Subaru Outback vs. Honda CR-V: Compare Cars

December 8, 2016
2017 Subaru Outback

2017 Subaru Outback

With crossover SUVs among the hottest selling vehicles in this era of cheap gasoline, two of the more practical are the Subaru Outback and the Honda CR-V. The Outback is actually sold as a wagon in other markets, but here's it's fully accepted as a utility vehicle—helped by its SUV-like ride height.

The CR-V blends a tall-wagon body with optional all-wheel drive and is now large enough to be dubbed "mid-size" by the EPA. But which one's better at tackling varied terrain, from suburban malls to muddy soccer fields and rocky trails?

READ MORE: See our full reviews of the 2017 Subaru Outback and 2017 Honda CR-V.

Truthfully, this is a bit of an odd comparison as the CR-V is designed to square off against Subaru's Forester (we've compared the two here). However, many shoppers may find themselves drawn to the Outback, which is priced about the same and offers a different take on the crossover theme. We like the Outback a lot, and we've scored it higher than the CR-V; however, there is much to like about the Honda. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The Outback is the older of the pair, redesigned for 2015, while the CR-V was redesigned this year. The Subaru's styling blends aero-smoothness and SUV stance in a way that the slab-sided Honda can't quite match. The Outback manages to be both sleek and rugged at the same time, while the CR-V is a more familiar shape outside schools and in parking lots across the country.

The CR-V, by contrast, is a little murkier to look at, but it fits the crossover mold and looks more distinctive than its predecessor. It will fit a lot of people and their gear, and stands high enough to offer more ground clearance than a car. Still, it's low enough to handle adequately and its shape is sufficiently aerodynamic to give it decent fuel economy ratings.

Inside, neither is among the most elegant or luxe of SUVs, but the Subaru has a simpler and more squared-off look with touches of matte silver trim, rather like high-end audio equipment. The Honda's interior trim became far less grim and utilitarian in the recent redesign, and its new console is much more practical and usable than before, but it has more swoops and angles. 

2017 Honda CR-V

2017 Honda CR-V

2017 Honda CR-V

2017 Honda CR-V

2017 Honda CR-V

2017 Honda CR-V

On the road, the Outback is more engaging and agile, due to the low center of gravity of its "boxer" horizontally opposed engine design. The base flat-4 performs well enough and is smooth, paired to one of our favorite continuously-variable transmission (CVT) designs. Gas-mileage ratings are impressive, and the four is strong enough that we'd skip the pricey flat-6 option on the Limited and Touring unless you're going to tow or spend a lot of time at higher altitudes.

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 Outback is more versatile overall. The Subaru shines when you leave the pavement; with 8 inches of ground clearance, a stiff structure, and Subaru's two decades of standard all-wheel drive, it delivers considerably more capability than not only the CR-V, but even some truck-based SUVs.

All-wheel drive is a four-figure option on the CR-V, though we found the system to have plenty of finesse, providing just enough wheelspin to get the vehicle up snowy driveways or along muddy trails. But we'd take the Outback over the CR-V any time we ventured off-road; it's that capable.

Inside, the two crossovers offer more of a toss-up. The Outback's low window line gives an airier cabin feel than the CR-V, and its materials and design are straightforward, practical, and look like they've been designed for durability. It has plenty of cargo capacity and feel spacious. It's clear that the Outback is designed to be a class above the CR-V—but that's also echoed in a price tag that can stretch to nearly $40,000 (about $5,000 more than a loaded CR-V).

2016 Subaru Outback

2016 Subaru Outback

2016 Subaru Outback

2016 Subaru Outback

2016 Subaru Outback

2016 Subaru Outback

Practicalities

The Honda’s seat-folding arrangement is excellent, and a spring-loaded mechanism makes one-arm seat folding easily done. And it just manages to beat the Subaru with more bins, cubbies, trays, and cupholders  in all the right places. Owing to its taller roofline, the CR-V offers good room for a bicycle or tall object to stand up in the cargo area with its front wheel removed. You can't do that in the Outback.

The Outback is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, and has an inexpensive, sophisticated forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking system. All models but the base CR-V, however, come standard with that important safety tech. The CR-V hasn't been crash tested yet, but we expect it to perform well.

The well-equipped Outback offers slightly better value if you compare all-wheel-drive versions. A base Outback starts at about $26,000; while the base CR-V LX undercuts it, the Honda comes with front-wheel-drive. It'll cost you around $1,300 to add the all-wheel-drive option that essentially levels the playing field.

Upgrade to the top-of-the-line trims, like the Outback Touring or the CR-V Touring, and both family utilities start to resemble luxury cars of just a few years ago. That includes leather seats, navigation systems, high-end audio, and more. That said, the Outback's lineup stretches further than the CR-V's; the Touring model wouldn't look out of place in the valet line at Neiman-Marcus. 

The Outback is the winner here. Its sales, which increase every year, shows the value of a true all-weather champ. But don't immediately discount the CR-V; for many buyers, its higher roofline and its better fuel economy will make it the ideal choice. Either vehicle is among the top-rated family utilities in their class, however, so we suggest driving both before you decide.

Summary

8.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Subaru Outback is a worthy competitor to many SUVs on capability alone—factor in price and it should be a no-brainer.
7.8
Expert Rating
It's hard to imagine a compact crossover better aligned with the needs of most buyers than the 2017 Honda CR-V.

Styling

7.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Subaru Outback is handsome—in a weird, wagon-y way.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
The Honda CR-V's exterior is a little quirky, but it gets points for a terrific interior.
Read More

Performance

7.0
Expert Rating
The Outback has off-road chops and a smooth ride, but we'd like a powertrain option that's in the middle of our available choices.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
Although the turbo-4 can sound a little wheezy, the CR-V rides and handles wonderfully.
Read More

Comfort & Quality

9.0
Expert Rating
Subaru continues to refine the Outback with better available materials and a quieter cabin.
Read More
9.0
Expert Rating
It's hard to figure out how Honda pulled this much interior room and comfort out of such a small footprint.
Read More

Safety

9.0
Expert Rating
The Subaru Outback is one of our top picks for safety, and data shows its one of the safest cars on the road.
Read More
9.0
Expert Rating
Honda includes big safety tech as standard on almost every CR-V.
Read More

Features

9.0
Expert Rating
For 2017, Subaru has added a range-topping trim for 3.6-liter models and even more safety equipment.
Read More
8.0
Expert Rating
CR-V comes well-equipped in base LX trim, but the EX is the real bargain here.
Read More

Fuel Economy

7.0
Expert Rating
The Subaru Outback is thrifty by SUV standards, but average when compared to mid-sizers—when you pick the smaller engine.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
Even the least efficient Honda CR-V is highly competitive.
Read More

MSRP

from $25,645
from $24,045

Invoice

from $24,131
from $22,583

Fuel Economy - Combined City and Highway

28
28

Engine

Regular Unleaded H-4, 2.5 L
Regular Unleaded I-4, 2.4 L

Drivetrain

All Wheel Drive Read Full Specs
Front Wheel Drive Read Full Specs
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