Subaru has long been the black sheep of Japanese automakers—just popular enough to be sufficiently well know by consumers, but different enough to never quite fit in with the likes of Honda, Toyota and Nissan.
With each new generation that Subaru unveils, they inch closer to the mainstream in look and appeal while retaining their core values of practicality and all-wheel drive ability that have set them apart from others for a long time.
When I visited the Subaru lot in Tucson a few weeks ago, I was shocked at how easy it was to find multiple models that slotted in below the $25,000 mark. Specifically, the Impreza, XV Crosstrek and Forester stickered for less than the $25k price cap, but I thought the crossovers (the XV Crosstrek and Forester) more compelling options, so I drove them both and left the Impreza out this round.
2015 Subaru Forester
2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek
The instrument cluster is identical in both cars.
Both cars come with standard all-wheel drive (Subaru’s claim to fame and differentiation from competitors), bluetooth phone connectivity, USB and auxiliary inputs, 17-inch alloy wheels, and other typical accouterments found across the board. These cars actually have identical stereo interfaces, instrument clusters, steering wheels and general controls (HVAC, windows, mirrors, etc.).
The radio and HVAC controls are also identical in the Forester and XV Crosstrek.
What separates these cars truly is packaging: the Forester is a slightly larger, more upright and conventional crossover. It has a larger engine and slightly higher entry price to compensate for the additional real estate and grunt. The XV Crosstrek is the smaller, swoopier little brother that comes with less power and a marginally lower price than its big sibling.
The color information screen in the Forester is a feature the XV Crosstrek does not have.
There are only three differences in interior features that set these particular cars apart. The XV Crosstrek I drove had heated seats, and the Forester didn’t. But the Forester had a backup camera (standard on all models, optional on XV Crosstreks) and a handy color screen above the stereo controls that shows realtime MPG data, trip information, radio settings, etc. That’s it—three small conveniences, none of which are real deal breakers making one or the other a clear choice.
The two even match up closely in fuel efficiency. The XV Crosstrek just beats out the Forester by one mpg all around:
The Forester’s EPA gas mileage estimates: 24 city, 32 highway, 27 combined.
The XV Crosstrek’s EPA gas mileage estimates: 25 city, 33 highway, 28 combined.
These cars are as close to being identically outfitted as they can be, and because of that, there are a few important numbers to consider then:
2015 Subaru Forester
The 2015 Forester I drove was being sold for a special dealer price of $23,777. It comes with a 170 horsepower four-cylinder engine mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). [Disclosure: original sticker price was $25,540 after dealer-installed window tint.]
The 2014 XV Crosstrek I drove was being sold for a special dealer price of $23,298, and packs a 148 horsepower four-cylinder engine attached to the same CVT. [Disclosure: Original sticker price was $24,476 after dealer-installed window tint.]
2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek
I list these figures like this because a price difference of $379 isn’t a compelling case for one or the other—that money is totally negligible in the grand scheme of car buying. And considering that there are no major differences in the way these cars are outfitted, it makes choosing between the Forester and XV Crosstrek tricky.
What drivers will have to decide is what they want their car to do, how they want their car to feel, and what package best delivers what they are looking for.
The Forester’s cargo hold is very generous.
The Forester is noticeably wider, and feels airier inside because of the larger windows all around. The 170 horsepower on hand don’t make for an extremely quick car, but a decently peppy one that will be sufficient for most motorists. However, the Forester behaves more like an SUV than the smaller XV Crosstrek. It rides smoothly, but has more body roll and less direct steering feel. It is easy to drive, but not particularly thrilling.
The XV Crosstrek’s cargo hold is respectable.
The XV Crosstrek, on the other hand, is clearly a smaller car (despite what the kind salesman kept trying to tell me). The cargo area is generous for the size of the car, but is significantly less capacious than the Forester, and there is much less shoulder room. The other difference was how the XV Crosstrek handled on the road. It is also smooth, but has sharper steering feel which makes everything you do while driving a bit more fun than the Forester. It feels more surefooted and responsive, probably by virtue of being built on the smaller Impreza’s platform.
The only serious letdown about the driving dynamics of the XV Crosstrek was how underpowered it felt. There is only a 22 horsepower difference between the two, but it really felt significant after driving them back to back. Especially considering that these cars are almost identical in features and price, the sheer difference in power was very disappointing.
For some, the cargo space will be the determining factor. For others, the performance. The last criterium I consider though is the overall statement of the car. I love that the XV Crosstrek is so distinct from anything else its size. It makes the kind of statement I want a car to make because it has way more personality than the Forester. The black wheels and black paint are the combination I would opt for, but it comes in a lot of interesting colors to fit all sorts of personalities and tastes. It isn’t beautiful, per se, but it is handsome in its own way. In general, it’s just much spunkier than the Forester, and I love that.
The standard black wheels are a fun visual feature few cars in this class have.
The Forester just isn’t quite as dynamic as other crossovers.
With that said, the Forester isn’t an ugly machine, but is a more plain take on an incredibly competitive segment (notable rivals include Honda’s refreshed CR-V, Toyota’s fairly new RAV-4, among others). It clearly does its job well, but with less spark than the XV Crosstrek. It seems to lean towards the practicality side of things instead of the fun side.
These two both make compelling cases for consideration across the board. For crossovers with all-wheel drive, they come in at great prices and will legitimately allow millennials the flexibility to spend a weekend camping or at the ski slopes that a lot of other cars in this price range will not provide. They are practical and usable machines.
If I really had to make the choice between the two, I would side with the black XV Crosstrek. It isn’t quite as spacious, and I really wish it had the extra 22 horsepower from the Forester, but it combines the do and the feel in ways that better suit my lifestyle and personality than its big brother. The Forester is a good choice. I would encourage all potential buyers that want a crossover to look at Subaru. But I love the spunky look and more dynamic driving feel of the XV Crosstrek, and I think it is a solid choice for the money.