2020 Subaru Outback vs. 2020 Subaru Forester: Compare Crossover SUVs


Before the crossover, there was the Subaru Outback. The success of the lifted wagon that could go off-road led to the Subaru Forester in 1998. The crossover craze was on. More than 20 years later, these two crossovers have switched positions in the Subaru family, with the Outback growing into a mid-size crossover and the Forester slotting as a smaller compact crossover.  

Our TCC Ratings give one model an edge, but these Subies present a dilemma for shoppers keen on value, safety, and, for 2020, sophisticated technology. 

The 2020 Outback is new this year and is more refined with more features, including an available 11.6-inch touchscreen. Yet the erstwhile wagon is still a down and dirty off-roader. We’re big on the smaller 2020 Forester that was redesigned for 2019 and was our Best Car to Buy for 2019, picked from more than a dozen vehicles. 

2020 Subaru Outback

2020 Subaru Outback

2020 Subaru Outback

2020 Subaru Forester

2020 Subaru Forester

2020 Subaru Forester

2020 Subaru Forester

Both vehicles look pretty much the same as they did a decade ago. The boxy shape of the Forester is a little more tapered than before, and the nose is a bit sharper, but none of this takes away from the Forester’s best attribute: a high seat position with immense outward vision. 

The exterior of the new Outback has more black body cladding on the front and sides to look like the most Merrell of hiking boots on four wheels. While the Outback is more rugged and the Forester is more common, the Forester earns an extra point due to the interior value. Most Outbacks get the large touchscreen, but the interior setup is mostly the same with nicer finishes on the higher trims. For more than $2,000 less, on average, the Forester gets the same base appointments and available upgrades as the Outback. Value gets the edge. 

Performance is a draw, for the most part. Both are powered by a base 182-horsepower 2.5-liter flat-4 with a continuously variable automatic transmission powering all wheels. Both have 8.7 inches of ground clearance for off-road climbing. But the Outback has another trick up its sleeve borrowed from the larger three-row Subaru Ascent: an available 260-horsepower 2.4-liter turbo-4. It’s a nice option to have as the base engine can be a little noisy when pushed. 

Otherwise, the Subies are like what Willie Dixon says: built for comfort, not for speed. Both seat five, come with 10-way power seats on volume models, but the larger Outback has better shoulder and hip room. Yet the boxier shape of the Forester provides more head room, and provides overall better passenger volume which benefits Nordic types and other tall stock. That extra height in the Forester also provides more cargo volume, giving it the edge over the longer but lower Outback. 

As much as Subaru is known for all-wheel drive, the latest generation of Subies should be known for excellent all-around safety. The IIHS awarded the 2019 Forester a Top Safety Pick+ when equipped with certain headlights, and the NHTSA gave it five stars in crash testing. We expect these top honors to apply to the Outback when the redesigned 2020 model is tested. Either way, both models pack value with active safety features bundled under Subaru’s standard EyeSight safety system that includes adaptive cruise control, active lane control, and automatic emergency braking.

2020 Subaru Outback

2020 Subaru Outback

2020 Subaru Outback

2020 Subaru Outback

2019 Subaru Forester

2019 Subaru Forester

2019 Subaru Forester

2019 Subaru Forester

Both the Forester and the Outback come in base, Premium, Limited, and Touring models. The Forester has a Sport trim, while Outback has a blacked-out Onyx XT trim with the turbo-4. The Forester starts at $25,500 and climbs to $35,600 in Touring trim; the Outback is about $2,000 more across the lineup. Even though we love the heated steering wheel, it’s only standard on top Touring models and available on Limited. Despite this, we prefer the $28,405 Forester Premium for its overall value; the 6.5-inch touchscreen is fine, and the 8.0-inch touchscreen is not worth the upcharge. The Outback has us leaning to the other end, and one that is a source of disagreement amongst our editors: We like the turbo-4 Onyx Edition XT at $35,905. In addition to the punchier powertrain, it comes with heated front and rear seats, water-repellent upholstery, the 11.6-inch touchscreen, and 18-inch black wheels. Fuel economy takes a hit, however, dropping 3 mpg compared to the other models.

Otherwise, the Outback and Forester have a 26 mpg city, 33 highway, 29 combined rating according to the EPA, which is above average for similar crossovers. 

In the end, the Outback gets the edge for style, while the Forester banks on practicality with better interior space and overall value. Last year’s Best Car to Buy still gets the slightest of nods here, rating at 6.8 over the 6.4 in the 2020 Subaru Outback. We expect the scores to be identical once we factor in safety testing of the 2020 Outback.