Compact SUV; Built in Japan
  • 4-door wagon
  • longitudinal front-engine/all-wheel drive
Good condition price range: $5,000 – $15,700*

2003 Subaru Forester

2004 Subaru Forester

2005 Subaru Forester

Subaru Forester interior

  • Cargo room
  • Maneuverability
  • Visibility
  • Automatic-transmission operation
  • Rear-seat room

If you can live with modest acceleration, limited towing capacity, and constrained rear-seat space, non-turbo Foresters are rational alternatives to any number of bulkier, less-efficient SUVs. Forster XTs offer a useful dose of extra power. All Foresters combine AWD security with plenty of cargo space, a stable ride, and respectable fuel economy in a pleasantly carlike package.


Redesigned as an early 2003 model, Subaru’s Forester got new styling and more leg room than its 1998-2002 predecessor, but it stayed within the compact sport-utility vehicle class. As before, the Forester was essentially a tall wagon that shared its powertrain and many underskin components with Subaru’s Impreza subcompact cars. Wheelbase was unchanged, while front and rear leg room increased fractionally and head room shrunk slightly.

Foresters came in base 2.5 X and uplevel 2.5 XS trim. Unchanged for 2003 was their horizontally-opposed 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Foresters came with either a manual or automatic transmission, plus all-wheel drive that lacked low-range gearing. Manual-shift models resurrected Subaru’s Hill Holder feature, designed to prevent rolling backward on inclines with the clutch pedal depressed.

Antilock brakes, again standard, were joined for 2003 by standard head-and-chest-protecting front side airbags. Both models rode on 16-inch tires. Air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, tilt steering, a CD player, and remote keyless entry were standard. Leather upholstery was available only on automatic-transmission XS models, fitted with the optional Premium Package–which included a sunroof and substituted monotone lower-body trim for gray cladding.

Forester competitors included the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, and Honda CR-V.

Yearly Updates

2004 Forester
Arrival of a turbo Forester highlighted changes for 2004. Foresters now came in base 2.5 X, uplevel 2.5 XS, and new 2.5 XT form with a 210-horsepower turbocharged engine. Other models had a 165-hp engine. An in-dash CD changer was now standard in XS and XT models. Leather upholstery was offered on those two versions.
2005 Forester
An L.L. Bean edition of the Forester debuted for 2005. An automatic transmission was standard in the new 2.5 XS L.L. Bean Edition, which featured beige leather upholstery and a self-leveling rear suspension. New eight-spoke wheels were mounted on the 2.5 XS, while the L.L. Bean had 10-spoke wheels. All models got a new three-spoke steering wheel, and all but the 2.5 X added a power driver’s seat. Unlike other models, which had contrasting-color body cladding, the 2.5 XS brandished a monotone appearance.
2006 Forester
More power and freshened looks marked 2006 for Subaru’s compact SUV. For ’06, the turbocharged XT added 20 hp for 230 total. The other models gained 8 hp, for 173.
2007 Forester
The XT got 17-inch wheels vs. the other Foresters’ 16s for 2007. All got a port for digital audio players as standard.
2008 Forester
The 2008 Subaru Forester lineup got equipment shuffling and trim-name changes as this compact SUV awaited a 2009 redesign.


longitudinal front-engine/all-wheel drive

Subaru’s 2.5-liter, horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine came in regular or turbocharged form. In X and XS models, it produced 165 horsepower, whereas the turbocharged dual-overhead-cam version in the 2.5 XT model developed 210 horsepower. Both engines could drive either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. For ’06, the turbocharged XT adds 20 hp for 230 total. The other models gain 8 hp, for 173.

ohc H4
Engine Size (liters/cubic inches) 2.5/150
Engine HP 165-173
Engine Torque (lb-ft) 166
Avail. Trans. EPA MPG (city/hwy) MPG avg. as tested
5-speed manual
4-speed automatic
Turbocharged dohc H4
Engine Size (liters/cubic inches) 2.5/150
Engine HP 210-230
Engine Torque (lb-ft) 235
Avail. Trans. EPA MPG (city/hwy) MPG avg. as tested
5-speed manual
4-speed automatic

EPA ratings for non-turbo 2005 Foresters rose to 23/30 mpg with manual shift and 22/29 mpg with automatic.

Road Test

Non-turbo Foresters are slow off the line, but build power adequately thereafter. Turbocharged XTs are quicker from a standstill, with satisfying passing power. Automatic transmissions tend to upshift prematurely and hesitate in downshifting.

Overall, the Forester gets better fuel economy than more-traditional compact SUVs. Non-turbo models with automatic have averaged 19.4 to 24.2 mpg. Expect slightly more with manual shift. A test XT with automatic averaged 18.5 mpg in mostly highway driving. The XT’s turbocharged engine requires premium fuel; others use regular.

Forester is clearly the most carlike compact SUV, promising the stability and absorbency of a tautly-suspended small car. Still, rough roads at highway speed can turn the ride jittery.

Forester is also the most agile compact SUV, with slightly elevated ground clearance but a low, carlike center of gravity. So, body lean in fast turns is evident but not excessive, and the Forester never feels tippy. AWD aids grip in all conditions. Steering feels light but responsive.

Quiet around town, the Forester suffer wind and road noise that rise markedly with speed, compromising long highway trips. The engine throbs during rapid acceleration, but is unobtrusive otherwise.

The clear, simple dashboard layout has adequately-sized controls. Interior decor isn’t opulent, but materials and workmanship match the Forester’s price level. Front head room is ample for six-footers. Expect good seat comfort, though the passenger seat lacks lumbar adjustment. A relatively tall cabin makes for easy entry/exit. The high driving position, large windows, and thin pillars yield great outward visibility.

The backseat is tall and supportive. Rear leg room is sufficient, with front seats moved less than halfway back. But it’s tight otherwise.

Cargo space totals a useful 32 cubic feet with rear seatbacks up, and 64 cubic feet with the split backrest folded–competitive with many larger SUVs. A large tailgate opening and low liftover translate to easy load/unloading, but there’s no separate-opening liftglass. Plenty of cabin compartments are available, but none with substantial capacity.


Model Tested: 2004 Forester XS w/leather, auto.)

Ratings values are on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the best. With the exception of Value, these numbers reflect how the vehicle compares against the universe of vehicles, not just against rivals in its class.


Acceleration - 4
Fuel Economy - 6
Ride Quality - 5
Steering/Handling - 6
Quietness - 5


Controls/Materials - 6
Room/Comfort Front - 5
Room/Comfort Rear - 3
Cargo Room - 7


Value - 7

Total: 54


4-door wagon
Wheelbase (in.) Length (in.) Width (in.) Height (in.) Weight (lbs)
99.4 175.2 68.1 62.6
Cargo Volume (cu/ft) Payload Capacity (cu/ft) Fuel Capacity (gal.) Seating Capacity
64.1 15.9 39.8
Headroom Legroom
Front Rear Front Rear
43.6 39.8 33.7
Safety Ratings

Model Tested: 2003 Forester 4-door wagon


(5 is the highest rating)

Front Impact Test

Driver Injury - 5
Front Passenger Injury - 5

Side Impact Test

Driver Injury - 5
Rear Passenger Injury - 5


(A score of 100 is average. Lower is better)

Collision N/A
Injury N/A
Theft N/A

Trouble Spots

Description: If SRS (supplemental restraint system or airbags) throw codes 41 and 42, the connector under the seat may be corroded for which there is a repair kit. (2004)
Description: The clutch pedal may stick or not come all the way back up, or it may feel spongy requiring replacement of the slave cylinder and hydraulic hose. (1998-03)
Description: If the clutch chatters during cold temperatures, but improves as the vehicle is driven, the clutch plate, pressure plate and flywheel need to be replaced. (2003)
Engine mounts
Description: Due to the multitude of configurations (bolt holes, accessory attachment points, etc.), cylinder heads for 2.5L engines are extremely difficult to interchange, often making the simplest solution replacement of the engine. (2003-2005)
Keyless entry
Description: The remote keyless entry (RKE) transmitter buttons may be activated inadvertently and an improved RKE case has been made available. (2005-06)
Rear axle noise
Description: A tapping or pinging noise from the rear is usually due to broken spot welds allowing baffles in the muffler to rattle. (2003-07)
Windshield washer
Description: The washers for the windshield and/or rear window may not work properly unless a revised check valves have been installed in the hoses. (2006)
Check-engine light
Description: The check engine light may come on because of stretch in the shifter cable to the transmission or a misadjusted neutral switch. (2005-06)
Interior trim
Description: The floor mats may not stay in place unless the original hooks have been replaced. 2005)

Recall History

2003-2008 Forester
Description: Vehicles in certain states have front lower control arms that may break at the hanger brackets due to corrosion caused by salt and humidity.
2004 Forester
Description: Cover bolts for engine oil control valve may not be sufficiently tightened, allowing oil to leak around cover gasket.
2006 Forester
Description: The wiring harness for the air bag occupant detection system in the front passenger seat may have been pinched during production, resulting in a possible electrical short. Dealers will inspect to see if the wiring had been incorrectly routed under the seat bracket.

Equipment Lists

Equipment lists are only viewable on larger screen sizes.


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