2021 Subaru Forester vs Toyota RAV4
Looking for a small SUV that can function as a spacious family hauler while also providing you with some off-roading strength? If so, you might have already considered either the 2021 Subaru Forester or the 2021 Toyota RAV4. Both slate close to the top of their segment, but we definitely have our preference of one over the other. And we think you will too.
Both SUVs are great choices for small to medium-sized families. Fitting child seats in the back is not a problem in either vehicle since the cabins are remarkably spacious. And both offer excellent amounts of cargo space. If you need to cram in a double stroller or stash a week's worth of groceries in the cargo area, it is easy to do. That is one of the biggest benefits of investing in a small SUV like the Forester or RAV4.
The 2021 Subaru Forester now comes equipped with standard automatic high beams and turn-swiveling headlights that help improve visibility while cornering in the dark. With its standard all-wheel drive (AWD) system and 8.7 inches of ground clearance, the Forester can handle a moderate level of off-roading. And driving in the winter? Safe and secure thanks to how much grip the tires keep on the road and how much stability and traction control you get.
There are some downsides to buying the Forester though. The most prominent issue is that its sole engine is underpowered. This 2.5-liter four-cylinder works together with a continuously variable automatic transmission (or CVT) to send 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels. Unfortunately, this just does not feel like enough, and it means that the Forester is slow to accelerate. Since you cannot get a more powerful turbo engine, you are stuck with this contraption.
You will also have to deal with the Forster's modest towing capacity. It can only tow up to 1,500 pounds, whereas many other small SUVs are able to tow up to 3,500 pounds. Do not plan on pulling anything bulky.
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 offers a quiet interior with a relaxing ride quality. And this is why the RAV4 has been one of the best-selling small SUVs for a few years running. You also get an abundance of passenger and cargo space. The RAV4 was one of the first crossover SUVs on the market, having made its debut back in 1996. Since then, Toyota has put a lot of work into making it a family-friendly vehicle. The controls are easy to use and are laid out in a logical manner.
However, the RAV4 has its issues. Like the Forester, the RAV4's engine is definitely underpowered. Its 4-cylinder engine is matched up with an 8-speed automatic transmission and delivers 203 hp to the front wheels (although AWD can be an option). The system is sluggish on the uptake, so do not expect anything thrilling when it comes to the driving performance. Also, the front passenger seat loses comfort as you go. It just is not padded as well as you might expect. To top it all off, the steering has a vague feeling to it, and that does little to inspire the driver's confidence.
So, which of these small SUVs is the better buy? Which one offers you the most bang for your buck? We can tell you right now that we prefer the Forester to the RAV4, but our reasoning definitely warrants some explanation. Bear with us through 'til the end of this comparison review so that you can make a better-informed buying decision.
A good powertrain can make the driving experience a delight, and of course the opposite is true of bad powertrains. You probably want a good blend of power and fuel efficiency, but you should know that quite a few engines in this segment can be lackluster. And, unfortunately, that can be said of both the Forester and the RAV4.
Let's start with the 2021 Subaru Forester. It is powered by a standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder that generates a power output of 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque. Paired up with the CVT, this power gets delivered to all four wheels. Yes, AWD is standard on the Forester as well as on all Subarus. This powertrain is the only option you get for the Forester, and it can feel somewhat sluggish from the offset. In fact, it takes this vehicle a full 9.3 seconds to get from 0 to 60 miles per hour.
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 receives its power from a 4-cylinder engine that generates 203 hp and sends it to the front wheels (or all four wheels if you opt for AWD) via an 8-speed automatic transmission. The Adventure and TRD Off-Road trim levels do come with a standard, upgraded version of the AWD system for improved off-roading capabilities. This engine is slow like the Forester's, taking about 9.1 seconds to make it up to 60 miles per hour. The drive is drama-free around town, but it is painstaking to merge and pass on the highway.
What makes a vehicle a pleasure or a pain to drive, aside from its powertrain's capabilities? Drivability is an umbrella term that we use to describe things like how well a vehicle accelerates, brakes, handles, steers, its ride quality and comfort, and how well its tech gadgetry works.
The 2021 Subaru Forester is characterized to an extent by its sluggish engine. While cruising around town, it feels just fine. But out on the highway is a different story. You will need to plan your merges and passes accordingly. The brakes, however, feel remarkably solid. And, while this vehicle is not meant to feel sporty, its steering and handling offer a performance that is all about road grip and being able to wind along mountainous roads. Oh, and you can certainly enjoy some off-roading with its 8.7 inches of ground clearance.
Comfort is where the Forester really strikes a cord with buyers. Day in and day out, the Forester offers supreme levels of comfort. The front seats are extremely well padded and sculpted for lateral and lumbar support. Even the cushions on the rear seats hold up well over long journeys. As far as the suspension goes, its level of compliance is superior to a lot of its competitors, offering a smooth ride quality over any road surface. While its tall stature produces a little wind noise, it is nothing obnoxious or out of the ordinary for this segment. The cabin is otherwise well muted from outside and engine noise. The climate controls are easy to use and located well within the driver's reach; the system itself distributes air flow throughout the entire cabin with ease and maintains the set temperature.
The Forester's interior is spacious with plenty of leg and head room fore and aft. You can even fit a fifth adult in the rear center seat. Getting in and out is easy since the doors are tall and the vehicle has a SUV-type ride height. Everything is intuitive, and the materials look solid despite not being that eye-catching.
Subaru's standard infotainment system is straightforward and easy to use. Even more tech-friendly folks will appreciate its design. The menus are clear and the graphics crisp. Smartphone app integration is standard, and you get numerous USB ports in the front and rear. Even the built-in navigation system is user-friendly and has a voice control system that recognizes natural speech patterns. It is truly a fuss-free set-up and one of the best in its class.
So, how does the 2021 Toyota RAV4 stack up? As we already mentioned, its engine is pretty snooze-worthy. However, unlike the Forester, its steering feels vague and lacks feel and heft when needed. You might find yourself overdoing it with your inputs because of this lack of on-center feel. The optional upgraded AWD system does provide a nice amount of traction control and has selectable terrain settings. Its ground clearance is similar to the Forester's, so you can do some off-roading in it.
The RAV4's suspension is finely tuned for comfort and performance. Moderate bumps can be dispatched with ease, and there is no sense of floaty-ness when rounding through tight turns. The one comfort-related issue we have is with the front passenger seat, which lacks a fair amount of adjustability. The RAV4 typically stays quiet on the highway, but the engine will sound growly when you step down hard on the accelerator. The air flow system feels nice with front and rear HVAC vents, and the controls up front are easy to use.
Since the front passenger seat cannot be adjusted downward and is set kind of high, the RAV4 loses points for spaciousness. The cabin is otherwise pretty generous. Unfortunately, the touchscreen display is placed outside of the driver's reach, meaning you will have to lean forward to try to press buttons while driving.
Despite having a simple system, the infotainment set-up - which is extremely new - comes off as dated. The Entune software seems old and clunky, but you can at least switch over to smartphone app integration. The standard sound system works well enough, but we suspect that buyers will like the optional 11-speaker JBL premium audio system a lot better.
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Safety is paramount for any automaker because it is paramount for any owner. When you go to buy a vehicle, you are probably going to look carefully through its safety ratings. You should also be aware of its standard and optional safety features and how well they work.
The 2021 Subaru Forester is equipped with Subaru EyeSight, a bundle of standard driver aids. This bundle includes adaptive cruise control (which sets a safe following distance to the vehicle in front of it), forward collision mitigation (a system that detects, warns, and applies the brakes in the event of an impending frontal crash), lane departure warning (which lets you know when the vehicle is straying outside of the lane), and lane keep assist (which will gently steer the Forester back into its intended lane). A blind spot monitoring system can be equipped starting on the Premium trim level. You can also opt for rear automatic braking and a driver monitoring system on the higher trims. These features are all known for acting only when they need to, never issuing false alarms.
Toyota equips the 2021 RAV4 with a similar bundle called Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. This gives you forward collision mitigation, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, automatic high beams, and a traffic sign reader. Opting up from the base trim can get you blind spot monitoring and a 360-degree surround-view camera system. Adaptive cruise control works down to 0 mph, which is rather impressive and not something you can get on all systems.
Which Has the Best Value?
The 2021 Subaru Forester offers a more capable steering system, which helps set it apart from the RAV4. It makes up for the lackluster engine. You also get a better infotainment system that all users can enjoy. The RAV4's list of standard features seems slightly lacking by comparison, and the infotainment system seems too outdated for being as new as it is.
Which is Better?
Overall, the 2021 Subaru Forester is the better small SUV. While it is not Number One in its class, it comes very close. Were it not for the engine, it would probably usurp the Honda CR-V. Its ground clearance and standard AWD make for an off-road-oriented ride, but it behaves just as well on the beaten path.