Take Time to Appreciate the First Generation Subaru Forester

Photo: Subaru
Photo: Subaru

There are times in this life when I see on the street a car I’ve never driven and say to myself “Damn, I dig that car and I don’t know why.” I once declared the fifth-gen Hyundai Sonata “handsome” and I voiced my “deep respect” for the Pontiac Torrent. Now it’s time to show appreciation for the first-gen Subaru Forester. I hope you will join me in this.

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It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the Jeep Cherokee XJ—a boxy, lifted four-wheel drive wagon. But what I’m not a huge fan of is its fuel economy, wind noise, and handling. I guess that’s why, for the past 15 years or so, I’ve been ogling Subaru Foresters, and giving nods of approval.

Photo: Subaru
Photo: Subaru
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Their styling is clean and functional, even stylish, and I think that comes down to a couple of factors. First, there’s the boxy, upright look of the vehicle, which makes it feel old-school and a bit rugged. That, combined with the short overhangs and the small size just makes the geometry pretty much perfect in my eyes.

Then there’s all the glass. A big greenhouse is a lovely look on an automobile, and it plays a big part in giving SUVs like the Land Cruiser FJ60 and the Jeep Grand Wagoneer their drool-worthy status. The first-gen Forester has lots of glass on the sides, and my favorite part of the car is the tall rear hatch glass:

Photo: Subaru
Photo: Subaru

Then there’s the plastic body cladding, which actually works here. Some folks would prefer that to be body-colored, but I’m a practical man, and if some jackass decides to open their door into my car in an O’Reilly Auto Parts parking lot, it’d be nice to know I won’t get a ding or have to break out the touch-up paint.

I will admit that not all Foresters have the gray cladding, and yet, they still look pretty good, but the ones with the cladding have my heart.

The first-gen Forester came with a single engine option in the U.S.: a 2.5-liter flat-four making 165 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque, and bolted to either a four-speed auto or a five-speed manual. EPA-rated fuel economy was 19 city, 25 highway, 21 combined—not great numbers by today’s standards, but solid for something this practical in the ’90s.

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I won’t pretend to know much about that motor, other than that it’s in a line of engines known for going through head gaskets. That’s obviously not optimal, but still, just look at this lovely machine:

Image: Subaru
Image: Subaru
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Subaru marketed the first-gen “Fozzy” with the tag line “Sport-Utility tough, car easy.” I can buy that. It’s an all-wheel drive, manual transmission wagon with tons of space, handsome looks, decent fuel economy, respectable handling (or so I’ve read) and actual off-road capability. What more does anyone want in this world?

Seriously, check out this video by YouTuber SXS_ALNSM. Look at how much fun these guys are having in a vehicle that will get them 25 MPG on the way home:

What’s great is that, by now, first-gen Foresters are dirt cheap; I see decent ones on Craigslist for about $3,500. This car’s styling alone makes it difficult for me to resist its allure, especially this beautiful, low-mileage example.

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I also have to admit that the second and third generation Foresters look pretty awesome, too. Here’s gen two, which my Subaru-nerd coworker Aaron Brown mentions could be had with a turbo engine with over 200 horsepower:

Photo: Subaru
Photo: Subaru
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And here’s gen three:

Photo: Subaru
Photo: Subaru
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The new one is shown below, and while I think it looks good in its own right, it’s lost much of what I liked about the previous-gen Foresters. It looks a bit too round and bulbous:

Image: Subaru
Image: Subaru
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I’ve never owned a first-gen Forester. But it may be time to change that.

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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DISCUSSION

sleeksilver
SlothLovesChunk

First gen CR-V > First gen Forester

I actually like my vehicles to be reliable. I remember on the Subaru forums back in the day, people would talk about how 120,000 miles was an accomplishment on the OEM headgaskets and other parts that might not have failed. There are CR-Vs that made it 300K with nothing other than regular maintenance.