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Pre-owned: 1998-2002 Subaru Forester

Marc Cook
Feb 1, 2009
Subaru's third-generation Forester made its debut this year, looking as if it had just come back from a vacation--sleek, tanned, and toned. It rides on the good karma of economy and capability built by the first two generations, a reputation that began in 1998 with a vehicle that looks like the box the current Forester came in.
More than a decade ago, Subaru cemented its reputation as the builder of sensible, all-weather road cars; tall wagons kind of dressed like SUVs; and pocket rockets. The Forester represented a further tiny step toward actual SUV-dom. The roofline was raised further over the donor Impreza's and the square-edged styling was meant to evoke trucklike toughness. Or maybe just Subaru goofiness.
This is no Jeep. Standard all-wheel drive in this generation of Foresters was totally automated: no low range, no locking differentials. And, with the only powerplant being the 2.5-liter, 165-horse flat-four, not quite enough oomph to climb a tree. Transmission choices were a four-speed automatic and a five-speed manual.
Photo 2/2   |   1998 2002 Subaru Forester front Drivers Three Quarters View
Running changes were few. In 1999, the engine and automatic transmission were modified; the first lost two cams to become an SOHC design but gained four pound-feet of torque, the second packed snappier shifts. Trim iterations were base, L, and S. Antilock brakes were standard on the two higher trim levels, the S getting rear discs in addition to larger wheels and other subtle upgrades. In 2000, the base model disappeared, and a minor styling refresh followed for the next year. In the last model year, trim packages were resorted and renamed, both receiving front side airbags and a sunroof.
Based on our research, the Forester is an easy mini-SUV to live with. Overall reliability looks good, with one caveat: Check for leaking head gaskets on high-mileage vehicles. The first year used a DOHC version of the 2.5-liter and, according to reports, tends to suffer internal failures that seem only to be overheating issues. From 1999 on, when the Forester moved to the SOHC engine, gasket failures were external, with evidence of coolant leakage. The SOHC engines are covered under a service bulletin. Foresters don't generally overheat without a cause, so watch the needle on the test drive. Listen, too, for signs of distress from the driveline, which can have various small problems with the differentials, clutch packs, and wheel bearings. Finally, run the air-conditioning in all modes; compressors are a weak spot with this vehicle.
Fuel economy is good, at 18/24 mpg under the new EPA system, 21/26 by the old method. The 1999-and-later SOHC Foresters are slightly preferred for being easier to work on, but, as ever, it often comes down to the individual vehicle. Find a clean one and take it skiing.

1998-2002 Subaru Forester
Body type4-door SUV
DrivetrainFront engine, AWD
AirbagsDriver, passenger (1998); add'l front side (2002)
Engines2.5L/165-hp DOHC flat-4;
2.5L/165-hp SOHC flat-4 (1999-on)
Brakes, f/rDisc/drum (or disc), ABS
Price range, whlsl/ret (Intellichoice)$3469/$6065 (1998 base); $6997/$10,633 (2002 S)
RecallsToo many to list, see www.intellichoice.com
NHTSA frontal impact rating, driver/passNot rated

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