The previous two generations of Forester were each named MotorTrend SUV of the Year, so the practical Subaru SUV’s greatness precedes it. Although it’s not our top-rated compact SUV, the Forester is a top pick in its segment thanks to its spacious cabin, smooth ride, and strong value ratings. For the 2021 model year, the Forester sweetens the pot by adding a few more standard features to the mix. If you’re in the market for a 2021 Subaru Forester, let us help you decide which grade is right for you.
2021 Subaru Forester Base Pros and Cons
All 2021 Foresters receive a 182-hp 2.5-liter flat-four engine that produces less power than most of its segment mates. This includes the Toyota RAV4, which makes 203 hp with its 2.5-liter inline-four engine, and the Mazda CX-5, which starts off with a 187-hp naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder on lower trims.
Despite all-wheel-drive (AWD) being standard, the Forester gets surprisingly good fuel economy because of its continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and stop/start technology. Both the RAV4 and CX-5 come with traditional automatic transmissions, and neither offers engine stop/start tech. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates the Forester at 26/33 mpg city/highway, which is better than AWD versions of the CX-5 and about the same as the RAV4.
Because of its boxy figure, the Forester’s five-passenger cabin is spacious for people and things. It offers more headroom than the RAV4 and CX-5, even when equipped with a moonroof, and plenty of legroom, with the CX-5 providing a bit more second-row legroom. The Forester also has more cargo space behind the first row than the RAV4 and CX-5 and more space behind the second row than the CX-5.
Ground clearance from the factory is another of the Forester’s strengths. It offers 8.7 inches to the RAV4’s 8.4 inches and the CX-5’s 7.5.
In base trim, the Forester comes with 17-inch steel wheels with plastic covers and automatic on-off, curve-adaptive LED headlights with automatic high-beam lamps. The headlight features are standard across the Forester line for 2021, and neither the RAV4 LE nor the CX-5 Sport—each model’s lowest trim—has curve-adaptive headlights.
Every Forester is also outfitted with Subaru EyeSight, which includes adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and lane centering. The Forester is a 2021 Top Safety Pick+, the Insurance Institue for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) highest grade. It also earns a five-star overall safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the highest rating it can get.
Base Foresters are equipped with cloth seats, two USB ports, and an infotainment system that features four speakers, a 6.5-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, and a secondary 6.3-inch display stacked above the touchscreen in the dash that shows the time and outside temperature, among other info. This is not to be confused with the 4.2-inch LCD screen nestled in the instrument cluster next to the Forester’s analog speedometer and tachometer.
The Forester’s base trim retails for $25,845, which is less than the entry-level RAV4 LE and CX-5 Sport—each with AWD. The RAV4 AWD stickers for $28,825 and the CX-5 AWD for $27,945. The feature sets among these three SUVs are close at this grade, but we’d rather take the base Forester’s curve-adaptive headlamps than the regular headlamps of rivals.
2021 Subaru Forester Premium Pros and Cons
Subaru adds X-Mode to the Forester Premium, a dual-setting traction control system for the vehicle that assists the driver when driving through snow or loose dirt. The Forester Premium also receives halogen foglights, a roof spoiler, and roof rails. Alloy 17-inch wheels and heated and body-colored side mirrors replace the base trim’s steel wheels and black mirrors.
Inside, the base model’s manually adjustable driver’s seat makes way for a 10-way power-adjustable version, and the driver also receives a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. Additionally, the Forester Premium nets heated front seats, while the rear seats get a reclining seat back and fold-down armrest with cupholders. The Premium trim further adds a panoramic moonroof, tinted windows, two more speakers (for a total of six), and keyless push-button start.
With the Premium grade’s enhancements, the Forester’s sticker price inflates to $28,845. The comparable RAV4 AWD in XLE trim retails for $30,120 but lacks a standard moonroof (it is an option, though). The RAV4 AWD XLE does get dual-zone climate control, something the Forester Premium does without, and five USB ports. Subaru offers a maximum of four USB ports in certain Forester trims. The CX-5 AWD Touring retails for $29,685. Its power-adjustable driver’s seat offers six-way adjustment (instead of 10-way like the Forester), while a moonroof isn’t even on the options menu (you’ll need to move to the next trim level up to nab a CX-5 with a moonroof).
2021 Subaru Forester Sport Pros and Cons
At the Sport trim level, Foresters pick up blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. The SUV also gets larger-diameter ventilated rear brake rotors for better heat dissipation. These replace the solid discs of lesser Forester models.
The Forester Sport aptly switches to a Sport-type front grille and swaps halogen foglights for LED ones. Its side mirrors add integrated turn signals and it rides on a set of 18-inch wheels. The Forester Sport is also outfitted with a chrome exhaust tip.
Orange accents are used throughout the Forester Sport’s interior, including the stitching in the upholstery. Sport models also add two rear USB ports, a cargo-area rear gate light, and paddle shifters for the CVT’s manual mode. The secondary display that’s stacked above the touchscreen in the dash gets an upgrade to a color version.
The Forester Sport stickers for $30,445 and competes against the RAV4 AWD in XLE Premium trim and the CX-5 AWD Carbon Edition—unless you want LED foglights for each competitor. For that, you must move up to the pricier RAV4 AWD TRD Off-Road or CX-5 AWD Grand Touring. The RAV4 AWD XLE Premium retails for $32,825 and the CX-5 AWD Carbon Edition stickers for $31,530.
2021 Subaru Forester Limited Pros and Cons
The Forester Limited is not vastly different from the Sport but does add some useful amenities. This includes a power liftgate, which the RAV4 gets at the XLE Premium level and the CX-5 at the Carbon Edition level, and automatically leveling headlights, which come with the CX-5 Touring but are not available on any RAV4. Halogen foglights return for the Limited grade but come in housings with chrome trim instead of black.
An 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen is standard at the Limited trim level, but the CX-5 has a larger 10.3-inch screen and it’s offered across all CX-5 trims. Voice-activated controls and dual-zone climate controls are also standard. The Forester receives leather-trimmed upholstery in Limited trim.
The Forester Limited retails for $32,445, and at this level, we’d put it up against the RAV4 Adventure and CX-5 AWD Grand Touring. The Toyota stickers for $34,530, while the Mazda is priced at $31,530.
2021 Subaru Forester Touring Pros and Cons
The Forester Touring adds rear automatic emergency braking, while LED foglights return. It also ditches the body-colored side mirrors for satin chrome ones.
Inside the Forester Touring, drivers get a heated steering wheel and two-position seat and side mirror memory function. The manually adjustable forward passenger seat is replaced with an eight-way adjustable power seat, and the model also gets heated outboard rear seats. A one-touch folding rear seat back is standard at this grade. Forester Touring infotainment upgrades consist of the addition of in-dash navigation and a nine-speaker Harman Kardon sound system.
The top-of-the-line Forester Touring retails for $35,945, while the equivalent RAV4 AWD in Limited trim is priced at $37,355. The top CX-5 is the Signature, but it’s equipped with the CX-5’s turbocharged engine so it makes significantly more power. The CX-5 Signature retails for $38,680, but its top naturally aspirated AWD grade is the CX-5 Grand Touring, which we compared in price to the Forester Limited in the previous section.
Which 2021 Subaru Forester Trim Is Best?
We think the Sport trim hits the sweet spot. It delivers nearly all the features found on the upper trims except for heated rear seats and leather upholstery. We’d tack on the Sport’s one available option package to add rear automatic braking, the upgraded sound system, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, and a power liftgate.
2021 Subaru Forester Trim Levels:
- Forester Premium
- Forester Sport
- Forester Limited
- Forester Touring
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