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Nissan X-Trail vs Subaru Forester vs Toyota RAV4


Models reviewed:

  • Subaru Forester – $30,990 to $46,990
  • Nissan X-Trail – $28,490 (2WD) to $45,240
  • Toyota RAV4 – $28,990 (2WD) to $49,990

Last year saw 114,761 Compact SUVs sold in Australia. That’s an increase of more than 30,000 units since 2009 and represents the fastest growing segment in the Australia car market.

As a result, the segment has become a huge battleground for manufacturers trying to outdo the other for your hard earned cash.

The top three best sellers in the category are the Subaru Forester (12.8% market share), Toyota RAV4 (12.7% market share) and Nissan X-Trail (8.5% market share).

All three represent a great package for those looking for something that is capable off-road but also practical in the city.

Having properly road tested and reviewed all these cars in the past, it’s still rather hard to pick a winner. Mainly because all three are great vehicles for different people.

In saying that, about a week ago while Brisbane was mostly underwater, I spent one long and rather hot Saturday test driving all the top selling cars in this segment with a potential buyer.

So then, if you’ve been looking at getting behind the wheel of a compact SUV, keep reading.

All models tested were 4×4 variants with basic off-roading ability.

Engines, Performance & Off-road ability

Subaru Forester (2.5) Toyota RAV4 (2.4) Nissan X-Trail (2.5)
Engine Type MULTI POINT F/INJ MULTI POINT F/INJ MULTI POINT F/INJ
Engine Size 2.5L 2.4L 2.5L
Cylinders Flat 4 INLINE 4 INLINE 4
Max. Torque 229Nm @ 4400rpm 224Nm @ 4000rpm 226Nm @ 4400rpm
Max. Power 126kW @ 6000rpm 125kW @ 6000rpm 125kW @ 6000rpm
Bore & Stroke 99.5x79mm 88.5x96mm 89x100mm
Compression Ratio 9.8 9.6 9.6
Valve Gear VSOC VSOC DOHC

The Subaru Forester has been the best selling compact SUV for some time, you only have to look out on the street to see the popularity of this Japanese-built vehicle. Part of its appeal has been its engine line-up, offering everything from practical motoring, efficient diesel engines and even sporty petrol turbos.

There are three engine choices in the range. At the bottom of the pack is the naturally aspirated 2.5-litre four-cylinder boxer engine (126kW @ 6000rpm – 229Nm @ 4400rpm) which powers the X and XS variants. Diesel lovers will be pleased to know the Subaru 2.0-litre diesel engine is now available in the Forester range and offers 108kW @ 3600rpm and a massive 350Nm @ 1800rpm.

If you want that little more power, the famous 2.5-litre boxer turbo (borrowed from the previous generation Impreza WRX) is also available and delivers 169kW @ 5200rpm and 320Nm @ 2800rpm.

Wait until late February and you’ll also find a new variant called the Forester S-Edition which will make use of the new WRX engine and deliver 24 kW and 27 Nm of torque more than the current XT and hence better performance.

You can see that with the wide variety of engine choices on offer, most buyers are likely to find what they are after. The only downside to the Forester range is the lack of an automatic for the diesel. This may come in the future but for now it’s not on the cards.

The naturally aspirated 2.5-litre is relatively sufficient to meet most buyers’ needs. If you’re happy to drive a manual SUV then you can achieve 0-100km/h times of around 10.4 seconds. Unfortunately for Subaru fans, the Japanese company has continued to use a now dated four-speed automatic in the Forester range which not only hurts the car’s fuel economy but gives a relatively lacklustre 0-100km/h time of 11 seconds.

The 2.0-litre diesel variants are only available with a six-speed manual and do the 0-100km/h dash in 10.4 seconds. The plus side here is the enormous 350 Nm of torque, great for towing (1600kg towing braked capacity).

Of course if performance figures mean anything to you then you’ll find yourself behind the wheel of the Forester XT. Using a five-speed manual transmission, the XT can catapult you from 0-100km/h in just 7.1 seconds, which is rather quick for a car its size. If you must pick the four-speed auto version, you’ll achieve that figure in 7.9 seconds.

From a ride and handling perspective the Subaru Forester has always been the pack leader. Thanks to Subaru’s involvement in motorsports and its STI division, the sporty dynamics of its performance cars are applied in principle to all variants.

Even the base model Forester feels more nimble than the other two competitors and the XT variant makes use of sporty suspension to deliver a well balanced and dynamic vehicle. If you’re after a sporty compact SUV, it’s very hard to argue against the Forester XT or Forester S-edition.

Basic off-roading ability is built into every Subaru thanks to the company’s all-wheel-drive system. The Forester’s ground clearance of 225 mm (highest in this comparison) means it’s capable of getting around some tough terrain but it’s not ideally suited to anything more than dirt roads and minor inclines.

Toyota’s RAV4 has long been the consistent performer in this segment. It has grown up considerably in the past decade and now comes with either a 2.4-litre four cylinder engine with 125 kW and 225 Nm of torque or a 3.5-litre V6 engine that blasts the competition away with 201 kW and 333 Nm of torque. There is no diesel variant.

The RAV4 V6 gets from a standstill to 100km/h in 7.4 seconds via a five-speed automatic. The four-cylinder variants are very similar in performance to the Forester and also make use of a four-speed automatic (five-speed manual available).

The RAV4 V6 can be a bit of a handful to drive, the big V6 engine punches out a lot of power and can lead to some serious understeer if driven inappropriately. On the contrary, the Forester XT delivers a significantly better vehicle for the enthusiastic driver.

Nonetheless, the four-cylinder version of the popular Toyota is a very comfortable drive and delivers its power and torque much better through the four-speed auto than its equivalent Forester. It easily absorbs the poorly maintained roads of Brisbane and gets up hills without too many complaints.

Steering feel is a little soft but then again if you’re after a practical SUV and have no desire for any spirited driving, this is how you’d want it to feel.

If you intend to take your RAV4 off-road beware that it’s a soft-roader at heart. With a ground clearance of just 195 mm, this Toyota is best suited to the city. The active-4WD system will make sure you won’t get stuck in all that many ditches but it’s not the sort of system you can rely on when the hills start to look a little scary. For that you’ll need a vehicle will low-range gears.

If you can’t find something that works in the Forester or RAV4 range, the X-trail is always a good choice. Despite its rather peculiar looks the X-Trail is by and large the car to pick if semi-serious off-roading means anything to you.

Just like the RAV4 and Forester, the X-Trail range starts with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. In Nissan’s case, it delivers 125kW @ 6000rpm and 226Nm @ 4400rpm. Unlike the other two, Nissan offers the X-Trail with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) which, although to most people is simply just an automatic with a different name, is a significant improvement over the four-speed automatic transmissions available in the other two.

The diesel X-Trail is also a worthy competitor with the 2.0-litre engine managing an impressive 127 kW and 360 Nm of torque (for manual), making it more powerful than the Forester. Better yet, it’s also available with a six-speed automatic, however power drops down to 110 kW and torque comes in at 320 Nm (lower than manual to preserve the automatic gearbox).

Driving wise the X-Trail is a genuinely easy car to get around in. The diesel engine is a tad noisy at times but you can get used to it rather quickly. Around town it’s a simple piece of machinery to operate and around twisty roads it does tend to behave itself most of the time. It falls short of the Forester’s impressive handling dynamics.

Even-though the X-Trail has a 212 mm ground clearance, Nissan’s four-wheel drive system is by far the best in its class. If you can physically fit the X-Trail over tough terrain, it will more than likely climb it without too many hassles.

Overall, all three cars offer similar packages when it comes to engine and performance. The Forester stays out on top for ride and handling, the RAV4 tops the three for comfort, and the X-Trail’s powerful diesel, plus the option for an automatic diesel, makes its a unique catch.

Fuel consumption and emissions

Subaru Forester 2.5 Toyota RAV4 (2.4) Nissan X-Trail (2.5)
Fuel Type ULP ULP ULP
Fuel Tank Capacity 60L 60L 65L
Fuel Consumption 9.3 L / 100km 9.1 L / 100km 9.1L / 100km
CO2 Emission 200 grams/km 213grams/km 228 grams/km

The most fuel efficient car in this comparison is the Subaru Forester diesel manual which uses just 6.4 litres per 100km. The Nissan X-Trail diesel manual is second best with 7.2L/100km (7.4 for auto). Of course the diesels attract a premium price and do their best mileage on the highway.

The petrol variants are equal best with the X-Trail and RAV4 both coming in at 9.1L/100km (manual). The Forester 2.5-litre manual is 9.3L/100km. Interestingly enough, the X-Trail CVT uses exactly the same amount of fuel as its manual brother. Meanwhile the RAV4 and Forester four-speed autos both result in 9.6 L/100km.

The sporty Forester XT uses 10.5L/100km for both manual and auto.

Exterior and dimensions

Subaru Forester 2.5 Toyota RAV4 (2.4-3.5) Nissan X-Trail (2.5)
Length (mm) 4560 4600-4625 4635
Width (mm) 1795 1815-1855 1790
Height (mm) 1700 1695-1730 1700
Weight (kg) 1475 1550-1655 1525

All three cars are a lot bigger inside than you’d think. The Forester and RAV4 have both certainly done some serious growing in the past few years and the X-Trail provides a very practical package. As far as sheer size goes, the X-Trail measures the longest at 4635 mm, the Forester comes in at 4560 mm and the RAV4 at 4625 mm.

Looks are entirely subjective but it’s hard to argue the X-trail is a better looker than the other two. The Forester is the most masculine in design and the RAV4 is traditional Toyota in that it offends no one yet fails to inspire any feelings whatsoever.

Nissan has well and truly gone for function over form in the X-Trail’s case and that can be assessed from the way the rear is designed for maximum practicality. This is a good thing if you’re also a creature that puts practicality ahead of looks. Not many are.

Overall, all three measure about equal size, on the road the RAV 4 and X-Trail tend to look a little bit bigger than the Forester but the Subaru looks the most sporty and easily exudes more sophistication.

Interior and equipement

The Japanese are  not generally known for creating world-class interiors. It’s always been a case of keeping it simple and effective. While the Europeans tend to fill their cars with gadgets and goodies, you’ll be lucky to find something to amuse yourself in any of the three cars here.

Nonetheless, this is partially why Japanese cars tend to be so reliable. Given the simplicity of the technology, little can go wrong. Better yet, if something does happen to go wrong, it won’t require a team of engineers from Munich to work out why.

The Forester’s interior ranges from Spartan plastics in the base model to leather trim with the whole shebang in the XT and premium diesel.  Subaru still commands a rather high $4500 to fit a sat nav system in place of the six-stack in-dash CD player. The Japanese company is also yet to catch on to the iPod/iPhone craze, offering only a basic Auxiliary jack and no native support for anything Apple.  There is 450L of cargo space if the rear seats are being used or 1660L if the rear seats are folded down.

Given Toyota’s attitude to cars (volume is key), the RAV4’s interior is not all that much different to other Toyota models.

The audio system is not integrated into the dash (which is great if you intend to upgrade it). The V6 ZR6 variant gains a sat nav system but the rest of the range makes do with a reasonable system capable of playing MP3 and connecting to your phone via bluetooth. Cargo space is 540L with the seats up (no official data as to cargo space with seats folded flat).

The Nissan X-Trail also offers a rather utilitarian interior, three simple dials in the middle for airconditioning, a stereo (or sat nav depending on variant) and a storage compartment right in the top of the dashboard. As opposed to the other two, the X-Trail makes use of soft-touch plastics throughout the cabin which makes it far better to touch. Although most will not notice the subtle differences, the X-Trail’s interior has been built with a slightly higher budget in mind. Interior cargo space is 603 L with the seats upright and 1773 L with the seats flat.

All three SUV’s equipment levels are relatively on-par with each other and if you need something fitted that isn’t standard (e.g. Bluetooth in the Forester), there are kits that can make that happen. Best yet, argue with the dealer that it should be standard and get it included as part of the deal.

Safety

Toyota’s base model RAV4 CV doesn’t come with anything more than two front airbags, which is a shame for such a large car in 2011. I’d strongly urge any potential RAV4 customers to upgrade to a Cruiser or higher  variants if they value their life in the unlikely event of an accident. The current generation RAV4 has a four-star ANCAP safety rating.

The Subaru Forester is a five-star rated car and like every Subaru in the range, safety is not compromised. All variants come with a full set of front, side and curtain airbags. The X-Trail is the same with even the base model equipped with a full compliment of safety gear and airbags.

Warranty & Servicing

Subaru Forester Nissan X-Trail Toyota RAV4
Service Interval 6 months / 10,000 kms 12 months / 15,000 kms 12 months / 15,000 kms
Warranty 36 months / Unlimited kms 36 months / 100,000 kms 36 months / 100,000 kms

Conclusion:

As I said at the beginning of this comparison, all three of these cars offer excellent choices for different people. If you want my advice, the Subaru Forester is the most ideal thanks to its masculine looks, ride and handling, build quality and safety features.

For some the X-Trail’s more practical boot space or the availability of a diesel automatic will be the clincher. Others still may pick the RAV4 simply because it does everything so easily and is a breeze to drive around town.

Count yourself lucky as there are so many choices in the market today. You must go out there and drive at least three different makes and models to make a decision. Even if you still end up buying the car you wanted in the first place, at least you’ll do it without regret. More importantly, remember that all cars reviewed here are AWD (4WD). The X-trail and RAV4 both come in 2WD versions as well, which are good enough for most.

Don’t limit yourself to these three either, there are many other choices out there. Check out the Suzuki Grand Vitara if you want proper off-roading ability, or the Mitsubishi Outlander if you want the best warranty in the business. There are literally 23 choices in the Compact SUV segment, so there is a vehicle there for everyone.

The Subaru Forester is the car for you if:

  • You want a sporty compact SUV
  • A five-star ANCAP rating makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside
  • You’re after a diesel and can drive a manual
  • You want a fast sports car but the missus wants practicality – Forester XT
  • You don’t mind a four-speed automatic
  • You want the best ride and handling package in its class

The Nissan X-Trail is the car for you if:

  • You want a diesel automatic
  • You love the idea that your car is purpose built with not all that much attention to styling
  • You prefer soft-touch interior plastics
  • You want the best automatic (CVT or six-speed for the diesel)
  • You want the most powerful diesel engine
  • You’ll actually make use of all that boot space

The Toyota RAV4 is the car for you if:

  • You want a petrol engine
  • You like Toyota’s practical interiors
  • You want a car that will get you from A to B without a single complaint
  • You like fixed price servicing – knowing exactly how much each service will be in advance
  • You don’t mind a four-speed automatic
  • You can afford to upgrade from the base model to gain the additional airbags
  • You don’t mind a four-star ANCAP safety rated car

Further reading:







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