The Forester line was introduced in model-year '98 as a tallish, soft-road- able wagon. For '03, Subaru introduces a new body structure and interior, carrying over the proven 2.5L flat-four engine and powertrain. Because of the new sheetmetal and hydroformed front subframe, overall weight is reduced by 90 lb, while overall body stiffness is increased by 30 percent, a good thing for chassis dynamics.

With four cylinders and 165 hp, it blends easily enough into highway traffic, while handling is predictable and benign. Intended for broken-pavement usage rather than true 4x4 trails, it's ideal transportation to the weekend cabin, regardless of weather. The popular Hill Holder feature returns with manual transmissions. A touch of wind noise around the mirrors is noticeable, but only because the interior is surprisingly quiet and is disturbed only on rough roads by the all-terrain tires. People in the front seats enjoy roomy quarters and logical ergonomics, but full-size bodies riding on the back seat will be desperately looking for more legroom. While the Forester lacks a third-row seat, the well-carved cargo area will swallow the kitchen sink.

Auto manufacturers are rushing to introduce crossovers vehicles in the mold Subaru has been selling for years. This latest version of the Forester will attract buyers (63-percent female) that don't have big torque demands or have large loads to haul.