Forester versus Outback. Subaru has two popular SUVs separated by around a grand vying for your attention. Which one should you pick?
If you’re after a multi-terrain, family-sized SUV that wants for few features on a mid-forties budget, Subaru can spoil you for choice.
The obvious candidate is the recently released, new-generation Forester 2.5i-S, which sits as the all-you-can-eat flagship mid-sizer. But what many tyre-kickers – even those wedded to the Subaru brand – mightn’t realise is that the categorically larger Outback 2.5i Premium is a legitimate cross-shop for no other reason than it boasts a similar upfront outlay.
And yet, despite the slim fiscal disparity, some might find such a cross-shop unusual or perhaps inspired rather than face-smackingly obvious because, well, surely these two model lines are very different animals, right? I mean, just look at them! Different design courses for what are surely different horses.
But these two Subarus with distinctly different looks – and distinctly different appeal – are closer in a great many areas than you may, or we did, imagine. So much so that their similarities will require this whole review to fully cover off.
Before we cover the ‘whats’, here is the ‘why’. When this fifth and somewhat gracefully ageing Outback generation lobbed back in 2015, it was noticeably larger than its fourth-gen Forester contemporary. But the Forester before you is the newer fifth-gen launched for 2019 – more rotund where it matters for a good many SUV owners, and literally filling the gap of sizing disparity to its now not-so-much-bigger brother.
Size and shape
The Outback remains visibly and measurably longer, by almost 20cm (4820mm plays 4625mm). But it’s an older design with much more overhang front and rear, and they’re much closer in wheelbase disparity, some 75mm (2745mm to 2670mm), which informs all the crucial packaging and interior space stuff by way of cabin depth.
Of course, Subaru calls the Outback an SUV when, if taking DNA more into account than marketing spin, it’s clearly much more a jacked-up Legacy-based station wagon than the generally accepted SUV format.
The closer you look, the closer they (metrically) appear. The Outback’s a next-to-nothing 25mm wider, and is actually shorter in roof height by 55mm (1675mm to 1730mm), even if 7mm of which is lost in ground clearance (213mm to 220mm).
I’ll spare you the tape-measure fetish any further to illustrate the mid-sizer’s generational growth spurt, but the fact is that the new Forester is much closer in size to the Outback than it is the old Forester.
Interior space and storage
The new Forester’s luggage space, seats up, grew 78L, so nowadays its blossomed 498L space is just 14L short of the Outback (512L).
We’ve long praised the latter’s huge, adventure-friendly 1801L rear 60:40 split-fold seats down – it’ll easily swallow a pair of mountain bikes – but the Forester only cedes 33L (1768L) and, at a glance, it's hard to tell where.
Each also gets a remote seat-fold lever and full-sized spare wheel under the boot floor.
Crunch time is in cabin space, and you might expect the Forester would lose out, yes? Surprisingly, passenger space in row two – generous space at that – is nearly identical for knees and shoulders, but it’s the Outback that wins on headroom.
The wagon’s lower-set seating and concave headlining are measurably more adult-friendly than the Forester’s high-set, more child-oriented pew and a semi-panoramic glass roof that eats into an otherwise tall ceiling.
At least the Forester’s low window line offers fantastic outward visibility for small children in the back. Indeed, the mid-sized SUV’s massive glasshouse provides exceptional all-round vision, though for its part the cosier Outback has great visibility and virtually no blind spots.
Bleeding obvious, if noteworthy nonetheless, is that the seemingly longer, lower-set Outback cabin is, er, emphatically car-like, while the Forester has an unmistakable SUV vibe, what with its perched seating and squarer cabin proportions.
Cabin designs are markedly different: the Outback more traditional, austere and simpler; the Forester more angular, fussy and complex. Which is better or worse will come down to buyer taste, but in no way does the wagon play second fiddle.
If anything, the Outback has a classier feel, nicer soft-touch points, more maturity and upmarket vibe from the sense of solidity and tactility of the centre stack controls.
Meanwhile, the Forester’s three-screen arrangement screams tech yet verges on information overload – despite the near identical 8.0-inch infotainment systems with slightly different software – and surfaces are a little harder to touch and more flimsy in integration in more conspicuous areas.
In fact, it’s only the Outback that imparts an innate sense of quality in integrity that would give German premium marques some cause for concern. And the wagon really backs this up once you get them out on the road.
On the road
On the move, the first thing you notice is just how quiet the Outback is, be it suppressing the noise of its own powertrain or buffering out wind and road noise. By contrast, the Forester is good by normal measure, if a little tinnier and noisier in the company of its stablemate.
The second thing you notice with the Outback is just how resolved its ride comfort is. In fact, it’s outstanding, smoothing out lumpy roads even at low speeds, if stopping short of the kind of loping body control that inflicts, say, the Impreza. It has compliance, support and body control all impressively covered, in a way that the Forester does not.
Its smaller sibling is at once much more fidgety in primary ride over small bumps and more pitchy in roll and dive. In a nutshell, the smaller Subaru shakes its occupants around much more during normal urban driving.
This might seem a bit of a head-scratcher given that the Outback sits on essentially two-generations-old proprietary underpinnings, while the Forester is based off the newer Subaru Global Platform. But what you sense in the ride-along is that the larger Subaru has benefited much for constant, near decade-long refinement in shaking the bugs out of its ride and handling package – plus its nifty cradle-mounted front end that isolates the suspension and the engine from the cabin structure – whereas the fledgling Forester still has some rough edges left to smooth out throughout its future life cycle.
While both are fitted with ‘FB25’ designated 2.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol fours, the Outback adopts an older, sequentially injected unit good for 129kW and 235Nm, while the Forester fits a so-called “90 per cent newer” direct-injected iteration with higher (10.3:1 plays 12.0:1) compression and, at 136kW and 239Nm, a modest lift in outputs.
Nor are their CVT automatic transmissions the same, the Forester offering the latest version with its conspicuous ‘seven speed’-stepped application.
The newer Forester engine offers a noticeably quicker and sharper throttle response, though this doesn’t actually do drivability much favour. In fact, this makes the mid-sized SUV a little trickier to modulate and drive smoothly at low speed and in traffic.
Without torque-blossoming forced induction, neither engine offers much mid-range oomph, leaving their powerbands feeling flat and unremarkable. If anything, the Outback’s softer take-up makes for a rounder and more friendly powertrain for tooling around town.
Interestingly, Subaru claims the slightly heavier (1639kg plays 1617kg) Outback and its older engine returns oh-so-slightly favorable combined consumption of 7.3L/100km (against 7.4L for the Forester), though we couldn’t split the pair in real-world driving.
Dynamics-wise, neither offers much in the way of highlights.
Lateral grip is modest from the near-identical 225mm Bridgestone Dueler H/P tyres that are slightly chubbier on the Outback (60 series to 55), while the Forester’s steering is generally heavier off-centre, annoyingly requiring a little more arm effort when tracking the straight ahead.
Yes, the Forester is a little lighter on its rubber feet, though the Outback easily counters this by feeling more tied down in corners.
The notion that the larger Outback better serves regional folk, while a smaller Forester better serves city slickers' needs, becomes fallacy once you compare parking prowess.
They have equally fine reversing cameras, and despite the Outback lacking rear parking sensors, neither is realistically trickier than the other to park in a tight space, be it parallel or perpendicular.
Even the turning circles – 10.8m for the Forester, 11.0m for the Outback – are close enough to make no tangible difference.
Safety and equipment
Speaking of assistance, both vehicles – all Subarus, in fact – fit the EyeSight driver-assistance system that, frankly, can be a little hit-and-miss in consistency and accuracy. Particularly in the lane-departure warning/lane-keeping department, which seems to activate more or less at random irrespective of road markings and driving situation.
The Forester exclusively fits the new Driver Monitoring System that, among its various functions, feels fit to punish a driver for supposed inattention. The most irksome feature is facial recognition supposedly able to tell if you take your eyes off the road. Instead, it triggers incessantly to other impetuses – a head tilt, say – and, frustratingly, if there is an off button it’s buried so deep in submenus that you may never find it.
Another function likes to reprimand the driver for not setting off quickly enough once the traffic ahead moves off – even if you’re politely letting another car merge into your lane.
I made it 32 years on the road without such annoyances in my life, and I don’t need them now. Particularly if I can’t set them to remain off or opt to switch them off from default activation.
Ignore the different S and Premium designations because the features lists and goodies count are very similar. Each gets self-levelling LED headlights with steering response, 18-inch alloys, eight-way electric seats, leather trim, powered tailgates, 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment with sat-nav and smartphone mirroring, DAB+ radio, powered tailgates… You really need to dig into the nitty-gritty to split specification hairs, though you can.
For instance, the Forester gets Harman Kardon-branded eight-speaker sound, auto power-folding heated mirrors (the Outback lacks the ‘auto’ convenience), paddle shifters, LED tail-lights and aforementioned Driver Monitoring System that’s perhaps more deal-breaker than deal-maker.
Meanwhile, the Outback gets clever stowaway cross bars for the roof rails. In short, there’s nothing really in the mix to yank your complete attention the way of the small Subaru.
That is, all except ownership cost.
Both Subarus are capped by 12,500km servicing intervals, but while the Forester's conditions are every 12 months, the Outback works to a six-month schedule. Yes, the larger Subie is off the road twice as often.
And yet, its intervallic services are no more affordable despite the doubled frequency. Result? Averaged over five years, the Forester will cost you around $477 per year to service, while the Outback will cost you around $912 per annum.
But why? According to Subaru, it’s only current models built of that Subaru Global Platform that get 12-month servicing grace due to “significant changes to engines and chassis”. Those models include the current Forester, XV and Impreza… And possibly the yet to be released, next-generation Outback due next year.
Judging from reader feedback to past Outback content, that six-month servicing condition can be a specific and absolute deal-breaker. At least for some.
In review, we found the Outback is, on balance, a nicer, more appealing and in some areas critically better option. And some option-makers here at CarAdvice reckon that extra $435 per year and added trip to the dealership is a premium well spent.