An unmistakable family resemblance links Subaru’s Forester and Outback models. And while they overlap in some areas, they’re two different vehicles. The bigger Outback (pictured) is, at its core, a station wagon version of the Legacy with a lift kit and a brawny design. The Forester used to be a station wagon, too, but it morphed into a crossover about a decade ago and it hasn’t looked back since.
Still confused? Read on for our Subaru Outback vs. Subaru Forester comparison highlighting design, technology, performance, and fuel economy.
Subaru made a name for itself by offering rugged, all-wheel drive cars, not tech-oriented ones. The base version of the Forester is markedly utilitarian. It comes with a 6.2-inch screen embedded in the center console, a bargain-basement four-speaker sound system, manually adjustable climate controls, and very few creature comforts. You’ll need to explore the upper echelons of the trim ladder if you require features like navigation, automatic headlights, a push-button ignition, and power-adjustable front seats.
The same applies to the Outback. Upmarket trim levels come with leather upholstery, one-touch folding rear seatbacks, heated front seats, an eight-inch touchscreen, key-less entry, and automatic headlights. Basic trim levels, especially the most affordable model, unabashedly embrace the function-over-form approach to building a car, though the standard touchscreen is slightly bigger than the Forester’s. In other words: you get what you pay for. It works, too; not everyone wants a two-page list of creature comforts.
Performance and fuel economy
The Forester and Outback share several mechanical components. Both models come standard with a naturally aspirated (that’s non-turbocharged) 2.5-liter flat-four engine. It makes 170 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 174 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 rpm when it’s bolted under the Forester’s hood. The Outback gets a nominal five-horsepower bump in power which, realistically, no one will notice in everyday driving conditions.
In both cases, Subaru’s time-tested symmetrical all-wheel drive system transfers the engine’s power to the four wheels. How it gets there depends on which model you get and how much you spend. The Forester comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, though few dealers have a base model with a stick in their inventory. You need to pay extra or move up in the trim level hierarchy to get an automatic, which is a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Subaru only offers the Outback with a CVT.
Want more power? Of course you do; neither model is particularly peppy in base form. In the Forester, the top-spec engine is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 250 hp and 258 lb-ft. of torque. In the Outback, it’s a 3.6-liter flat-six which delivers 256 hp and 247 lb-ft. The CVT and all-wheel drive remain in both cases.
The most efficient Forester, with a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission, returns 26 mpg in the city, 32 mpg on the highway, and 28 mpg in a combined cycle, according to the EPA. The thriftiest Outback with the same drivetrain loses a single mile per gallon in the city, so odds are the average driver won’t notice much difference at the pump. Keep in mind there are numerous factors that influence fuel economy, including your driving style, the type of roads the car travels on, what it carries, and how it’s maintained.
Subaru doesn’t currently offer an electrified option on the Outback and the Forester. The brand will embark on an electrification offensive in the coming years. Plug-in hybrid models — and, possibly, electric cars — will retain Subaru’s all-wheel drive system.
Interior and exterior design
The current, fourth-generation Forester went on sale in March 2013 as a 2014 model. It’s consequently one of Subaru’s older models, and it’s due for a replacement in the not-too-distant future. Its design predates the brand’s current form language, which took a sharper and more understated turn shortly after the Forester’s launch. The same applies to the interior, which looked current five years ago but shows its age in 2018. We expect big improvements when the fifth-generation model arrives.
The Outback looks more current. It paved the way for the Japanese firm’s current design language. The 2019 Ascent, Subaru’s long-awaited eight-seater crossover, borrows styling cues from its wagon sibling, including the hexagonal grille and the sharp, swept-back headlights. It’s more contemporary inside, too. It’s not futuristic or daring by any means of measurement, but step inside and you’ll notice that, for example, the touch screen is better integrated into the dashboard.
The Forester stretches 181.5 inches long, 70.7 inches wide, and 68.2 inches tall with roof rails. The Outback measures in at 189.9 inches from bumper to bumper, 72.4 inches wide, and 66.1 inches tall. Both have 8.7 inches of ground clearance, which adds peace of mind when soldiering down dirt roads or powering through snowy trails. The Forester offers up to 34.4 cubic feet of trunk space with five passengers on board and 74.7 with the rear seats folded flat. In spite of its longer footprint, the Outback checks in at 35.5 and 73.3 cubes, respectively.
Subaru puts a big focus on safety. Every Forester regardless of trim level comes standard with dual front and side airbags for the front passengers, curtain airbags for both rows, and a knee airbag for the driver. That’s in addition to electronic driving aids like traction control and electronic stability control. Subaru’s EyeSight suite of technology (which includes features such as adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning) comes standard on the 2.5i Touring and 2.0XT trims.
The Outback offers the same airbags and, on some models, EyeSight. Both nameplates come standard with a rear-view camera, an important safety feature that becomes mandatory on every new car sold in America this year.
When the time comes to sign the dotted line, the Forester will sting less than the Outback. It starts at $22,795 before buyers begin adding options. Subaru breaks down the lineup into six trim levels called 2.5i, 2.5i Premium, 2.5i Limited, 2.5i Touring, 2.0XT Premium, and 2.0XT Touring, respectively. Opt for the range-topping model and you’ll need to sign a check for $36,090.
Outback pricing starts at $25,895. Subaru again divided the lineup into six trim levels: 2.5i, 2.5i Premium, 2.5i Limited, 2.5i Touring, 3.6R Limited, and 3.6R Touring. At $38,690, the most expensive Outback lands deep in luxury car territory.
The Subaru Forester fights in the same segment as the Ford Escape, the Honda CR-V, and the Toyota RAV4. The Outback, on the other hand, competes in a small segment that includes the Buick Regal TourX and the Volvo V60 Cross Country. The smaller Volkswagen Golf AllTrack is another option, as is the more expensive BMW 3 Series Sports Wagon.