These two models—and nearly all the models in their very popular category—are great family choices. They can multitask better than most, tucking away up to five passengers and some big-box bargains, all with the promise of all-weather traction and tractability — and with a low sticker price plus some impressive fuel economy numbers.
But which one offers the better mix of utility and other important features, like safety?
We're giving the Honda CR-V the edge here in part because it was just redesigned, but the Forester is aging gracefully and offers up many compelling reasons to take one home.
In the meantime it's worth recognizing that styling is neither 'ute's strong point. The Forester's more handsome than in the past, and the cockpit has a smart functionality to it that transcends its uninteresting design. It's far from runway material, but the simple design is refreshing and the cabin's trimmed out to a good, sturdy standard. The latest CR-V offers more cubbyhole space and some nicer materials on higher-spec models, but it doesn't move the bar as far forward as it could have. We'll give Subaru the edge on infotainment, at least the system offered in Premium, Limited, and Touring trim levels. Its system does lack Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but it is generally easier to sort through than Honda's menu-intensive unit.
Both models deliver the best space utilization in their segment. Passengers at all four outboard seating positions have terrific stretch-out room. The CR-V's cargo area is more flexible and its second row folds flatter, but both crossovers can hold a bicycle upright (with its front tire removed), something few rivals can say.
On the go
CR-V LX models utilize a largely carried over 2.4-liter inline-4 engine rated at 184 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. All other trim levels, including the EX, EX-L, and Touring, make use of a more advanced 1.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that checks in with 190 hp and 179 pound-feet, the latter of which is spread across a much wider range of the engine's revolutions. That translates to far quicker acceleration and passing power with from the turbo model than from the standard engine in the LX. Both models make use of a CVT.
Honda estimates that about 75 percent of CR-Vs will feature its 1.5-liter turbo-4, which means that EX, EX-L, and Touring models with front-wheel drive are rated at 28 mpg city, 34 highway, 30 combined. The all-wheel drive version is rated at a still impressive 27/33/29 mpg.
The basic Forester? It's no lightning bolt either, but its flat-4 can be turbocharged for 250 horsepower and truly brisk acceleration. A manual transmission is standard on the base wagon, but most other versions sport a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) programmed with shift points that mimic a 6- or 8-speed automatic. Fuel economy lags the Honda, at 24/32/27 mpg for the CVT, but we've consistently hit Subaru's combined numbers in our six-month road test. The Forester's handling is superior to the Honda's, and it has actual trail prowess, with its 8.7 inches of ground clearance and standard all-wheel drive.
The Forester's interior space is close to that of the Honda, but the CR-V's smart seat-folding system gets kudos. Open one of the back doors, and with one arm and a simple pull of a strap, in a very fluid motion the lower cushion tumbles forward into the footwell, the headrest angles forward, and the rear seatback flips forward, all tucking nearly behind the front seat, to a completely flat position. The Forester has more vertical space and fold-down rear seats with one-touch action, but the seats don't quite fold flat. Both have a lot of small-item storage.
Safety was as recently as last year a defining split between these two models, but it's far closer to a tossup between the two this year.
The latest CR-V hasn't yet been subjected to the full barrage of crash tests, but we applaud Honda for making automatic emergency braking standard on all but the LX model. That kind of tech is optional on all Forester trim levels except for the base model, but the Forester does very well in government and independent crash tests. The Forester comes standard with all-wheel drive, too, which is either a boon or a miss depending on your perspective.
Equipment varies by model, but all CR-Vs and Foresters include the power and entertainment basics. On the CR-V, the EX is the value-leader, while the Subaru may make the most sense as the Premium trim level. The Forester's Limited package is more affordable, and offers leather and a power tailgate.
The CR-V stands out for its better fuel economy numbers and its better interior. But the Forester has a slight edge in interior appointments, and it does better in performance for its sprightly (and still affordable) turbocharged models and more engaging handling; it also steps off with its best safety package at a lower price.
For now, we're giving the Subaru a slight edge, but assuming the CR-V passes its crash tests with flying colors, it will be the leader—but only by a hair. You can't go wrong with either of these crossovers. (Read more about how we rate cars.)