It’s fuel pumps at dawn as a new petrol-electric version of the Subaru Forester tries to displace the Toyota RAV4 as the world’s best – and most frugal – $40,000 hybrid SUV.
Sales of hybrid vehicles are soaring in Australia as motorists embrace petrol-electric drivetrain technology in conventional-looking models.
The world’s chief hybrid proponent, Toyota, says these multi-motor models accounted for a quarter of its sales here during the first quarter of 2020. And the most popular is the petrol-electric Toyota RAV4.
Such is the demand for the first-ever hybrid variants of the RAV4 that customers have been facing waits of six months or longer, prompting Toyota Australia to beg Japan for additional production.
That supply boost is due in the second half of 2020, though would demand start falling if there were a true direct price rival? (The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and forthcoming Ford Escape PHEV are plug-in hybrids and cost more than $50,000 drive-away).
Well, Subaru has started rolling out new ‘e-Boxer’ technology in Australia, and that includes the first petrol-electric version of its popular Forester. The company says it is already seeing promising early interest from buyers for the Forester Hybrid.
For this comparison, we have the most affordable of two variants – the $39,990 Forester Hybrid L.
There are four RAV4 Hybrid variants in this pricing vicinity, ranging between $38,490 and $41,990 – differing by specification and/or driveline (2WD and AWD). For this test, we have the $41,490 GXL (electric) AWD, which pairs naturally with the all-wheel-drive Forester.
How well these hybrid SUVs fare at fuel efficiency will, of course, take on extra emphasis in this particular comparison of two of the longest-running nameplates in the ‘soft-roader’ class.
Our test cars even turned up with metaphorical, eco-style paintwork: a forest-green Forester and a sky-blue RAV4.
Pricing and features
The Forester Hybrid L is based on the specification of the $36,490 Forester 2.5i L, so it’s a $3500 premium for the petrol-electric drivetrain.
There isn’t an all-wheel-drive GXL petrol model, but Toyota charges an extra $2500 for the GXL Hybrid 2WD over the front-wheel-drive petrol GXL.
Our RAV4 and Forester hybrid variants are well equipped, though with plenty of variation: it’s a case of ‘you win some, you lose some’ whichever way you go.
The Forester L employs bending LED headlights and LED fog lights, for example, whereas the RAV4 GXL has projector LED headlights and halogen fogs. Both have LED daytime running lights.
Then the GXL has 18-inch alloy wheels, whereas the Forester has smaller 17s. Each brings rear privacy glass, auto wipers and heated/electric/folding side mirrors.
Inside, both models share dual-zone climate control and 'premium' cloth upholstery.
Toyota gets the upper hand on infotainment with its larger touchscreen (8.0-inch versus 6.5-inch for the Forester), wireless smartphone charging and factory navigation.
Subaru counters partly with some extra safety innovation, which we’ll explore in the next section…
Tech and infotainment
It’s easy to imagine Subaru is trying to position itself as Japan’s answer to Volvo with the likes of its Vision Assist and EyeSight technologies. They include features exclusive here to the Forester: in addition to fatigue monitoring, a Distraction Warning system uses an internal camera that registers a visual/audible warning if it believes you have averted your eyes from the road for too long.
There’s a Front View Monitor that compensates for the lack of front sensors, while a Side View Monitor helps avoid kerbing when parallel parking.
Arguably more about sparing you from a beep from behind than saving you from an accident, Lead Vehicle Start Alert lets you know when traffic has got underway again.
Hybrid Foresters feature an external audible warning system that works below 24km/h – alerting pedestrians to the Subaru’s presence in case it’s operating in silent electric mode.
Over the RAV4, the Forester also brings low tyre pressure warning and an AEB system that also works in reverse.
Beyond five-star crash ratings and seven airbags, both models share various driver aids such as autonomous emergency braking systems that can monitor for pedestrians and cyclists, blind spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring, auto low/high beam switching for night driving, and lane-departure warning and lane-keeping systems.
The RAV4 GXL has some key advantages, though. Its camera system can ‘read’ speed-limit signs and display them on the instrument cluster, and it comes with front and rear proximity sensors.
The Forester dash is heavy on displays, though the L’s 6.5-inch infotainment touchscreen looks tiny – there are smartphones with bigger displays. Graphics are very basic, and the main menu’s set of icons look incomplete unless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto has been hooked up to fill the sixth spot. The screen is responsive, though.
Smartphone integration is needed for access to navigation. Factory route guidance is standard only on the higher-spec Hybrid S, along with an 8.0-inch touchscreen.
That’s the standard-size touchscreen for the RAV4, which also responds quickly to presses, though isn’t particularly remarkable for its presentation or resolution, either. Navigation with live traffic reporting is integrated, however, and alternative iOS- or Android-based interfaces are available as with the Forester.
The RAV4’s charging tray accommodates larger smartphones and there are five USB ports in total in the cabin (two front; three rear) compared with three for the Forester (one front; two rear).
Digital radio and voice commands are standard on both models.
Buyers will have their subjective preferences when it comes to the interior designs of the Forester and RAV4, though objectively both cabins nail the brief for a highly practical mid-sized family SUV.
The Forester’s cabin looks the busier with its multiple displays (described as “overwhelming” by some in the CarAdvice office) and an array of different textures and patterns for materials. There are six different finishes just on the doors, for example – as if the interior designers weren’t quite sure which were the best so they went with all options.
There’s no shortage of softer plastics, the headlining has a quality look/feel, gloss black is used well in places, and there’s decent tactility to buttons and dials.
With the tiniest exception of the small chrome bits around the lower centre stack that are a touch loose, the Forester maintains Subaru’s reputation for sound build quality.
Front-cabin storage includes good-size door pockets, dual cupholders, overhead sunnies holder, and a console bin that is biased towards depth rather than length and incorporates a 12-volt socket and a clip-out tray.
A tray ahead of the gear lever sits in proximity to 12V/USB/AUX ports, but is sized for phones of the 1990s rather than 2020s. Sunvisors include extenders and mirrors.
The RAV4 cabin is constructed with similar solidity and quality – sharing the sense you get from the Forester that things aren’t going to start falling apart or start making annoying rattles within the first few years of ownership.
The Toyota’s interior is skewed more towards effective functionality than fancy form, yet there are nice details such as the air vent designs and beautifully chunky, rubber climate dials.
It certainly feels easier to get to grips with the RAV4’s dash layout, whereas the Forester takes more familiarity to understand how you access different pieces of information via its trio of displays.
Storage options are also a bit more flexible in the Toyota. Front door pockets are even larger and more easily accommodate big drinks bottles, there are handy storage shelves for both front occupants, and a large smartphone will fit onto the wireless charging tray.
The medium-sized console cubby includes a 12-volt port and the RAV4 also has overhead storage for sunglasses.
All windows have one-touch operation in the Toyota, too, whereas it’s just the fronts for the Subaru. The Forester L also lacks height adjustment for the front passenger seat.
The Forester and RAV4 are remarkably close in size – both 4.6m long and with wheelbases just under 2.7m – and there’s little to separate the duo on (excellent) interior space.
Whether you’re measuring knee room or head room, taller-than-average passengers will appreciate the rear accommodation of these Japanese SUVs.
The benches are comfortable and the rear cabins benefit from dedicated ventilation. There are centre armrests with cupholders, USB ports, and seatback pouches (with divided sections in the Forester). Trendy personal drinks bottles, however, will fit only in the RAV4’s rear door pockets.
ISOFIX points are in outboard seats, and three child seats can squeeze across the bench for parents determined to own a Forester or RAV4 rather than a seven-seater SUV.
The Forester’s centre rear seatbelt needs to be pulled and connected from the ceiling, whereas the RAV4 has all seatbelts in conventional positions.
Families will appreciate the plentiful boot space on offer in both vehicles. On paper, the RAV4 leads the Forester on cargo capacity – with 542L versus 509L – and the Toyota increases to 580L if the boot floor is placed in its lower position.
Regardless of vehicle, though, a week-long driving holiday’s worth of luggage, including a pram, can fit comfortably in the back. Or a bunch of kids’ bikes, scooters and sporty gear if you’re heading to the park.
Split-fold (60-40) rear seats are another commonality, increasing boot flexibility whether one rear seat is occupied, or the rear seats aren’t needed for kids/passengers. (The higher-spec Forester S Hybrid features electric folding rear seats.)
Hybrid versions of the Forester have fractionally more boot space than regular models (498L), but miss out on a spare wheel owing to the lithium-ion battery pack under the floor; there’s a tyre repair kit instead.
The RAV4 Hybrid comes with a temporary space-saver spare under its two-level boot floor.
Toyota owns about a fifth of Subaru Corporation, the company formerly known as Fuji Heavy Industries, yet there’s no sharing of hybrid technology here. Only shared philosophy: using a combination of petrol and electric motors – capable of running individually or in tandem – to reduce fuel consumption (and without the need to charge the vehicle via a plug).
The executions are markedly different, however (with, as we’ll discover, markedly different results).
Subaru’s ‘e-Boxer’ set-up employs an electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery and teams with a smaller and less powerful four-cylinder petrol engine (110kW/196Nm 2.0-litre) than found in regular Foresters (136kW/239Nm 2.5-litre).
The permanent all-wheel-drive system and chain-and-pulley CVT are unchanged from other Foresters.
A clue to the limitations of the electric motor come from Subaru’s description of it as ‘Motor Assist’ technology. With meagre outputs of 12.3kW and 66Nm, it’s designed as more of a supplementary unit – helping compensate for the smaller-capacity engine while allowing electric-only driving at low speeds.
Subaru says the Forester Hybrid can run on electrons alone up to 40km/h, depending on factors, though we found it impossible to prevent the petrol engine from kicking in at anything beyond parking speeds.
Braking and coasting both help replenish the battery, though even in these cases the green ‘EV’ light doesn’t always illuminate on the driver display. Unlike the RAV4, there’s no EV Mode you can select to encourage the drivetrain to use only the electric motor.
The drivetrain feels quite responsive on a light throttle around town and on the road, though meaningful acceleration – such as for overtaking manoeuvres – is less convincing. The switch between electric motor and petrol engine can also be abrupt.
Toyota’s hybrid system conversely employs a larger petrol engine than regular versions of the RAV4 – 2.5 rather than 2.0 litres – and combines it with a pair of electric motors for 2WD models. The larger electric motor is responsible for sending power to the front wheels, as well as helping to recharge the hybrid battery when the driver is braking or lifting off the throttle (regenerative braking).
The other, smaller electric motor has several roles, including acting as an electric generator for starting the vehicle and also regulating the power split between the petrol engine and larger electric motor. This also involves sending excess power from the petrol engine to recharge the batteries.
For the part-time AWD Hybrid, a third electric motor on the rear axle can deliver up to 80 per cent of torque to the rear wheels if the Toyota’s ‘brains’ detect reduced traction.
Also different to the Subaru and integral to the hybrid system is a planetary gearset e-CVT.
While more complex on paper, the RAV4’s hybrid system is just as simple to use and gives it multiple driving advantages over the Forester.
An immediate difference on initial start-up is that the Toyota can be started silently, whereas the Forester uses a regular start motor and sparks its petrol engine into life first time around.
With 131kW and 221Nm, the Toyota’s petrol engine produces more power and torque than the Forester’s engine while the electric motor is also significantly more powerful, with 88kW and 202Nm (even if powered by a technically less advanced nickel-metal hydride battery). Combined power is quoted at 163kW.
When both electric and petrol power are working in unison, the RAV4 Hybrid is one of the quickest mid-sized SUVs around.
Stick to light throttle pressure and the RAV4 can also be driven solely on electric power at more meaningful speeds. On a flattish road, we managed as high as 65km/h without the petrol engine coming into play. When it does it’s a more seamless transition to dual propulsion, making take-offs from standstill noticeably smoother compared with the Forester.
Braking for junctions or lights is also smoother in the Toyota, which also offers better pedal feel – though the Subaru isn’t too bad in this respect.
Activate ‘EV Mode’ via a console button and the hybrid RAV4 will try harder to stick with electric propulsion, though it takes only a slight incline or more of a nudge of the throttle pedal to ignite the RAV4’s petrol engine.
Yet, generally for eco/economy-focused buyers, the Toyota can be very satisfying.
The hybrid experience is complemented by a dedicated Charge/Eco/Power gauge, while it also has a green ‘EV’ light that is more frequently illuminated than in its rival.
Both vehicles allow you to see the drivetrain in action via digital schematics – indicating when the petrol and electric motors are powering wheels and when regenerative braking is charging the battery pack. The Toyota also allows you to check your ‘Eco score’.
We scored a modest 70/100 for a specific suburban loop drive, though the RAV4 still registered average fuel economy of 4.7 litres per 100km – impressively 0.1L/100km below its combined claim. (Most vehicles return higher figures in the real world.)
From the same loop, the Forester Hybrid L indicated a 7.1L/100km average – or 0.4L/100km higher than its 6.7L/100km official consumption.
Using an average regular unleaded price of $1.30 per litre (not necessarily current at time of writing owing to the wild fluctuations going on), that difference would save RAV4 Hybrid owners $3.12 over the Forester Hybrid just every 100km. Or $468 over 15,000km.
The urban/suburban fuel figure for the RAV4 is consistent with other hybrid versions we’ve tested. The Subaru’s was better here where, in other tests, economy has varied between 8.5 and even double figures when rush-hour traffic was part of the equation.
Hybrids are renowned for being most effective at fuel-saving around town, where they can rely more frequently on their electric motors. Our longer-distance testing, however, suggested the Forester Hybrid may be slightly more economical away from the city.
Using the Subaru’s second trip computer to measure indicated average consumption for a test drive that included country roads and freeways, it registered 6.9L/100km – bringing its overall average (including our dedicated suburban loop) down to 7.0L/100km.
Conversely, the Toyota’s average climbed as high as 5.2L/100km on the open road before settling on a final 4.8L/100km after its return to suburbia.
The RAV4’s engine certainly sounded as though it was working harder than the Forester’s on steeper freeway sections.
Another factor to be considered by buyers weighing up between a regular and hybrid Forester: owing to a smaller, 48L fuel tank enforced by the battery packaging, the petrol-electric version, paradoxically, has a shorter theoretical range of 716km (versus 851km).
The RAV4’s fuel tank is a consistent 55L regardless of model, giving the GXL Hybrid a huge theoretical range of 1170km.
Towing capacity also falls in the Forester’s case, from 1500kg to 1200kg (and 120kg rather than 150kg tow ball rating). Hybrid AWD RAV4s share the highest towing capacity in the range with the flagship Edge that’s also AWD: 1500kg (tow ball rating not provided by Toyota).
For those considering some (mild) off-roading, the Forester beats the RAV4 for ground clearance: 220mm v 190mm. Both models feature driving modes – X-mode in the Forester, Trail mode in the RAV4 – to help with slippery surfaces/trickier terrain.
On the road
The Forester’s trademark expansive glasshouse continues to make for excellent all-round vision, yet it finds its equal in the RAV4 that also has relatively tall windows and a fairly upright windscreen and rear window.
Driving positions both tick the box for sufficiently elevated seating that appeals to so many buyers. So, while these two models are on the longer side of the medium-SUV class, neither feels intimidating to park or drive down a narrow street.
The latest Forester and RAV4 sit on all-new modular platforms – the Subaru Global Platform and the Toyota New Generation Architecture (TNGA-K), respectively – which share common components with other models.
TNGA has been a particular revelation for Toyota models, and the RAV4 shares many of the quality driving traits of smaller Toyotas such as the Corolla small car and C-HR compact SUV.
The steering is well weighted and relatively direct, and the suspension is highly adept at dealing with poor-quality roads whether they’re around the suburbs or out in the country.
And while some rival SUVs may feel a bit sportier to drive on a winding road, the RAV4 is reassuringly composed and overall far more enjoyable to steer than the previous model.
It’s not necessarily the case with the new Forester, which, regardless of variant, has lost some of the absorptive suppleness appreciated by owners of previous-generation models.
Ride quality is now patchy. The Forester is decent at dealing with smaller imperfections, but it generally needs smooth bitumen to feel properly settled. It’s not great at dealing with bigger hits, and its composure is ruffled when uneven sections of bitumen are encountered at higher speed.
Steering weighting is well judged, though a vague on-centre feel can sometimes make it feel like you’re constantly fiddling with the steering wheel position to keep the Forester perfectly centred in its lane. It improves as you turn the wheel more for corners.
Both adaptive cruise-control systems are good at allowing the driver to adjust the gap to vehicles ahead and picking up speed again after slowing. They also operate at all speeds, including from standstill.
Speed can be adjusted in increments of 1km/h or 5km/h in the Toyota, only the latter in the Subaru.
The RAV4’s Road Sign Assist function is useful, too – using a forward-facing camera to ‘read’ speed limit signs and relay them to the driver via the instrument display. With active cruise engaged, it’s also possible to press a button to have the vehicle alter its speed to the prevailing limit.
As with other similar systems, it will show 40km/h notifications even out of school hours, so the emphasis remains on full driver awareness.
In addition to regular five-year factory warranties, Subaru and Toyota extend coverage for batteries: eight years or 160,000km in the Forester Hybrid’s case; up to 10 years in the RAV4 Hybrid’s case, provided you maintain your vehicle annually through a Toyota dealer. Toyota also extends the drivetrain warranty to seven years.
For servicing costs, it’s advantage RAV4. Five years of maintenance will cost owners a total of $1075 (if they don’t exceed 15,000km per year).
The same period will incur a total charge of $2433 for Forester Hybrid owners as part of Subaru's pre-paid service plan, with the annual mileage limit also lower at 12,500km.
You could say some hybrid vehicles are more equal than others. There’s a big disparity between how these petrol-electric Forester and RAV4 models consume fuel and how they drive.
For a variant promising greater fuel-efficiency, the Forester Hybrid disappoints with consumption that offers such little benefit over a regular Forester that it would take years of ownership to recoup the e-Boxer variant’s extra cost.
It’s also paradoxical that the hybrid version should require more regular visits to the bowser than the petrol model. While it’s good to see Subaru taking its first hybrid steps, it’s difficult to recommend the Hybrid over a regular Forester.
Conversely, hybrid is the best way to go when choosing from the extensive RAV4 line-up.
The petrol-electric RAV4 sips fuel slowly as you’d hope, while also providing strong performance when you need it. And while it would ideally run on electric power for longer periods, the Toyota still gives owners a decent taste of the fully electric vehicle experience without the bother of plugs and sockets.
Save a few grand by opting for the 2WD Hybrid – if towing or off-roading aren’t factors – and you have what we believe is the best mid-sized mainstream SUV you can buy right now.