On February 13th 1997, Subaru introduced to Japan what would be described as the first of a new breed of sport utility vehicle, the Subaru Forester. A hybrid between a car and a truck, the Forester was Subaru’s unique interpretation of what a Sport Utility Vehicle could be, and was brought into existence right as the Compact Sport Utility Vehicle segment was taking shape.
The Sport Utility craze entered full swing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, thanks to the mainstream popularity of the Jeep Cherokee and Ford Explorer and the “Active Lifestyle” image they portrayed. Everyone wanted a Sport Utility Vehicle, whether they needed it or not. It was during this time that some automakers discovered that there was a market for smaller Sport Utility Vehicles. Often referred to as “Cute-Utes”, these smaller Sport Utility Vehicles shared the rugged styling and some of the capabilities of a full-sized Sport Utility Vehicle – still plenty for the average consumer – while offering better fuel economy and a more car-like driving experience. The Toyota Corolla based RAV4 was introduced for 1994 as the first in its class, and sales grew rapidly during the first three years of production. Seeing the potential of this newly formed market segment, other manufacturers shortly followed with entries of their own. Subaru was no stranger to the Sport Utility market. The 1995 Legacy Outback “Sport Utility Wagon”, introduced during 1994, turned into an overnight sales success – something that Subaru desperately needed at the time. Subaru realized that the “Active Lifestyle” image was successful for attracting buyers, and knew that developing a new compact Sport Utility Vehicle was the next logical step.
The Forester was previewed by the Streega Concept, which premiered
at 31st Tokyo Auto Show. The
Streega was based on the first generation Impreza, although it was longer,
wider, and taller. It featured 4-wheel
independent suspension and unibody construction like the Impreza, which made it
very car-like. However, the Streega
featured rugged, Sport Utility- like styling, a large greenhouse, higher ground
clearance, and standard AWD. The
interior remained similar to the Impreza; however, the Streega featured a
higher seating position, and a larger and more useful cargo area, thanks to the
square styling of the car. Power was
provided by a 2.0L DOHC Turbocharged Flat 4 producing 250 horsepower sent
through a 4-speed automatic transmission, and featured a new advanced traction
control system called Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) for enhanced safety and
The production Forester followed the path laid out by the
Streega Concept fairly closely. Similar
to the concept, the Forester was based on the Impreza, sharing a significant
portion of the floor pan, the rear side rails, front frame member, front shock
towers, and basic suspension geometry. The additional ground clearance (30mm) was achieved by using longer
front and rear struts and unique front and rear cross-members. This is different than the Legacy Outback,
which used spacer blocks to achieve the same lift. The design of the body retained the boxy and
rugged theme; however, the overall exterior design was refined. The large greenhouse remained, though the
front clip was lengthened and the track was widened, necessitating more
muscular box flares. In keeping with the
rugged theme, lower trim levels used unpainted textured plastic front and rear
bumpers, as well as side cladding. Wider
headlights with separate corner markers and large, square fog lights aided in
making the Forester appear wide and stable, while 15” steel wheels with white
letter tires rounded out the full package. Upper trim levels featured 16” alloy wheels. The aforementioned bumpers and cladding were painted
in a contrasting color on upper trim levels. Two separate “Outdoor Packages” were available as dealer installed
options, and included side-steps, a rear differential skid plate, and a brush
guard to add the rugged finishing touches.
The design of the interior also followed the direction set forth by the Streega concept; that is, simple and utilitarian. The major feature of the Forester’s interior was the seating position. Higher than a typical car, but lower than a typical Sport Utility Vehicle, the seating position offered a balance between having a commanding view of the road and an easy time getting in and out of the vehicle. The position of the driver’s hips in the Forester is virtually the same as both sitting and standing, which eliminate the need to step up into the vehicle when entering or exiting the vehicle as in other Sport Utility Vehicles. A large green house with narrow pillars and a large liftgate window without a spare tire to block the view featured prominently in ensuring that outward visibility was excellent and that the cabin felt spacious and airy. The dashboard was shared with the later first generation Impreza, but the rest of the interior was unique to the Forester. The boxy styling of the rear of the Forester allowed for a very usable cargo area. The rear bench seats split 55/45 for extra storage possibilities and could recline through an arc of 55 degrees with 12 adjustment positions. The rear seatbacks could fold flat without having to remove the head rests or lifting the lower seat cushion, expanding cargo capacity further. To keep with the rugged outdoors theme, the Forester could also be equipped with a dash top mounted gauge pack that included a digital compass, an altimeter and a barometer.
Available engines in 1998 varied depending on the market where the Forester was sold. In the US, the Forester was equipped with the same 165 horsepower 2.5L flat four found in the 1998 Outback, the EJ25D, as the only engine available. This engine was backed by either a 5-speed manual transmission featuring Continuous AWD, or a 4-speed automatic transmission featuring Active AWD. Japanese market Foresters were only available with the 2.0L EJ20G turbocharged flat four producing 250 horsepower at first. A 2.0L EJ20J flat four producing 122 horsepower became optional later in the year. Both engines could be backed by either a 5-speed manual transmission featuring Continuous AWD, or a 4-speed automatic transmission featuring Active AWD. Certain turbocharged models could be equipped with a 4-speed automatic transmission featuring Active AWD and VTD.
Safety was a significant consideration when designing the Forester, and was considered a selling point by Subaru when compared to other compact Sport Utility Vehicles – and Sport Utility Vehicles in general. The Forester was classified as a passenger vehicle – specifically, a station wagon. The suspension design, coupled with the low center of gravity inherent to the horizontally opposed engine, enabled the Forester to straddle the line between a truck and a car. As a result, the Forester did not require a risk of rollover warning label on the driver’s visor – a fact that Subaru proudly pointed out. Additionally, the Forester featured dual front airbags (in the US), door mounted side-impact beams, and ALR/ELR 3-point seat belts in the outboard seating positions. All of those, when combined with the reinforced unibody structure, aided the Forester in performing well in the standard battery of crash tests. An Anti-Lock Brake System was available on all but the base trim level, and rear disk brakes were standard on the top trim levels. The advanced traction control system exhibited on the Streega concept car did not make it into production.
The first generation Forester saw several changes during its production run; the biggest being the facelift for 2000 (2001 for the US), which featured a modified front and rear fascia and modified side cladding, updated tail lights, and new engines for both the US and Japanese markets – the EJ251 replaced the EJ25D in the US market, while the EJ205 replaced the EJ20G in the Japanese market.
While the Forester remained positioned as purely a utility vehicle in the US market, the Forester gained several performance versions in Japan starting in 2000. First was the S/TB-STI, which featured performance suspension, a unique body kit and unique wheels. This version, as well as the subsequent S/TB-STIII and S/TB-STIIILimited were still equipped with the same engine, engine tuning, and 4-speed automatic transmission that could be had in the standard Forester S/TB. The STIII Type M was the true performance Forester at the time; it featured everything that the earlier S/TB STI versions had, with the addition of a new tune for the EJ205 engine producing 276 horsepower backed by a 5-speed manual transmission, upgraded brakes, and Bilstein suspension. These were rare, however, as only 800 of the STIII Type M were produced.
The Forester received industry acclaim for how it delivered the styling, go-anywhere capability, comfort, and safety that consumers were demanding while showcasing Subaru’s unique engineering. Reviewers lauded the packaging and driving dynamics of the Forester, as well as its versatility and practicality. Turbocharged versions were even lauded for their performance. George Muller, the president and chief operating officer of Subaru of America, wrote that “The Forester was a new generation of utility vehicle that would set the new standards for utility vehicles of the future.” The Sport Utility Vehicle craze was here to stay, and Subaru was in it for the long haul. Citing the sales success of the Legacy Outback, Muller went on to claim that “Subaru had clearly demonstrated its role as a leader in this emerging segment and planned to continue to be at its forefront.” He wasn’t wrong; the Forester turned into a huge success for Subaru, both in the short term and in the long term, cementing Subaru’s identity as an “Active Lifestyle” brand.
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