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2003 Subaru Forester Pros and Cons at TrueDelta: Practical and fun to drive, reliable too by lwslade401



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I've owned this car since 2011 - and four years later I still don't want to drive anything else.

Reviewed: 2003 Subaru Forester

4dr SUV 165-horsepower 2.5L H4 4-speed automatic AWD

2003 Subaru Forester Love Letter

I purchased this car in March of 2011. When I purchased it, it had around 65,000 miles on it. As of now (31 March 2015), it now has 127,000 miles. Most of that was accumulated during my years of driving back and forth from home to college 5 states away after every semester. I've spent a lot of time on highways with the Fozzer, and although I do have complaints, they are few and far between. I'll get them out of the way first:

  • The fuel economy does leave a lot to be desired. Compared to SUVs or trucks, it's probably considered high. I have approximately 3 years of fuel economy data stored in an app on my phone, and in that time I've averaged 21.96 miles per gallon. Not bad, but could be better. This car really does excel at highway miles when it comes to economy. On days where it's just been solid highway driving, economy easily reaches 25-26 mpg. City-heavy tanks are typically in the 18-20 range. When you consider that the car has a full-time all-wheel-drive system, it's really not bad, but I would prefer it to be higher.
  • Wind noise at highway speeds (anything over 50mph, really) is somewhat loud. It's nothing that the radio won't tune out, and you can still carry on a conversation at normal speaking volumes, but it is noticeable.
  • Not a serious complaint by any stretch: when the car is first warming up, there is an odd sort of rattle coming from the area of the rear muffler. I've had a dealer examine it a couple of times when the car was in for regular maintenance and nothing seems to be loose or amiss, it's just a thing that they seem to do.
  • The 4-speed automatic transmission (4EAT) is, by most accounts, a durable and reliable transmission. I agree with this assessment, but I do sometimes find it a little slow to execute upshifts. This probably has more to do with a spirited driving style than any fault of the transmission tiself.
So. That's the bad. It's a short list. The good? Here goes.

  • The stock audio system is decent, for 2003. Weather-band radio was a nice feature to have. However, it's 2015 now and AUX jacks weren't really a thing in 2003. Luckily, it's ridiiculously easy to install a new radio. A standard DIN-size headunit will go in with just the use of a blanking panel (or the storage compartment that base-model Foresters came with under the radio), and a double-DIN unit will also slot right in. All you'll really need is the right mounting kit and wiring harness. My particular headunit brings the Forester up to feature parity with modern cars, when it comes to audio and smartphone integration. I do sometimes miss having the weather-band from the OEM radio, though. The stock antenna is strong and will pick up even the most distant of AM or FM signals.
  • The Subaru boxer engine is a work of art. Plenty of torque where it counts, smooth delivery through the entire rev band. Despite only having 170-or-so horsepower, I've never felt lacking in power. It's not a track car or a performance car, but it'll zoom off the line if you need it to, and it has no trouble whatsoever maintaining highway speeds.
  • For a SUV-shaped vehicle, the handling is superb. Compared to pretty much any other SUV, the Forester has a low center of gravity and feels extremely planted in any kind of maneuver. Despite being SUV-shaped, this is more of a wagon than anything else. The feds even consider it not-an-SUV, since it hasn't got the rollover warning stickers on the sun visors that SUVs are required to have. It may not have much power, but it's got a fun driving spirit. The handling, compared with excellent steering and a small turning radius, means that this car is extremely nimble driving around cities with tight corners and weird curves. I've spent about a year driving the Forester around Boston, MA and have no complaints. It will even go off-road nicely. Nothing hardcore, but the ground clearance and AWD mean that anything from dirt roads to curbs in parking lots pose no challenge. It's also a beauty to drive in snowy/icy conditions.
  • Exterior dimensions: Tidy and compact. Will fit in "compact car only" spots with ease. Short in length, and narrow enough for back alleys. Perfectly sized for cities.
  • Visibility: this car is like driving a greenhouse. The pillars are thin and the windows are big. The seating position is up high, and unlike most modern cars, the door doesn't come all the way up to your shoulder before the window starts. End result: a tiny blind spot and great lines of sight in every direction. The rear window deserves its own mention: it's huge! You can see practically everything behind you, including things that would be out of sight due to the height of other cars' windows.
  • Towing: I've towed a 5x6 trailer full of furniture and house goods from Rhode Island to Florida with the Forester. No complaints, even in the hills of Virginia. The engine provides plenty of grunt to get the trailer rolling.
  • The interior isn't beautiful, but it is sensibly laid out. I have absolutely zero complaints about how the controls are arranged: everything is sensible and easy to reach without distracting yourself from the road. HVAC controls are easy to manipulate, even when wearing gloves on a cold winter morning. The instrument panel has everything you need, and nothing you don't. Nothing fancy to distract you, either. The front seats are very comfortable, even on long drives. Rear seats are also comfortable, but if the person in front is tall, there really isn't much legroom. The rear is best reserved for short people and children.
  • Reliability: The only issues I've had with this car in 60,000+ miles of ownership are regular consumable items (brake pads, battery, oil, etc.) and a recall on the control arms that was repaired at Subaru's expense in 2012. With regular care and maintenance (yes, Subarus of this era generally require a new timing belt at around 110,000 miles, and no, this isn't a maintenamce item that you can skip by any means), I believe that this car has the ability to reach at least 200,000 miles. Probably more. Taking care of this Subaru has been easy as pie.
  • Interior storage: I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this car is bigger on the inside. Glovebox is nicely sized, the storage cubby under the radio is useful, the storage cubby on top of the dashboard is nice too. Center console is both roomy and has a 12v cigarette lighter-style plug in it, which is useful for charging extra things on road trips. Front doors have large meshed-in map pockets. 2 cupholders front, 2 foding ones rear. All will fit the largest of fast-food drink cups with ease. Ashtray is perfectly sized to hold my current phone (iPhone 5S), larger phones fit easily by removing the ashtray itself from its slot. My only complaint with using the ashtray area to store a phone is that shifting the car into Park will sometimes push an attached charging cable out of the way.
  • Interior storage, part 2: The rear of this car is ridiculous. This is why I think it's bigger on the inside. Even without folding down the rear seats, you can fit an absurdly large amount into the rear. The hatch is wide and opens tall, so you don't have to worry about awkwardly maneuvering unwiedly objects. Once you've folded the seats down and removed the cargo cover (it just lifts right off, couldn't be easier), the world is your oyster. Nomadic herders could fit all their worldly posessions in the back of this car, and so could most college students.
In conclusion: it should be apparent by now that I'm in love with this car. I'd actually be heartbroken if something catastrophic were to happen to it, and my first thoughts would be towards finding another Forester of the same generation. Can't recommend it enough.

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