2014 Subaru Forester + 2014 Toyota RAV4 AWD - DHS Compact Crossover Comparison

What's not to love about the compact cross-over utility vehicle?  Families are smaller these days. You say Fido is a St. Bernard? He'll still have some sitting room in compact SUV. Equipped with rear-view cameras they are barely trickier to parallel park than a Smart For Two. Make that TWO Smart For Twos. Have you seen how the price of gas per gallon of unleaded gas is back above $4 here in Chicago? Most compact CUVs have to be fueled-up  about half as often as a full-size SUV.

Catering equally to needs and wants, "Drive...He Said" recently compared the refreshed-for-2014 Subaru Forester and 2014 Toyota RAV4,  re-born barely a year ago.

Converging Lines:

- Historically,  the rectilinear Forester was the Impreza outgrowth that quite reached trendy REI status as did the more streamlined Legacy Outback sport-wagon.

For 2014, Subaru Forester finally gets some design love, with a deeper fascia and tapered, drawn headlights.

- Last year's revamp of the Toyota RAV4 brought a more aggressive, youthful appearance on Corolla underpinnings.

Amending swing tailgate to liftgate, the mini-spare tire has also been relocated - under the load floor.

GRADE: Forester: B- RAV4: B

When the Going Get's Rough..:

Forester's Active Torque Split Symmetrical all-wheel drive has electro-hydraulic multi-plate clutch differentials. Front to rear axle torque split can be varied from 60%/40% to a lock-out of either axle. Optional X-Drive adds VDC free-wheeling lock-out and hill descent control, using ABS and a  short ratio crawl gear in the Continuously Variable transmission.

The RAV4 AWD electronic wet-clutch differential defaults to a 90%/10% F/R spin split. Depress the dash mounted 4WD button and ABS sensors can shift the balance to 40%/60%. No steep grade mode in the RAV4 = NEIN to off-roading.

Power from RAV4's 2.5L  alloy twin-cam gas inline-4 powerplant flows like sap flowing from a Vermont Maple. The six-speed autobox is capable of kicking down smartly. In day-in day-out use the loss of the V6 option isn't so missed.

Forester can be optioned with a 2.0L flat-four 250 hp turbocharged gasoline powerplant. Something our 2.5i Touring test model lacked. Set for a course on flat land local roads it likely mattered not. The torque converter unlocks only to duplicate slippage during band-pulley ratio changes.  It faithfully mimics a conventional geared automatic. Preferring suggestions to proddings, the Forester returned the best fuel economy in this duo: 26 miles-per-gallon combined.

The Toyota RAV4,  with optional 17" wheels, can become choppy on corrugated pavement. The return is resistance to sway and steering which is reasonably quick and light. Four wheel disc brakes felt the most tenacious in this comparison.

Subaru Forester is all "Don't Worry, Be Happy" on the road. Greater suspension travel induces slight bobbing, though forgiving compliance. Steering needs frequent on-center correction. The brake pedal needs some travel before pads take a bite on the four rotors.

GRADE: Forester: B- RAV4: B

Hauling Cheeks:

For spaciousness sake there's the Subaru Forester. Seating is wide-sized. Front buckets get 10-way power + lumbar adjustment on the driver's side but remain sparse on lateral support. A panoramic moon roof makes the place brighter but impinges on rear headroom.

- Despite a higher liftover Forester's cargo area mat is an invitation for a chopping down your next Christmas tree, where permitted.  The exposed rear bumper cover will mandate an old blanket to keep out scuffs and scratches.

Toyota RAV4's switch from swinging tailgate to liftgate is the single most noticeable difference in the model revamp. And the most welcome one. With one of the lower load liftovers among compact CUVs, it will be the envy at the local supermarket.

- Row 2 in the RAV4 is more social with 2 than in the Forester; downright crowded with 3. The front center console is smallish. Front buckets are more constrictive. Yet Toyota earns a commendation for their torso and thigh bolstering.

GRADE: Forester: B+ RAV4: B-

In A Material World:

"Richly appointed" aptly describes the 2014 Subie Forester cabin. Materials are at or near the top of this segment. Attention is paid to detail, with contrasting colors, convincing faux metallic inserts, soft touch materials, creamy leather seating. Even where plastics feel hard below knee level, they don't look it.

- We lost our last finger wrestling match with the miniscule soft-touch buttons abutting the Harman Kardon LCD touch infotainment/ SD navigation display in the  2013 Subaru Crosstrek . The same unit does duty in the Forester, so the fingers lose again. Besides displaying various vehicle modes a 4.3" high-mount multi-function color screen has a clever calendar for 11th hour birthday gift stop reminders. Misses: the rear camera feed routes through this smaller display and changing the clock requires a systems analyst background.

- The 2014 Forester debuts Subaru's STARLINK foray into infotainment smart-phone based applications. Aha-based service is a portal to NPR, Slacker personal internet music, Tripadvisor, and Yelp.

- And yes, our Forester 2.5i Touring was fitted with Eye-Sight stereo image detection forward cross traffic/ pedestrian / obstacle collision avoidance good to 19 mph. It is part of an active driving assistance suite including adaptive cruise control, lane departure and sway warning systems.

The RAV4 interior was Corolla plain before. The re-design with a Camry-themed contrasting soft padded mid-dash has elevated it to plain+. Seriously, the imitation basic black carbon fiber surrounding gear-shift selector and door switches is fooling nobody. It's an extension of the cheap effect of an aggregate of dark hard plastics throughout the cabin. On the plus side:

- SD based navigation featured accurate 3-D bird-eye view and landmarks with excellent color contrast. The 6 speaker Entune Premium Audio system has greater depth and more accurate imaging than the Harman Kardon unit in the Forester.

- RAV4's large dial/ switch automated climate control unit is exemplary in terms of ease of deciphering and adjustment.

GRADE: Forester: B+ RAV4: C+

Drum Roll Please...as the Nod Goes to the 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i :

+ More settled ride and civilized environment.+ Modest off-road capability is better than none. + Controls are sized large and obvious for simple use. + Fuel economy is darn good nearing class champ Mazda CX-5 . + Stereoscopic collision avoidance is not available in any other vehicle at this price. +/- Priced from $22,300 w/ manual; loaded 2.5i Touring model = $33,200.

The 2014 Toyota RAV4 definitely has the looks and drives more emotional. Front-drive RAV4s start at $23,550. Our AWD XLE tester, at $27,580,  aspires to be a compelling value to many. Sporty and convenient, yes. Tight build, for sure. With finish a bit "unfinished." Sure, there is keyless start. But no remote control on the key fob to release the tailgate latch? Come on Toyota. You need to see how Subaru sweats the details.

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