2020 Toyota RAV4 vs. 2020 Subaru Forester: Compare Crossover SUVs

October 23, 2019
2020 Subaru Forester

2020 Subaru Forester

Competition among compact crossovers is fiercer now than it ever has been. 

That’s because more buyers seek the versatility, tall ride height, and (relatively) affordable price tag that only the small ‘utes can provide. There are smaller, cheaper alternatives to the 2020 Toyota RAV4 and 2020 Subaru Forester—but none with the same reputation for reliability and off-road capability. 

We agonized over the RAV4 and Forester; our staff was nearly equally split. Blow for blow, the RAV4 and Forester traded shots in the middle of The Car Connection’s ring like the lightweight champs they are. In the end, we have to raise one hand—the Forester outpointed the RAV4 6.8 to 6.5 on our judge’s scorecard. Winner by split decision. 

MORE: Read our 2020 Subaru Forester and 2020 Toyota RAV4 full reviews

2020 Toyota RAV4

2020 Toyota RAV4

2020 Toyota RAV4

2020 Toyota RAV4

2020 Subaru Forester

2020 Subaru Forester

2020 Subaru Forester

2020 Subaru Forester

Style and performance

The RAV4 starts out on the winning foot here. 

Redesigned in 2019, the RAV4 now looks more macho than its predecessors, with bulky styling borrowed from the Tacoma pickup and 4Runner SUV. That style filters into the cabin, which is angular and trendy, without being overwrought. A 7.0- or 8.0-inch touchscreen is perched on top of the dashboard between the front two passengers, an on-trend look for most crossovers. 

The angular and chunky looks of the RAV4 limit outward vision and passenger head room. 

The Forester goes a different route altogether: function dictates form. The tall windows and upright stance are a boon to outward vision, even if it’s a little boxy and boring from the outside. 

Inside, the Forester’s cleaner and more straightforward. The 6.5- or 8.0-inch touchscreen is integrated into the dash itself, and the layout is simple in base, Premium, and Limited trims—Forester Sport and Touring editions add a little flash via accent stitches or warmer hues. 

Under the hoods of most RAV4s (the RAV4 Hybrid isn’t covered here) is a 2.5-liter inline-4 that makes 203 horsepower teamed to an 8-speed automatic and front- or all-wheel drive. The RAV4’s powertrain isn’t much to write home about; the 8-speed shifts quickly to keep the 2.5-liter from spinning higher in its rev range, where it’s a little unrefined. All-wheel drive is optional on most RAV4s (except on Adventure and TRD Off-Road versions, where it’s standard) and two AWD systems are available from Toyota. RAV4 LE and XLE models get a simple system that shuttles power to the rear wheels when other wheels slip; Adventure, TRD Off-Road, and Limited versions add a brake-based torque vectoring system that grabs a slipping rear-wheel and sends torque to the wheel with grip. 

The RAV4’s four-wheel independent suspension tames most roads, but it’s not as soft as the Subaru’s. 

The Forester is powered by a 2.5-liter flat-4 that makes just 182 hp, but its continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is tuned better for peppier starts. 

The flat-4 can feel similarly overworked at times, but its low-range response around town will be helpful for most daily drivers. Like most Subarus, the Forester is equipped with all-wheel drive as standard equipment, and the Forester is imminently capable off-road. (Even more so than off-roady versions of the RAV4.) 

The Forester’s 8.7 inches of ground clearance and available off-road modes can tackle just about anything we’re brave enough to throw at it—no wonder the Forester is popular in mountain states. 

The Forester and RAV4 are rated nearly identically for fuel economy. The EPA rates the RAV4 with front-wheel drive at 30 mpg combined, and all-wheel-drive versions rate 28 mpg combined. The Forester chimes in at 29 mpg combined in all configurations, according to the EPA. 

The RAV4 Hybrid does better, but we cover it elsewhere

2020 Toyota RAV4

2020 Toyota RAV4

2020 Toyota RAV4

2020 Toyota RAV4

2019 Subaru Forester Sport

2019 Subaru Forester Sport

2019 Subaru Forester

2019 Subaru Forester

Comfort, safety, and features 

The Forester builds a lead in comfort and capability, mostly thanks to its brutally efficient shape that prioritizes comfort and not style. The Forester comfortably seats up to five adults with nearly 40 inches of rear seat leg room. Behind the second row, the Forester carries more than 35 cubic feet of cargo—room for dogs and plenty of hiking and biking gear. 

The front seats are spacious and comfortable, but a center console gets cozy next to our legs in some of the wrong ways in the Forester. 

Despite the tall ride height, taller riders and drivers may struggle in the RAV4. That fast roofline and chunky shapes extract a toll from interior comfort. Taller riders may want to sit in the back for better head room, but the 37 inches of leg room on paper doesn’t quite measure to our knees. Up front, the RAV4 is compromised in head room—a 5-foot-10 editor’s head consistently brushed the headliner in the driver’s seat—but there’s better leg room and more comfortable seats. 

The RAV4’s cargo area is similarly sized to the Forester: 37 cubic feet, but the load floor is relatively high. 

Both crossovers have earned stellar crash-safety scores from the NHTSA and IIHS. Federal testers gave both crossovers a five-star overall score, and the IIHS calls both a Top Safety Pick+ with headlights installed on top trims. (The IIHS rated the crashworthiness of both “Good” in every category.)

Both the RAV4 and Forester are equipped with automatic emergency braking that the IIHS rated “Superior” at preventing forward crashes at 12 and 25 mph. 

The outward vision in the Forester is better due to its lower window line and boxy design; looking through the rear of the RAV4 is especially hard. 

Both crossovers start within earshot of each other: The 2020 Forester costs $25,505 to start, the 2020 RAV4 costs about $27,000; the RAV4 in all-wheel drive costs $28,400.  

2020 Toyota RAV4

2020 Toyota RAV4

The base RAV4 includes cloth upholstery, 17-inch wheels with hubcaps, a split-folding rear seat, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, one USB port, and active safety features. 

The base Forester includes nearly identical equipment: a split-folding rear seat, 17-inch wheels, cloth upholstery, and a 6.5-inch touchscreen for infotainment including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, Bluetooth connectivity, and at least one USB port.

The $28,265 RAV4 XLE is where we’d start, and it adds 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, keyless ignition, five USB chargers, and more available options including heated seats and safety add-ons. 

The Forester Premium does nearly the same (but makes those heated seats standard) and adds alloy wheels, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a panoramic moonroof, and an off-road drive mode for $28,405. 

The two are nearly identical in many ways, including prices, packages, and conveniences. On our scale, the Forester pulls ahead slightly thanks to better outward vision (which is safer) and a more comfortable cabin. 

But it’s easy to see why both crossovers are hugely popular among shoppers: they’re both very good cars at affordable prices.

Summary

6.5
Expert Rating
The 2020 Toyota RAV4 covers more bases this year with smartphone compatibility and tough-looking off-road trims.
6.8
Expert Rating
The 2020 Subaru Forester is an incredible value among compact crossovers and a former Best Car To Buy winner.

Styling

8.0
Expert Rating
The 2020 RAV4 swings for the fences and hits a stylish home run among compact crossovers.
Read More
6.0
Expert Rating
The Forester hasn’t changed for 2020 at all. That’s not bad.
Read More

Performance

5.0
Expert Rating
Performance isn’t the 2020 RAV4’s forte, but it keeps pace.
Read More
6.0
Expert Rating
The 2020 Forester can go off-road nearly anywhere, but it’s on-road manners are underrated.
Read More

Comfort & Quality

6.0
Expert Rating
Average bodies will fit fine, but the 2020 RAV4 struggles with more than four bigger adults.
Read More
8.0
Expert Rating
Comfortable for five with room for plenty of gear, the 2020 Forester is ready for just about anything.
Read More

Safety

8.0
Expert Rating
Good active safety features complement good crash-test scores in the 2020 Toyota RAV4.
Read More
9.0
Expert Rating
Good crash-test data and abundant active safety features make the 2020 Subaru Forester a very safe pick.
Read More

Features

7.0
Expert Rating
A new 2020 RAV4 TRD Off-Road adds more trail-riding goodies, but every RAV4 gets good stuff.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
The 2020 Forester is one of the best values among compact crossovers.
Read More

Fuel Economy

5.0
Expert Rating
The 2020 RAV4 keeps pace with the crowd, the RAV4 Hybrid does better.
Read More
5.0
Expert Rating
Among all-wheel-drive compact crossovers, the 2020 Subaru Forester is fuel-efficient.
Read More

MSRP

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Invoice

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Fuel Economy - Combined City and Highway

Engine

Drivetrain

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