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

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By Chris Chase

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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 a more practical choice may offer no driving satisfaction whatsoever.

Introduced in 1998, the Subaru Forester was never particularly athletic, but its Impreza-based underpinnings made it at least competent. Subaru gave the Forester a facelift in 2003, 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-cylinder 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, its relatively low ground clearance and seating position kept the centre of gravity low and handling responsive without too much body roll in corners.

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

Where the new-for-2004 turbocharged models really shone was in a straight line. With 210 horsepower, 0 to 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 added up to a very swift vehicle that blended 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.

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.

2003 Subaru Forester
2003 Subaru Forester
2003 Subaru Forester. Top photo by Laurance Yap; bottom photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

Like most Subarus, the Forester is generally solid reliability-wise. The one glaring problem has to do with the non-turbo engine’s head gaskets, which are a well-known failure point on the 2.5-litre flat four. This thread at SubaruForester.org includes polls and comments from Forester owners who have (or have not) had head gasket trouble in their cars. When the gaskets go, the first sign is an overheating engine; ignore this and the engine could be damaged and need to be replaced.

When I wrote an earlier version of this review in 2007, I noted that the head gasket problem was non-existent in 2000-and-newer models, but three years on, and three more years worth of Foresters are having the same issues. Owners posting at SubaruForester.org seem to think that the issue has been corrected in 2004-and-newer models, but I’ve noted comments at NASIOC.com of Impreza owners (the Impreza uses the same engines as the Forester) who have had to replace head gaskets in cars as new as 2007.

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