a reputation for eating wheel bearings, but it looks like this might be confined mainly to older models, so I wouldn’t expect this to be a problem in newer Foresters.

Consumer Reports notes a number of issues in older Foresters, but 2003 and newer versions get that publication’s recommended used vehicle rating.

2003 Subaru Forester
2003 Subaru Forester; photo by Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

Where the Forester might be most likely to impress is in the safety department. Both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) think highly of the Forester, which earned a “good” rating in the IIHS’ frontal offset and side impact crash tests and 2003 and newer models get five stars all around in the NHTSA’s frontal and side impact tests. This is significant in the sense that these two organizations’ individual crash testing standards often yield vastly different results for similar vehicles.

Foresters start their lives as fairly pricey, but well-equipped vehicles. From 2003 to 2006, the base price for a new one has been stuck at just under $28,000, while some other small SUVs (mainly domestics, though) are available new from the low-to-mid $20,000 range. But compare the Forester to the Honda CR-V, for example, and resale values are similar: used Forester values range from $16,325 for a 2003 2.5X model to $34,350 for a 2006 XT Premium according to Canadian Red Book. Yes, the XT takes premium fuel and uses a little more of it than the non-turbo Forester, but its fun-to-drive appeal is hard to ignore.

2003 Subaru Forester
2003 Subaru Forester; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

The XT is the Forester we’d go for, and you should be able to find a used 2004 version for $25,000 to $26,000. If that’s too much cash, try a non-turbo Forester X for about $20,000 or less.

One last neat thing to note about the Forester: this model’s similarity to the Impreza means that there are lots of options for aftermarket performance bits, particularly for turbocharged versions. The best way to describe the Forester might be to liken it to a sexy librarian: reserved on the outside, but a lot of fun once you get acquainted. Those shopping for a practical vehicle with the potential for some fun on the sly, the Forester looks like a solid used vehicle choice.

Related stories on Autos

Online resources

Subaru as an automaker has a strong following on the web, so there are a few different places to go for Forester information. SubaruForester.org is a terrific starting point, owing to its single-vehicle focus. For a site that covers the whole Subaru line, try the forums at NASIOC.com. This started out as an Impreza enthusiast site but has expanded to include the rest of the Subaru lineup, and there’s a section dedicated to the Forester too.

Manufacturer’s Website


Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002200; Units affected: 11,597

2002-2003: On certain vehicles equipped with automatic transmissions, the parking pawl actuating rod (“parking rod”) spring retainer may be defective. The parking pawl may not engage the parking gear fully and could cause the vehicle to move if the parking brake is not applied. Correction: Dealers will replace the automatic transmission parking rod assembly. Replacement parts will not be available until January 2003.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003054; Units affected: 44

2003: On certain vehicles, the seat belt tongue plate may become disengaged with the seat belt buckle latch with a force less than the value specified in CMVSS 209. This condition is caused by a slight lack of parallelism between the latch and the buckle body stamped section. Correction: Dealer will replace the front seat belt buckles.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2005344; Units affected: 485

2006: On certain vehicles, a wire for the Immobilizer Control Module was pinched between the two halves of the ICM security cover. As a result, the engine may not start, or may stall while driving. Correction: Dealers will inspect and, if necessary, repair damaged wiring.

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.

Connect with Autos.ca