BIRMINGHAM, AL — No, we're not in Greenbow County. And the movie character Forrest Gump wouldn't be able to compare the '03 Subaru Forester to a box of chocolates.

After building its reputation on all-wheel-drive cars for several decades, you know what you're going to get from Subaru: unibody construction, quirky exterior design, adequate interior size, sufficient passenger and cargo carrying ability without driving a gas-guzzling land yacht, a somewhat roughshod driving experience, crashworthiness — and a definite “image.”

The '03 Forester won't do much to rearrange Subaru's selection of chocolates. But the Forester itself has changed considerably. Included are 12 new standard features, a lighter and stronger body structure, a U-shaped hydroformed front subframe, a wider rear track, smoother exterior contours, an updated instrument panel, more legroom and improved sightlines.

A day driving in the Heart of Dixie provides a smattering of tests for Forester — hill-topping excursions, flatland cruising and even Talladega Motor Superspeedway.

Forester's performance ranged from below average to excellent. Most impressive was driving over cinder blocks and piles of wood at 15 mph (24 km/h) at Talladega. It can handle the rough stuff, but the heavy-duty 4-wheel independent suspension is jarring when it confronts smaller road imperfections.

During numerous decelerations, it's clear Subaru put a lot of effort into improving Forester's notoriously soft brakes. But another concerted effort to reduce interior wind noise doesn't fare as well. And it's unfortunate that changes made to the '03 Forester don't include a boost to the 2.5L DOHC horizontally opposed 4-cyl. (165 hp). Surely the all-new Forester could gainfully employ the Outback's 3L “boxer” 6-cyl. with 212 hp.

The standard 5-speed manual transmission is an unremarkable pleasure, but the Hill Holder clutch system needs more refinement. A 4-speed automatic is optional.

Interior appearance is enhanced with nicely packaged stereo/HVAC controls and silver-lined vents — but the dash topcoat feels like a basketball.

Pricing for the '03 Forester was unavailable at press time, but the current model starts at a not-inconsequential $20,295, while the company similarly refuses to back off the dangerously ambitious pricing of its 6-cyl. cars.

As Forrest Gump would say, “That's all I have to say about that.”