Which platform should you start your off-road build with?

subaru outback vs forester for offroad

The Subaru Outback first debuted in 1995 as a trim level option of the popular Legacy. It slowly became a favorite among fans of the brand and is a even more popular today. Then in 1997, Subaru released the model year 1998 Forester which was a slightly larger platform at the time. Both models were relatively distinct from each other in size and shape. However, as the years have progressed, it’s become harder for consumers to choose between them.

In 2010 Subaru changed the overall styling and feel of the Outback and Forester into slightly larger vehicles. Ever since the update took place, potential customers have been confused as to which is right for them. They’re similar in size, they have comparable engine options, and they even have almost the same amount of interior space in terms of cubic feet. So what’s the difference? Which one is not only right for you, but best for using off-road for your adventures? We’ll do our best to explain the main features that might cause you to choose one over the other.

Table of Contents

Physical Size and Luxuries

Let’s start off by discussing the differences and similarities between the Forester and Outback. The Outback is based on the Legacy platform while the Forester is based on the Impreza Platform. The Legacy is a mid size sedan while the Impreza is more of a small compact car offered in sedan and hatchback form. Because of its more compact platform, the Forester has a slightly smaller exterior and weighs about 200lbs less than the Outback. The 2022 Base Outback weighs in at 3637lbs while the Forester starts at 3454lbs.

Not only is there a difference in weight, but the physical exterior dimensions are different. The Outback is 191 inches long while the Forester is only 183 inches in length. Vehicle length plays a large role in how capable your vehicle is in off-road settings. Not only does it contribute to your approach and departure angle, but it determines how easily you can take tight turns, or turn around on a narrow trail. The Outback is also slightly wider than the Forester which will make it a tad more difficult to fit into tight spaces or overgrown roads.

Even though actual ground clearance is 8.7 inches on both vehicles, the Forester is slightly taller than the Outback. The Forester may be the right choice for someone who likes the taller look of a true crossover and feeling higher off the ground as they drive. It might also be great for someone who does a lot of 1-2 person trips while carrying extra gear or has a dog that will ride in the cargo area. The Outback’s roomier interior better fits small families who like exploring the backcountry and taking camping trips off the beaten path.

While even the most basic cars produced today are pretty comfortable and loaded with tech features, one of these two models comes from the factory with a couple more amenities. With more luxurious seats, a bigger infotainment system, wider cabin, lower vehicle-entry, and a more refined interior finish, the Outback is the right choice for someone concerned with creature comforts. However, the Forester is still a fantastically comfortable vehicle as it comes standard with a wide range of luxuries.

lifted 2020 forester sport on jeep trail

Approach and Departure Angle

The Forester has an approach angle of 23 degrees and the Outback’s is 20 degrees. Approach angle is “the maximum upward angle of an inclined surface that your vehicle drives over” as defined by axleboy.com. What this means is that if your Forester or Outback “approaches” a ramp or incline of 23 or 20 degrees respectively, it can drive up it without hitting the front bumper. The higher the degree of approach angle the better. In this way, the Forester is going to have more off-road capability since it can safely climb steeper obstacles than the Outback without hitting the bumper and other important components.

Departure angle is another factor when considering your next trail car. In the same way that approach measures the angle of something your vehicle can drive up without hitting the front bumper, departure angle measures the angle of an object that you can safely drive up or down without hitting the rear bumper. The Forester’s departure angle is 25 degrees and the Outback’s is only 21.7 degrees which makes the Forester a great choice for physically attacking off-road obstacles. Keep in mind that these angles are stock and will be affected positively when a lift kit and larger tires are installed.

Gearing & Power

Both the Forester and the Outback are going to have similar gearing and comparable AWD systems. In the Premium trim, the Outback has a 3.90 final drive and the Forester’s 3.70 final drive is a little less aggressive. Gearing doesn’t increase actual engine power, but it allows the vehicle to harness that power in different ways for various purposes. A higher gear ratio means the vehicle will be able to use its power at slower “crawl” speeds. This is why very underpowered vehicles like the old Suzuki Samurai and 4 cylinder 4Runners are able to climb up steep hills without excessive horsepower.

While neither the Outback or Forester’s gear ratio is very impressive when compared to the gearing in a Jeep Rubicon with large differentials geared to 4.10, the Outback will have slightly more low end power delivery. Note that the Wilderness edition Forester and Outback both share a 4.11 final drive ratio.

Now that we have an understanding of the gearing between the Forester and Outback, let’s talk about horsepower. Both models share Subaru’s 2.5 boxer engine in most trim levels. However, the Outback is available in the XT  and Wilderness Edition trims with a 2.4 liter turbocharged engine that puts out 260hp at the crank. The extra horsepower makes any of the turbo’d Outbacks significantly more fun in the sand and snow. It also gives the driver much more merging and passing power on the freeway. Similarly to the Wilderness Edition, the XT has a 4.11 final drive gear ratio. The Forester is not available with a turbocharged engine regardless of trim level. So in the power category, the Outback wins for having more available engine options.

lifted 2020 subaru outback xt with off road tires climbing a hill

Towing Capabilities

Many people will never consider the towing capability of their Subaru when taking it off-road. However, there is a growing number of people who are opting to own one car that can “do it all” instead of a commuter car and a large truck or SUV. For those people, using a camping or travel trailer is a great option when trying to escape the city for some fresh air in the woods.
With a 2,700lb towing capacity, the Outback is the best choice for folks looking to bring a small trailer along on their trips. Being based on the slightly larger Legacy platform, the Outback is more capable of safely towing larger loads when compared to the Forester’s 1,500lb rating. The Outback also has a larger rear brake system which is important when towing.

Theoretically, a higher towing capacity could have an impact on the recovery tolerance of a vehicle. The Outback will likely be able to withstand a bit more force being applied during off-road recovery procedures. This difference is probably negligible, but worth considering.


When doing a straight across comparison, the Forester is more affordable by about $2000. For those of us who plan to deliver substantial off-road abuse to our Subarus, spending a little less on the front end not only hurts a bit less, but leaves extra money for aftermarket upgrades. Things like tires, lift kits, and winches can add up and it may be wise to start with a slightly less expensive platform to soften the blow of building an off-road rig.

Aftermarket Support

When selecting a vehicle to build for a dedicated purpose, the availability of aftermarket parts plays a large role in what platform many people choose. If someone buys a car that has little to no aftermarket options, getting custom built accessories can add up quickly. Fortunately, there are a growing number of offerings available for Subarus from many of today’s most popular suppliers.

Between the Forester and Outback, you’ll have about the same amount of upgrade parts available to you. One reason for this is that some components are interchangeable as they share the same overall suspension and drivetrain system. Things like wheels, rear diff lockers, and winches will typically be compatible with both vehicles. Another reason is that most companies produce parts for both vehicles since they each have a large fan base of enthusiasts. It’s very rare that a performance parts manufacturer will create parts for the Outback but not the Forester and vice versa.

While there are still not nearly as many off-road parts available for Subarus as Jeeps and other 4×4’s, the offerings between the Outback and Forester are roughly the same (Check out this article for the best Forester accessories.)

Lifted Subaru Outback with All terrain tires

Personal Preference

When comparing the Outback and Forester, it’s hard to make a definitive statement as to which is best. They both have similar performance and comfort levels. They both come standard with Subaru’s famous symmetrical all wheel drive system. This may be why there is so much confusion surrounding the “Forester vs. Outback” debate. We believe it’s truly up to preference. If you prefer the look and interior comfort of the Outback, or the taller, more boxed look of the Forester, you simply can’t make a bad decision. You’ll notice that both vehicles have about the same level of aftermarket support as you begin to explore modifications. Our opinion is to take them both for a spin and see which one you fall in love with. In the end, we think you’ll drive away happy and hit the trails with confidence.

Wilderness Edition

If you’re not considering the traditional trim levels of the Outback or Forester and strictly looking at the Wilderness Edition, many of the considerations in this article don’t apply. The Wilderness Outback and Forester are both really well equipped. The major things that should be considered between the two is what we’ve talked about in regards to shape and size. The turbocharged motor is also only available in the Outback Wilderness Edition.

To sum it up, you really can’t make a bad decision between the Forester and Outback if you’re looking for something to take off-road. They’re both extremely comfortable and capable. My advice is this: go test drive both! See which one you fit in best and determine which one you enjoy driving more.

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