By Chris Chase, CanadianDriver.com
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.
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.
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.
Subaru’s turbocharged engines aren’t affected by the head gasket problem, but Consumer Reports notes that the turbos themselves are trouble-prone; read more here. One theory is that small screens used to filter the oil routed to the turbo to keep it lubricated are coming loose and damaging the turbo’s sensitive bearings. Read about that here and here (note that those threads deal with similar filters in the oil lines that provide hydraulic pressure to the variable valve timing system).
A hard-shifting automatic transmission is common in cold weather, before the car has warmed up.
Consumer Reports notes the exhaust system’s catalytic converter as a common trouble spot. The most obvious sign of trouble would be an illuminate check-engine light, and/or a failed emissions test (in jurisdictions that require regular testing).
The Forester tends to eat front CV joints (short for constant velocity; these are the joints that allow the front wheels to turn with the steering and articulate with the suspension). Foresters are also known for fairly frequent wheel bearing failures, something this model shares with the Impreza. The failures don’t tend to be catastrophic, but are characterized by an audible moaning/grinding/humming sound when the car is in motion.
Water leaks into the interior are common, causing soaked carpets. Depending on the case, the water either comes in around the windshield, or through unplugged holes in the floorboard.
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.
According to the Canadian Black Book, used values for the second-generation Forester range from $7,500 for a 2003 X model with manual transmission, to $21,225 for a 2008 turbocharged XT with and automatic. Typically, a used Forester should be less expensive than other small Japanese SUVs, but keep in mind that the Forester is smaller than a CR-V and the 2006-and-up RAV4. The second-generation RAV4 and the Ford Escape are two of the Forester’s closest competitors, size-wise; the RAV4 tends to be far pricier, while the Escape should come in at a similar value, or slightly more.
The turbocharged Forester XT is a compelling vehicle for enthusiasts looking for a quick SUV; a 2005 XT with manual transmission is worth $14,625. The Forester’s similarity to the Impreza/WRX/STi means that there are loads of aftermarket options available designed to boost the car’s performance.
Despite the Forester’s appeal and Subaru’s reputation for building durable cars, this one’s not without its trouble spots. Before you buy any Forester, ask for evidence that the car has been maintained according to Subaru’s guidelines (more frequent oil changes and cooling system flushes might help delay head gasket issues), and determine whether the head gaskets in a non-turbo version have been replaced recently. If you’re looking at an XT model, make sure the turbo is working well. As always, best to have a trusted mechanic look over the car for evidence of any of the common problems listed above.
Black Book Pricing (avg. retail) July 2010:
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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.
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.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2007033; Units affected: 1,279
2006: On certain vehicles, the wiring harness for the airbag occupant detection system in the front passenger seating position might have been pinched during vehicle assembly. Pinching of the wiring harness between the floor cross member and the seat mounting bracket could result in an electrical short which would blow the circuit fuse. If this happens, the passenger airbag would be unable to deploy during a crash, leaving the seat occupant susceptible to increased injuries. Correction: Dealers will inspect and, if required, repair wiring damage.
Crash test results
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 vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.
Chris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).
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