2019 Subaru Forester
Despite names from seemingly disparate corners of the planet, the Subaru Outback and Subaru Forester approach carrying people and cargo in very similar ways.
More importantly for shoppers, both vehicles are relative values among competitors.
The 2020 Outback is new this year and a familiar shape and face for shoppers considering the off-road-ready, adventure wagon. The Forester was new for 2019, another familiar face and shape, but with more value than anything else on the road—it was our Best Car to Buy 2019 and the first repeat winner for The Car Connection in our award’s history.
The Forester’s resume is impressive, and so is its overall score—we rate it at 6.8. The Outback’s 6.4 overall rating is lower, for now. Safety—a Subaru strong suit—isn’t yet in for the Outback, we expect that score to rise.
MORE: Read our full reviews of the 2019 Subaru Forester and the 2020 Subaru Outback
Style and performance
The Outback and Forester are immediately recognizable to fans of the wagon and crossover, respectively—and the brand. Neither venture too far from the roads set before them and follow closely their predecessors in shape and execution. Where both improve over prior models is in interior materials and layout, a longtime Subaru foil.
The Forester typically wears durable cloth, upgradeable to cloth with orange and black accents in Forester Sport versions, or leather in top trims. The fit and finish are better in the Forester than in prior generations; the dash and center console are wrapped in more elegant materials that are not only softer but also better looking. For example, the Forester’s serpentine shifter gate from just a few years ago has been replaced with a better-looking boot—small touches make a big difference.
Samesies with the Outback. Most versions of the 2020 model will be fitted with an 11.6-inch touchscreen in the center—not long ago reserved for high-end luxury vehicles—with a soft dash and impressive materials everywhere. Most versions of the Outback wear cloth upholstery that’s similarly durable, but top trims get nappa leather that’s uptown all the way. Onyx edition models get the best of both worlds: a durable synthetic leather that’s hard-wearing and waterproof.
Both Forester and Outback share a 2.5-liter flat-4 and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) tuned for efficiency. In both cars, the flat-4 makes 182 horsepower and returns 29 mpg combined, according to the EPA.
The power isn’t overwhelming in either model, but Subaru’s clever throttle tuning makes both feel faster than they are. Power comes on quickly, and base models surge ahead quickly off the line before tapering off early.
Although both notch a 6 on our scale, the Outback may nudge ahead slightly due to an uprated turbo-4 engine option, a 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-4 borrowed from the Ascent. In the Outback, it makes 260 hp and a more progressive throttle calibration that means it’s more not only more patient off the line but also offers deeper wells of power for mountain highway passes.
Both Forester and Outback offer similar levels of off-road capability, which is to say, stellar. The Outback and Forester have as much ground clearance as many Jeeps, with enough all-wheel-drive traction to scramble up mountain roads with relative ease.
Picking a winner for performance is hard to do: the Outback has a higher ceiling, but both cars have set a high bar already.
Comfort, safety, and performance
The Outback and Forester can’t separate on comfort either.
Both crossovers offer space for up to five adults, with room behind the second row for more than 30 cubic feet of cargo space.
The Outback rides atop a wheelbase that’s longer, and offers three more inches between the wheels compared to the Forester. The Outback offers 39.5 inches of leg room for rear-seat riders, but the Forester boasts 39 inches. Front-seat riders in both models have plenty of available space and accommodations, but the Outback’s seats are just a little more comfortable. We’d stick bigger adults in the back of the Outback. The Forester and Outback have just more than 35 cubic feet of cargo space, but more of the Forester’s space is above the rear seat backs—vertical space may not be needed all the time.
The Forester’s safety scores are impressive so far: five stars from federal testers and a Top Safety Pick+ from the IIHS. The Outback aims for similarly impressive figures, but official tests aren’t yet done.
We see value in both toward the base ends. The Forester Premium costs about $27,700, and it’s loaded with small details such as alloy wheels, roof rack, 10-way power driver’s seat, tinted windows, rear-seat vents, a cargo cover, illuminated vanity mirrors, remote engine start from a smartphone app, and more. A package with heated seats, blind-spot monitors, and keyless ignition costs about $1,300, and a power tailgate is a reasonable $550 more. For a hair under $30,000, a well-optioned Forester Premium is the one we’d buy.
Same story, second verse with the Outback. The Outback Premium costs less than $30,000 to start with an 11.6-inch tablet-style touchscreen for infotainment, four USB charge ports, power-adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, 17-inch wheels and sound-insulating front windows for a quieter cabin. Keyless ignition, navigation, blind-spot monitors, a power liftgate, and moonroof are on the options list.
Both values are compelling. But who wins? Shoppers, we say.
Comfort & Quality
Fuel Economy – Combined City and Highway
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