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Small crossover SUVs rank among the most desirable vehicles in America. Many drivers will love what the top-selling 2021 Toyota RAV4 brings to the table. It’s comfy, good on gas, and affordable enough for most car shoppers. Another great option is the adventurous 2021 Subaru Outback, which has been recently updated with more standard safety features. In this head-to-head comparison, we’ll find out if one of these SUVs is better than the other.
There are two available powertrains for the 2021 Subaru Outback. Folks who prioritize fuel economy are more likely to choose the Outback’s base “boxer” four-cylinder engine. It kicks out 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque. A continuous variable transmission is found on every new Outback. Drivers who aren’t satisfied with the base powertrain can move up to a turbo four-cylinder engine, which generates 260 horsepower and a noteworthy 277 lb-ft of torque. This extra power increases the Outback’s tow rating to 3,500 pounds.
A four-cylinder engine with 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque comes standard on the 2021 Toyota RAV4. This is the strongest base engine in the class. Off-road-ready RAV4 trims can tow up to 3,500 pounds. An eight-speed automatic gearbox funnels power to the wheels. Toyota also offers the RAV4 with a hybrid powertrain. It develops up to 219 horsepower.
New for 2021 is the RAV4 Prime mode. Its advanced plug-in hybrid powertrain develops a staggering 302 horsepower. Few SUVs in the class offer such a magic combination of performance and efficiency.
When equipped with its base engine, the Subaru Outback offers a rather leisurely performance. While most drivers will find this powertrain to be perfectly suitable for daily commuting, others will consider it to be a bit underwhelming. When accelerating from a stop, it takes around 8.5 seconds to reach 60 mph. The available turbo engine definitely brings a lot more power. Its extra muscle results in a much quicker 0-60 mph time of 5.9 seconds.
The RAV’s base powertrain feels more responsive. Drivers can anticipate a 0-60 mph time of around 7.8 seconds. Expect the hybrid RAV4 to be just a hair quicker in the real world. It comes as no surprise that the new RAV4 Prime brings more excitement. Road tests show it takes only 5.6 seconds for this crossover to accelerate to 60 mph.
Most experts agree that the RAV4’s eight-speed automatic transmission does a better job of transferring power. At times, the Outback’s gear-less CVT seems to sap performance. It definitely hurts the base engine’s performance.
Both of these SUVs excel in the fuel economy department. The Subaru Outback is especially efficient for an SUV that comes standard with all-wheel drive. Owners can anticipate getting around 26 mpg town/33 mpg freeway. Opting for the much stronger turbo engine results in an estimated fuel economy rating of 23 mpg town/30 mpg freeway.
RAV4 trims equipped with the base engine can return up to 28 mpg town/35 mpg town. Meanwhile, expect the hybrid models to return a combined 40 mpg. Meanwhile, the more potent RAV4 Prime's plug-in hybrid powertrain delivers a combined 38 mpg. Keep in mind that the RAV4 Prime also boasts a 42-mile electric driving range.
In terms of road handling, the Subaru Outback perform well. A wide stance helps ensure good balance. This crossover SUV is easy to drive at low speeds and on the open highway. Unfortunately, numb steering takes away from the Outback’s driving character.
The RAV4 is more engaging to drive on the street. Its steering system provides you with more road feedback. Drivers will also appreciate the RAV4’s stable handling. Expect the sports-tuned XSE Hybrid and the RAV4 Prime models to feel even more poised.
These crossovers are more rugged than most models. A full-time Symmetrical AWD system comes standard throughout the Outback lineup, which promotes the best possible traction in all driving conditions. Pressing the Outback's standard X-Mode button further optimizes traction over more challenging terrain. This feature also includes built-in hill descent control.
While the RAV4 doesn’t come standard with all-wheel drive, an upgraded AWD system with torque vectoring is found on the Adventure trim. Outdoor lovers who need a bit more capable SUV should go for the RAV4 TRD Off-Road. It features a trail-rated suspension system and all-terrain tires.
Like the RAV4, the Outback has a responsive braking system. It takes the RAV4 around 126 feet to come to a stop from 60 mph. Expect the Outback to stop just as quickly.
Both vehicles provide a 60,000-mile powertrain warranty. They also feature a 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. Furthermore, these SUVs are evenly matched in terms of reliability. The RAV4 and the Outback both received a 3.0 out of 5.0 dependability rating.
The 2021 Toyota RAV4 delivers a good ride. Drivers applaud the RAV4 suspension’s ability to soak up potholes and broken pavement. However, car reviewers describe the 2021 Subaru Outback’s ride as being immensely comfortable. It manages to absorb bumps more like a luxury vehicle. Road trippers will definitely enjoying traveling in the new Outback.
When behind the wheel of the Outback, drivers can expect a quiet commute. Improved insulation helps make the new Outback more hushed than the previous generation. During everyday drives, expect the RAV4’s cabin to be louder. RAV4 passengers will hear more engine, road, and wind noise.
Drivers will appreciate the RAV4’s unobstructed forward visibility. However, rearward visibility is not as good. Its narrow rear glass creates a few blind spots. Few SUVs in the class can match the Outback’s excellent outward visibility. Drivers will have no trouble seeing out of the Outback’s wide windows. This quality certainly helps ensure a safe driving experience.
Both of these two-row crossovers are designed to accommodate up to five occupants. However, families will find the Subaru Outback to offer the most interior room. The SUV’s wide backseat allows passengers to spread out more. There’s also more legroom in both rows, which is a key benefit for taller folks.
In regard to overall seat comfort, the Outback yet again edges out the RAV4. While automotive reviewers describe the RAV4’s seats as being comfy, passengers can expect to Outback’s seats to feel more relaxing on long trips. Its well-padded seats provide just the right amount of cushioning. A big con for the RAV4 is its lack of a power-adjustable passenger seat.
The RAV4 does provide a few more feet of cargo space in its rear storage area. However, families can take advantage of the Outback’s ample underfloor storage space. A hands-free tailgate is optional on both SUVs.
Drivers will appreciate the modern design of Subaru’s Starlink Multimedia infotainment system. While the base Outback receives a 7.0-inch touchscreen, every other trim comes equipped with a larger 11.6-inch HD touch display. Although both units work well, some people will find the smaller display to be easier to use.
The RAV4’s Entune infotainment system is just as appealing. It doesn’t take long for drivers to become comfortable using this simple interface. While Subaru’s system provides Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration, Toyota’s unit goes a step further by providing Amazon Alexa. RAV4 buyers can choose between a standard 7.0-inch touchscreen and an available 8.0-inch touchscreen.
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These are two of the segment’s safest models. Not only was the 2021 Subaru Outback given an NHTSA five-star overall safety rating, but it also received an IIHS Top Safety Pick award. Families will be well protected in the event of a collision.
While the RAV4 also received a five-star overall safety rating, its front crash scores were not quite as impressive. The RAV4’s standard headlights also don’t perform nearly as well. This could be a concern for drivers who are often on the road at night.
Both of these crossovers come standard with a collection of accident-avoidance technologies. Lane-centering technology, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian warning, and smart cruise control are all found on the RAV4. Blind-spot monitoring and a surround-view parking camera are offered on the RAV4's higher trim levels.
Pre-collision braking, lane-keep assist, intelligent cruise control come equipped on every new Outback. Meanwhile, standard Rear Seat Reminder ensures that parents don’t forget about kids and pets. Subaru has also added standard LED adaptive headlights for 2021. While the Outback does not offer a 360-degree camera, its optional front-view camera does help with parking.
Only the Subaru Outback offers advanced driver monitoring. With the help of facial recognition technology, DriverFocus is able to detect the signs of fatigue. When a lack of awareness is perceived, audible and visual warnings will be triggered. Rear automatic braking is also exclusively available on the Outback. Drivers will have more security when reversing in busy places.
Which Has the Best Value?
These SUVs are competitively priced. The 2021 Subaru Outback has a starting MSRP of roughly $26,800. On the other hand, prices for the base RAV4 begin at $26,000.
Among the similar standard features include a 7.0-inch touch display with smartphone integration, satellite radio, and Bluetooth. However, only the RAV4 provides a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot. Reviewers also find the Outback’s four-speaker stereo to be unimpressive. The RAV4’s standard six-speaker unit sounds better.
Drivers seeking more performance may be deciding between the Outback XT and RAV4 Prime. While the plug-in hybrid RAV4 Prime is just a few ticks quicker and more efficient, prices start at more than $38,000. By compassion, Subaru lists Outback XT with a starting MSRP of just over $35,000.
Which is Better?
These SUVs both rank among today’s top small crossovers. They’re accommodating family vehicles that can handle an occasional off-road adventure. However, which is better?
The 2021 Subaru Outback offers an adequate performance. While its base engine doesn’t pack a big punch, drivers can expect the XT model’s turbocharged engine to feel very strong. It is almost as strong as the RAV4 Prime's plug-in hybrid powertrain. However, a higher fuel economy rating gives the RAV4 Prime a key advantage.
In terms of overall comfort, the Outback is a notch above the RAV4. Greater passenger room and more comfy seats give it the edge. Furthermore, even the lower Outback trims feature high-quality interior materials.
Like its rival, the RAV4 can venture off the beaten path. However, a standard Symmetrical AWD system makes the Outback a better value for weekend adventure seekers. Car shoppers will have to spend more money for the RAV4’s more capable off-road models.
Both crossovers have an appealing appearance. Nonetheless, the RAV4 looks noticeably bolder. Off-road RAV4 trims have an especially aggressive exterior. Lower Outback trims are unlikely to attract much attention. However, upgraded black alloy wheels and unique body cladding help boost the Outback XT’s curb appeal.
While car shoppers won’t be making a mistake by choosing the 2021 Toyota RAV4, the 2021 Subaru Outback is a slightly better pick. It’s feels more luxurious and offers some exclusive safety technologies. A higher quality interior also gives the Outback the upper hand.