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Are you trying to decide which small SUV to buy this year? You might be caught between the 2021 Subaru Forester and the 2021 Honda CR-V. Both are popular, well-loved vehicles that have multiple generations under their belts. Having been on the market for so long, these two rivals set the bar high for every other small SUV. But which one is going to be the better choice for you? We'll get to that by the end of this review, so don't worry. But first, we want to let you get to know each of these vehicles.
The 2021 Subaru Forester is part of the Forester's fifth generation, which just debuted a few years ago. That is why not a lot has changed for this model year. The only big alteration is the standardization of the turn-swiveling headlights (which help with cornering in the dark) and automatic high beams. Other than that, you will just find a few minor trim level feature revisions. All-wheel drive comes standard as always - typical of a Subaru (and, quite frankly, the biggest reason to buy a Subaru). Subaru also now offers a full bundle of advanced driver aids on each trim level, and you get 8.7 inches of ground clearance and enhanced off-roading capabilities with the Forester. This helps to set it apart from the CR-V and every other small SUV on the market right now.
But the Forester has a few pitfalls, just like any vehicle. Its engine feels underwhelming, and utility could be better. The maximum towing capacity isn't up to par with the competition.
The 2021 Honda CR-V is typically at the top of the list for best small SUVs. With its thrifty fuel economy and ample power, the engine puts forth a solid performance. The interior is absolutely cavernous in its design and is built for utility with plenty of storage areas. A comfortable ride with spunky handling helps make the CR-V fun to drive. However, you have to deal with a finicky touchscreen display that forces you to use a separate tuning knob. The towing capacity is also a bit below average for this segment.
So, which trim level should you get? Let's take a closer look at their available powertrains, their unique drivability factors, and their lists of safety features and safety ratings. Then, we will assess which one offers the best value and give our final verdict on which small SUV we think you should invest your hard-earned money in this model year.
First up, we have the powertrains. Since these are what make vehicles go, getting the right one is definitely important. The 2021 Subaru Forester comes equipped with a standard 2.5-L 4-cylinder engine that generates 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque. It is paired up with a continuously variable automatic transmission (or CVT for short), which is known for being more efficient than a regular automatic transmission. As we already mentioned, all-wheel drive (AWD) is standard across the entire Forester line-up. It truly enhances traction and stability control when you are driving across a slick surface and makes going off the beaten path a bit easier.
Now for the 2021 Honda CR-V. This vehicle comes with a standard turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that musters up 190 hp. It too is paired up with a CVT. Unlike the Forester, front-wheel drive is standard issue, but you can choose to equip AWD on any trim level of your preference.
Bear in mind that both of these vehicles only come with one powertrain option each. You cannot upgrade to anything more powerful or choose something with a transmission that is not a CVT.
Now that you know a little bit about what is under the hood of each of these small SUVs, let's talk about how they perform. What makes a vehicle enjoyable to drive? Its acceleration is certainly important, but so are its braking capabilities, steering, handling, ride quality, interior comfort, and - of course - its creature comforts.
Let's first take a look at the Forester and what makes it so enjoyable to drive. Even though the engine and CVT make it so that the Forester takes 9.3 seconds to get from 0 to 60 mph, the rest of its driving performance is quite admirable. The brakes feel secure and allow you to make a quick, safe panic stop when you need to. The Forester always feels planted, even while rounding through turns at higher rates of speed. The driver gets enough feedback coming through the steering wheel to feel confident in how the Forester is tracking. The 8.7 inches of ground clearance and X Mode (which gives the vehicle hill descent control and trail capability) make the Forester a powerhouse for off-roading. Most other small SUVs cannot achieve that.
The Forester will keep you riding in comfort all day long. Long commutes remain cozy with the well-padded seats, and there is plenty of lumbar support and bolstering on the front seats. Road noise is barely audible, and even the wind noise that comes in (mostly due to the vehicle's height) is quite tolerable - and a trade-off for all that extra ground clearance. The ride height also means you get a commanding view from behind the wheel, which is enhanced by the vehicle's slender roof pillars. Many of the Forester trims come with heated front seats, and the available automatic climate control system does a thorough and quick job of keeping the cabin at your desired temperature.
The controls inside of the cockpit are all easy to read and use. There is no guesswork here, and the availability of this many physical controls is a nice touch. The 8-inch infotainment system is easy to navigate too. The dual-screen set-up looks great and is totally functional. The voice commands work well as the system understands natural speech patterns, and the built-in navigation system works just as well as whatever you can sync from your smartphone (which can be done via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto).
The 2021 Honda CR-V has remarkably quick acceleration compared to the Forester, getting from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.2 seconds. It is not exactly exciting, but for a daily driver, it is definitely doable. The CVT is more responsive than expected from a transmission of its ilk. Steering and handling likewise inspire confidence in the driver as the vehicle feels planted at all times.
The CR-V's ride quality is drama-free with all of its smoothness and tranquility inside of the cabin. It even stays comfortable on rough road surfaces when equipped with the Touring's larger 19-inch wheels and shorter tire side walls. The front seats offer plenty of support for long drives, but the automatic climate control system often struggles to maintain the temperature you set it at.
You do get a lot of adjustability up front. The tilting and telescoping steering wheel make it easy to find a good driving position. The physical controls are intuitive enough, but the infotainment touchscreen is not at all user-friendly. The buttons are small and hard to press while simultaneously trying to drive. Voice control does not work terribly well at understanding natural speech patterns, and controls on the navigation screen can be rather clunky.
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How do these vehicles rate on safety features and test scores? That is something you should ask yourself before deciding which SUV to buy. We can tell you right now that both the Forester and CR-V are well-equipped with driver aids and are known for being safe vehicles. But which one is better?
The Forester has Subaru EyeSight, a bundle of advanced driver aids that comes equipped on every trim level. This bundle gives you adaptive cruise control (which adjusts the vehicle's speed to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front of it), forward collision mitigation (which will warn you of a potential frontal impact and apply the brakes in time if it senses you will not), lane departure warning (which warns you when the vehicle is straying over the line), and lane keep assist (which will steer the Forester back into the lane for you when it notices you have drifted over the keep marker). Upgrading to the Premium trim level opens up the option of adding blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. This system will warn you if there is a vehicle in your blind spot while you are trying to change lanes or go in reverse. The Sport lets you opt for rear automatic braking, and the line-topping touring has a driver monitoring system that keeps tabs on if you are becoming drowsy or distracted while driving.
As far as safety ratings go, the Forester receives a full five-star overall rating from National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) for 2021. The only point it lost on any test was on the rollover risk, which registered at 16.9%. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) gave it numerous 'Good' marks on its safety tests.
Safety is a top priority for Honda too. The Honda Sensing suite of driver aids comes on every trim level. It offers forward collision warning, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, collision mitigation braking, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams. Upgrading to the EX trim level offers standard blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
NHTSA assigned a full five-star rating to the 2021 CR-V, with the vehicle losing a point each on the Passenger Frontal Barrier Crash Rating and the rollover risk (16.4%). IIHS gave this SUV 'Good' marks on many of its tests as well, ranking it up there with the Forester.
Which Has the Best Value?
The 2021 Honda CR-V has an excellent build quality with many high-grade interior materials found throughout the cabin. The turbocharged engine is powerful and enjoyable enough, but the infotainment system is really holding the CR-V back from perfection. The Forester does not have the same tech issues, but its engine is a little more sluggish. Both vehicles have industry-average warranty coverage. The Forester just slightly edges out the CR-V since it is competitively priced and offers the more well-performing tech features.