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Outback vs Forester: Which Subaru Reigns Supreme?

Chris Kaiser

Folks love their Subarus, but which one to buy, the Outback or the Forester? Is it height alone that separates them or is there more?

Intro: A Very Symmetrical AWD Battle Royal

It’s a burning question even among those who don’t know a Birkenstock from a Basquiat: which Subaru is best, the Outback or the Forester? Both share Subaru’s new Global Platform. Both are beloved among pet-lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. They both exude competence and practicality. It’s truly a conundrum for the ages.

Dimensions: Tall versus Agile

Forester Cargo Interior
subaru.com

The most obvious difference between the Outback and Forester are their respective silhouettes. The Forester is very much the traditional light SUV, it has the same 8.7-inch ground clearance as the Outback, but the wheelbase is shorter by three inches. In fact, it’s almost nine inches shorter overall while also being two inches taller. This profile grants the Forester its distinctive high greenhouse and upright riding position, while the Outback’s classic lifted station wagon look and ride prevails.

These differences play out in two spheres. First, in cabin space and second, in handling. The Forester ends up with more passenger and cargo space, with 111.9 cu. ft versus 109 cu ft. for passengers and 35.4 cu. ft. for cargo versus the Outback’s 32.5 cu. ft. Seats down, the Forester still wins for cargo, but just barely, with 76.1 cu. ft. versus 75.7 cu. ft in the Outback.

What the Outback gives up in footage it gives back in handling. The Forester’s high profile means the traditional lean of the SUV, however well muted, remains. The Outback benefits from its longer wheelbase (both longer than the Forester and the out-going 2019 Outback). Cornering and road-feel are more car-like than you’d reasonably expect from a vehicle this capable.

  Passenger Volume  Cargo (seats up)  Cargo (seats down) 
Outback  109 cu. ft.  32.5 cu. ft.  75.7 cu. ft. 
Forester  111.9 cu. ft.  35.4 cu. ft.  76.1 cu. ft.  

Capabilities: New Engine for the Outback

Speaking of capabilities, the Outback gets one up on the Forester here too, if only because of its additional engine option. Both the Outback and Forester start with the same 2.5L 4-cylinder Boxer engine, but the Outback has an optional 2.5L turbocharged 4-cylinder available in its Onyx Edition XT trim. The turbo lends great pep to the Outback Onyx; so much so that you won’t miss the outgoing optional 3.6L flat-six. Sadly, the Forester has to make do with its single engine. Both come with the same CVT (continuously variable transmission).

Subaru Outback on road
subaru.com

When it comes to towing, the Outback wins hands down. Not only does it start out with nearly double the tow rating of the Forester (2700 lbs. vs. 1500 lbs.), the 2.4L turbo engine lends even more heft and gets the Outback up to 3500 lbs.

Features and Options: Onyx against Sport, Touchscreens versus Moonroofs

Forester Interior touchscreen
subaru.com

As to features and options, here the Subaru siblings continue to distinguish themselves apart. Each gets a special “sporty” trim. The Forester’s Sport trim adds orange accenting to the exterior cladding and interior moldings and seats. The Outback’s Onyx XT has blacked out cladding and StarTex water-resistant upholstery to compliment the extra power under the hood. This could be considered a wash aesthetically, but the top of the line Outback Touring offers wood paneling and Nappa leather seats for those who need to rough it in style.

Tech-wise, the Forester and Outback are closely matched, largely sharing the same standard safety features and tech options. One glaring exception is the availability of the 11.6-inch touch screen (and attendant tech package) on the Outback. The Forester’s touchscreen maxes out at a less ostentatious 8-inches.

Both the Forester and the Outback have the DriverFocus feature, which actively monitors the driver’s face and sends an alert if it detects drifting attention to the road. This top-of-the-line safety feature is only available on the top Touring Forester trim, but it is an option for both the Outback Limited and Touring.

One spot where the Forester comes out on top is the panoramic moonroof. A standard feature above the base Forester trim is standard only on the Outback Touring. Count this as yet another reason to love the already airy Forester cabin.

Price: Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride

Comparing Forester Outback Prices
subaru.com

Again, the Outback stands out, though the higher asking price isn’t likely to count in the plus column for potential buyers. The Forester starts out at $24,295, while the base Outback runs $26,645. These numbers track similarly as we move up the trim lines. However, at the top Forester Touring maxes out at $34,295, right next to the Outback Onyx Edition at $34,895. The tip-top Outback Touring jumps up almost another $3,000 to $37,345. There are a plethora of options and upgrade across all trim levels, ranging from Thule cargo carriers to foot-well accent lighting.

  Base  Premium  Sport  Limited   Onyx Ed. XT  Touring 
Outback  $26,645  $28,895  N/A  $33,445  $34,895  $37,345 
Forester  $24,295  $26,695  $28,795  $30,795  N/A  $34,295 

Take-Aways: No Losers in a Subaru 

Adding the above up it might appear that the case for the Outback over the Forester is pretty iron clad. But let’s run down some strengths of each just to be sure.

Subaru Outback

Outback Subaru on dirt road
subaru.com
  1. The Outback edges out the Forester when it comes to handling. The shorter stance and longer wheelbase lend a car-like quality to the drive that the more vertical Forester can’t quite reach. But as SUVs go, the Forester has good-to-great handling and a smooth, comfortable ride.  
  2. The better towing capabilities of the Outback, and especially with the Onyx Edition’s 2.4L turbo fueled 3500 lbs. capacity, means this is the Subaru to get if you want to be hauling. 
  3. The above mentioned 2.4L turbo is a good reason alone to go for the Outback over the Forester. 

Subaru Forester

Forester Parked
subaru.com
  1. Arguably the greatest strength of the Forester is its tall greenhouse. All those windows let the light in while lending fantastic visibility for both driver and passengers. Going on any scenic drives? The Forester won’t disappoint.  
  2. That spacious cabin and cargo area help augment an already cozy ride with plenty of leg and elbow room.  
  3. The Forester is also the cheaper option. If you’ve got your sights set on a Subaru but need to keep your budget in mind, the Forester can satisfy your inner granola-crunching, hiking-boot wearing, dog-loving adventurer-at-heart.  

The race for best Subaru was surprisingly close. Each model has its attractions. If you want the beefier engine and sportier handling, go with the Outback. If you like the airy cabin and SUV stance, go for the Forester. I’ll leave it up to you which Subaru ultimately wins the day.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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