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The 2020 Subaru Outback Outdoor XT.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

One lifted wagon, one old-fashioned SUV; on paper, the Outback and the 4Runner are as different as chalk and cheese, night and day, granola or a cheeseburger. However, visit any hiking trailhead in your area, and you’re likely to the same kind of people driving either one of these machines, outfitted with sturdy boots and wearing bright GoreTex. Both seat five, offer solid off-road prowess and have great resale values. Which one’s the best for an outdoorsy family?

Tech specs

2020 Subaru Outback Outdoor XT

The Outback Outdoor is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

  • Price, as tested: $38,695
  • Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged
  • Transmission/drive: continuously variable (CVT), all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 260 hp
  • Fuel economy (L/100 kms): 10.1 city, 7.9 hwy
2020 Toyota 4Runner Venture

The 4Runner Venture is powered by a 4.0-litre V6.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

  • Price (when new): $55,390
  • Engine: 4.0-litre V6
  • Transmission/drive: Five-speed automatic / four-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 270 hp
  • Fuel economy (L/100 km): 14.3 city, 11.9 highway

Looks

Outback

The Outback maintains the utilitarian styling that has defined the model since its debut in 1994.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

When it first debuted in 1994, the Outback offered an alternative to hulking great SUVs. What it did not attempt to offer is attractive styling, and this latest model is similarly utilitarian. It looks like what it is: a mid-sized wagon with a lifted suspension and some body cladding. If this car could wear cargo shorts and sandals, it would.

In a world where every other crossover comes with a huge grille that looks like it would make julienne fries out of a moose, the Subaru's chunky silhouette is honest. This being the Outdoor model, aimed at younger buyers, there's some blacked-out trim for a sportier appearance. It's a hiking shoe on wheels, and the better for it.

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4Runner

The 4Runner looks like a cross between a Star Wars stormtrooper and a Tonka truck.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

If the Outback is the proto-mammal that presaged the rise of car-based crossovers in popularity, then the 4Runner is a dinosaur. Here, in white, it looks like a cross between a Star Wars stormtrooper and a Tonka truck.

The 4Runner rides on 17-inch wheels and fat tires.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Fat tires on dark 17-inch wheels add to the 4Runner’s sandbox-ready appearance, and a roof basket and metal step-rails finish things off in rugged style. It looks basically the same as it has for the last decade.

Interior

Outback

The 11.6-inch touch screen gives the Subaru's interior a 'wow' factor its exterior lacks.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The Outback’s exterior doesn’t appear to have changed much over the previous model, but the inside is an immediate departure. The “wow” factor is the huge 11.6-inch touch screen, which is quick and functional. Having said that, the trend of having large screens in vehicles is regrettable. They’re distracting. Happily, Subaru’s fitted redundant knobs and buttons for no-look operation.

The Outdoor variant gets a rubbery material covering the seats that is ideal for repelling the various detritus that young children seem to give off. There’s plenty of space for fully-grown kids, too, and the overall quality is a cut above a similarly optioned Forester.

4Runner

The 4Runner's interior looks cheap and plasticky, yet remains charming nonetheless.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The Toyota's interior doesn't surprise with high-tech features, but is, instead, pretty much the same as it was ten years ago. It looks dated, and a little cheap and plasticky.

The 4Runner's interior has the feeling of old-school Toyota functionality.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

It's also hugely likeable. No, the 4Runner doesn't have a gee-whiz screen, but it gives off the sense that everything in here will still be functioning perfectly in twenty years, no matter what abuse you heap on it. It's old-school Toyota simplicity at its best.

Performance

Outback

The Outback is surprisingly competent off-road.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Previous versions of the Outback were available with either a normally-aspirated boxer four-cylinder engine or a wonderfully smooth flat-six. The latter has been now replaced with a 2.4-litre turbocharged four. It doesn’t have anything close to the character of the six, but it offers plenty of torque for passing and climbing hills.

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The suspension is soft, but body roll is very well controlled, and the Outback is an ideal highway companion. If your drive to the campsite is a long slog on the freeway followed by an hour of gravel roads, the Subaru will have you still feeling fresh when you get there. It's a bit nimbler than the outgoing model, and the added low-end grunt is excellent.

Off-road, the Outback is surprisingly competent. Rutted tracks, mud, or dry and sandy conditions are shrugged off with ease. Subaru's X-mode simplifies everything to the point that not much experience is necessary to traverse some seriously gnarly terrain. For ordinary explorers, there's little that the Outback won't be able to handle.

4Runner

The 4Runner is nearly unstoppable on off-road terrain.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

While the Toyota Tacoma benefits from a new V6 and a six-speed automatic transmission, the 4Runner is still stomping around with a fairly outdated powertrain. It feels ponderous on the road, and really requires a good stomp on the throttle to get up to highway speeds.

This is a capital-T Truck and doesn’t apologize about it. It neither rides nor handles like a car, and the fuel economy isn’t great. Most of the time, you’ll look down at the speedometer to find out you’re driving slower than you think.

The 4Runner is one of few remaining body-on-frame SUVs with a four-wheel-drive gearbox.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

But that's the 4Runner's character, and it's again very likeable and charming. You have to really want the driving experience of a truck to own one of these, but the experience is honest.

Off-road, the 4Runner is nearly unstoppable. Yes, there’s selectable terrain management, but the bones of this truck are what’s important. The 4Runner is one of the few remaining body-on-frame SUVs with a proper low-range four-wheel-drive gearbox. It quite literally jumped through the pubbles and ruts on some lonely forestry service roads, and I wasn’t surprised that the only other vehicle I came across was also a 4Runner.

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Technology

Outback

Part of what makes any Subaru a strong contender as a family-friendly offering is the brand’s consistently strong safety ratings. The Outback comes with a camera-based driver-assist system that can help prevent or mitigate collisions, and also includes lane-keeping assist to make long drives less of a chore. It also appears to be more resistant to poor weather conditions than bumper-mounted radar systems.

There's also a very handy front camera that can be used when maneuvering offroad, or just when squeaking into a narrow parking spot.

4Runner

Toyota’s safety systems aren’t quite as complex as Subaru’s assists, but the 4Runner does now come with automated cruise control and forward-collision mitigation. It also has automatic high-beam headlights.

Cargo

Outback

Not only does the Outback have a much faster power tailgate this year, but the Outdoor variant comes with a proper full-size spare wheel. The rear tonneau cover can be retracted with a push, and the hatch opens even when you have your hands full. The swing-away crossbars for the roof rack are a clever solution for carrying larger objects. With the seats up, there’s 920 L of space for gear.

4Runner

A retracting rear window improves the 4Runner's cargo capacity.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The 4Runner’s rated 255 L of space is a lot less than the Outback, but it’s not quite so cut and dried. For one thing, the Toyota is one of the few vehicles you can get with a retracting rear window, meaning you can stack the trunk right to the brim or hang a pair of mountain bikes out the back. There’s no power liftgate here, which fits the 4Runner’s truck-not-crossover image, but is certainly something owners have been asking for.

The verdict

Outback

The Outback Outdoor XT is as likeable as a labradoodle.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

As a more polished version of a popular car, the Outback is a smash hit. With the possible exception of the too-large touch screen, everything about the big Subaru wagon is as likeable as a labradoodle. It’s got plenty of utility, is flexible for everyday use and doesn’t fall flat when the going gets rough. You probably don’t need any more car than this.

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4Runner

The 4Runner Venture remains something of a crude throwback but charming nonetheless.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

But perhaps what you don’t need, you still want. The 4Runner, like the Jeep Wrangler, has more off-road prowess than most owners will ever fully exploit. It’s a bit crude on the road and feels very old-fashioned. It’s something of a throwback and a less sensible choice than the Subaru. And yet it’s charming, really good fun to drive and even makes some practical sense because of its great resale. It’s not the smart choice between the two, but if you grew up playing with Tonka trucks, the good news is that Toyota will still sell you a full-size one.

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