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Subaru Forester vs. Mazda CX-5 Carbon: Tortoise vs. hare

A test of two comparably priced midsize SUVs reveals two very different choices.

The 2021 Subaru Forester keeps plodding along as it has for the last three years, adding some new touches but still winning hearts.
The 2021 Subaru Forester keeps plodding along as it has for the last three years, adding some new touches but still winning hearts.Read moreSubaru

2021 Subaru Forester Sport vs. 2021 Mazda CX-5 AWD Carbon Edition: You’d think this would be easy.

This week: 2021 Subaru Forester Sport

Price: $32,090 as tested. The cleverly named option package 24 provides fancy audio plus reverse automatic braking and power rear gate with height memory. It added $1,645 to the price and is one of the few options available on the Forester.

Marketer’s pitch: “The Subaru for all you love.”

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes that there is “plenty of cargo space, a comfortable two-row layout, smooth ride,” but not the “pokey acceleration, base model is spartan, not as cool as the Outback wagon.”

Reality: Forester — the weird little brother Subaru that’s kind of lagging behind the rest.

What’s new: So you have about 33 grand to drop on an SUV. Plodding along over here is the Subaru Forester, doing what it’s always been doing. Racing past us is the Mazda CX-5 Carbon Edition, which adds some zip to the small SUV.

Though the Forester was last redesigned for the 2019 model year, that doesn’t mean a 2019 is just like a 2021 model. The Forester has received some tweaks such as steering-responsive headlights and LED high beams standard on all trims.

A refreshed look will come for the 2022 model year. A Wilderness trim is added as well, but it won’t have the high-performance engine that makes the Outback Wilderness such a blast.

» READ MORE: Dirty Dancing: Subaru gives the 2022 Outback Wilderness all the off-road moves

Up to speed: The 2.5-liter four keeps on creating a respectable 182 horsepower and gets to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, according to Car and Driver. Acceleration feels lively but is not actually, well, lively. And no hot-rod engine choices are available for upgrade.

Shiftless: The CVT doesn’t offer gears, of course, but there are steps that one can shift through in manual mode, through paddles or the gearshift. They’re particularly helpful to have in Sport mode, where the Forester held gears for quite a long time and made me decide I’d rather handle my own shifting.

Like all Subarus, the Forester is all-wheel drive.

On the road: Subaru seems to have come back to making Subarus again. When first introduced, new versions of the Forester (2019) and Crosstrek (2018) both seemed bulky and cumbersome, whereas previous generations seemed to go right where pointed.

The 2011 and 2015 Forester were among my favorite vehicles, and now we’re back to that original feel.

The winding country roads of Chester County continue to be a great place to get a feel for whether a car will go where I point it. The curves grow narrow in some places, and then there’s no room for drifting even slightly from your lane when an oncoming truck happens to appear.

So the question becomes, do I have to slow down tremendously to feel I can continue safely? The answer in this Forester is, thankfully, no.

Sport mode does liven things up, but it’s not a requirement for an enjoyable drive. And the Forester won’t be mistaken for the family Giulia or Lexus LC500 — or even the CX-5 — but it’s enjoyable enough.

» READ MORE: 2021 LC500 is the unexpected Lexus

Driver’s Seat: The cockpit provides comfortable and supportive accommodations, like you might expect from a good car, a relationship, a therapist.

Gauges are standard Subaru, clear and easy to read and follow.

Friends and stuff: Sturgis Kid 4.0 called the interior “very bare bones,” and he’s right.

The Sport is the middle trim level of five, and it comes with SofTex seats, old-style heater switches, and an unfussy black dashboard. Upgrade to Touring trim for some dead cow.

I tested out the back seat and found it comfortable enough but short in the seat area. Spaciousness abounds, though, with plenty of head, leg, and foot room.

Cargo space is 31.1 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 76.1 with the seat folded.

Play some tunes: The upgraded 576-watt, 9-speaker Harman Kardon stereo system offers easy controls, with volume and tuning knobs and an 8-inch touch screen that’s easy to follow as well. Tuning in sound controls remains as easy and holding down the right knob, though once there, the touch screen equalizer can get away from you.

The system provides good playback, about an A-.

Keeping warm and cool: Controlling the indoor weather is as easy and unfussy as controlling the stereo and seats. One dial for temperature, one for fan speed and a third for air source. The central vertical vents can be difficult to direct, but the rest is easy enough.

Fuel economy: I averaged about 24 mpg in an array of country roads and some highways, but not all that much driving. Feed the Forester whatever.

Where it’s built: Ota, Japan

How it’s built: Consumer Reports bets your reliability will be a four out of five.

Next week: Mazda adds some oomph to the CX-5.