If Subaru's WRX is the track star, and the Outback is the mountain-climbing athlete, then the Forester is the soccer mom.

But for 2003, mom gets a face-lift.

Not that you'd notice.

The Forester has been restyled, but the only ones who can tell are the Subaru loyalists. They like it that way.

After all, despite the new looks, the Forester continues to offer attributes that attract so many suburban dwellers: a boxy SUV-like shape, the road manners of a car and all-wheel-drive.

The Forester is derived from the smaller Subaru Impreza platform. But, with a large boxy body, it has a lot more cargo space — a whopping 64 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, despite being just 175 inches long. Yet the Forester can still hold four adults in relative comfort.

With such an efficient shape, it's not a sexy vehicle to look at, unless you find earth shoes sexy.

Still, the designers at Subaru have endowed the vehicle with a sleeker look. The grille has been enlarged, and multi-reflector halogen headlamps are nestled above a new contoured bumper with integral fog lamps. Flared fenders and a revised tailgate and tail lamps round out the new look.

Inside, the story is much the same. Upgraded materials give the Forester a sophisticated feel. Perforated trim lines the dash, along with metallic accents. Large round gauges, shared with the Impreza, are easy to read. The AM/FM/CD audio system has a weather band. Air-conditioning, variable speed intermittent wipers and remote keyless entry also are standard, even on the base model.

There are two trim levels, 2.5 X and 2.5 XS.

Both are powered by a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed single-overhead-cam four-cylinder mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Full-time all-wheel drive is standard, as it is on all Subarus. In addition, the manual transmission features Subaru's hill-holder clutch, to prevent creeping backwards on hills.

That might seem fine, but consider that the Forester's curb weight is about 3,100 pounds. Power is good at speed, but off the line and around town, the engine seems underwhelming. Load the Forester to the gills with people and gear, and you'll swear you're in an old Subaru 360 Van.

Handling is sound; the all-wheel drive gives the car a very secure feel. But feedback is typically numb, as it is in many Japanese cars. The ride is quite good for so small a car, with bumps never crashing through to your posterior.

Seats are better than in most Subarus, but are still a bit hard. Passengers in front get treated to seat heaters and leather trim in the upscale 2.5 XS Forester. In addition, the car also has such niceties as automatic climate control, a six-CD in-dash changer, power moonroof, limited-slip rear differential, heated exterior mirrors and a windshield wiper de-icer. Those are in addition to the usual power goodies, such as windows, loc ks and mirrors.

It's an impressive package, especially considering the price. The fully loaded test car had a retail tag of $25,970.

While never that exciting to drive, the Forester handles all the chores that larger, heavier gas-sucking SUVs do at half the price, half the weight and with just as much aplomb.

That ol' soccer mom is starting to look pretty good.