Being trendy isn't easy. It takes time and energy -- not to mention nonstop interest -- to stay abreast of the latest fashion. And there's always the risk of being odd.
This is why the Subaru Forester is such a welcome vehicle.
It's a car-based sport utility vehicle, so yes, it fits right in with today's SUV and crossover vehicle trends.
It comes standard with all-wheel drive, a feature of increasing interest among car buyers.
But the 2003 Forester, out since May as a restyled and updated model, also continues with looks and personality that are mainstream, not quirky. If anything, the updated interior of the new Forester gives a richer, even more pleasant sense to this compactly sized, versatile vehicle.
Best of all, the new Forester's manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $21,070 is just $250 over the 2002 model. And the upscale 2003 Forester model, the XS, has the same $23,420 starting MSRP plus destination charge, that its 2002 counterpart had.
This compares with $19,370 starting MSRP, including destination charge, for a 2002 Saturn Vue with all-wheel drive. The 2002 Honda CR-V with four-wheel drive starts at $19,660.
The 2002 Forester received four out of five stars for rider protection in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration frontal crash tests and three out of five stars for rollover resistance.
In side crash test results, the 2002 Forester received five out of five stars for front-seat crash protection and four out of five for rear seat.
Subaru officials have added even more safety equipment this year, including standard front-seat side airbags, front seatbelt pre-tensioners and active head restraints that better protect against whiplash.
JUST THE FACTS
2003 Subaru Forester 2.5 XS
BASE PRICE: $20,545 for 2.5 X; $22,895 for 2.5 XS.
AS TESTED: $24,420.
TYPE: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger, sport utility vehicle.
ENGINE: 2.5-liter, horizontally opposed, single overhead cam four-cylinder.
MILEAGE: 21 mpg (city), 27 mpg (highway).
TOP SPEED: NA.
LENGTH: 175.2 inches.
WHEELBASE: 99.4 inches.
CURB WT.: 3,095 pounds.
BUILT AT: Japan.
DESTINATION CHARGE: $525.
The test 2003 version, the upscale 2.5 XS, maneuvered with ease in city traffic. Shorter in overall length than Saturn's Vue small SUV as well as Honda's CR-V, it slipped into compact parking spaces without fuss.
The turning circle here is just 34.8 feet versus 38 feet in the Vue. But the CR-V's turning circle is even less, 33.8 feet.
The Forester's high seating position gives the driver a good view around and through cars. For example, I saw right through the windows of a Toyota Prius in front of me and so that I knew to slow down for a disabled vehicle ahead.
Large SUVs, vans and trucks, however, block the forward view.
The ride is comfortable, as front seats include a bit more bolstering now. At 5 feet 4, I didn't have to squeeze down or climb up to get inside. Door openings, front and rear, are accommodating even for bodies that aren't as flexible as they once were.
Both front- and rear-seat legroom is improved. In fact, the 43.7 inches of front legroom in the 2003 Forester tops the 41.3 inches in the Vue and CR-V.
Riders in the Forester do hear road noise nearly all the time, though, and engine sounds during acceleration. Wind noise is reduced from last year's model, but if you get Subaru's wonderfully huge, optional moonroof, you'll get wind noise from the roof rack crossbars.
For 2003, Subaru retains the Forester's 2.5-liter, single overhead cam, horizontally opposed, four-cylinder engine. It generates the same 165 horses as before and the same 166 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.
Note the performance stats are better than those for Saturn's Vue with four-cylinder, which rates 143 horsepower and 152 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. The Forester is also a tad above the CR-V's four-cylinder numbers.
Mated to a five-speed manual transmission in the test Forester, the engine was enough to provide good power in many situations, such as pulling out of parking lots.
But I needed to downshift at highway speed to get enough zip to pass slower cars with efficiency. Otherwise, the Forester passes at a pokey pace.
The five-speed felt notchy but includes a new feature this year called Hill Holder. Used in earlier Subarus, Hill Holder helps keep the vehicle stopped on hills and makes hillside startups easier.
Basically, once the clutch and brake have been engaged fully at a hilly stop, the driver can step off the brake pedal -- keeping the clutch in -- without fear of rolling backward. Hill Holder releases as the driver lifts up on the clutch pedal. It's a nice solution for drivers who fret about whether they can be quick enough with the pedals on San Francisco-type streets.
The Forester continues as a quite fuel-thrifty SUV and requires only regular gasoline.
I felt slight road vibrations as I traveled. On severe road bumps, the vibrations were greater and there was an unsettling "ba-boom" sound.
Subaru said it restyled the Forester's exterior for a bolder look for 2003 and upgraded tires to standard 16-inchers.
But in my book, the Forester remains one of the milder-looking SUVs, and I didn't notice a single other driver eyeing this new model.
I bet they'd notice the updated interior, though. Fabric seats had a jazzy pattern. Even the carpet looks plusher in the 2003 Forester, and window buttons are illuminated now at night.
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