No one ever turned their head and said, “Nice Highlander,” or, “Look at that Outback.” These are family vehicles, but functionality has value. Those who have to transport their clan and accompanying “stuff” care more about capability than looks or performance.
Comparing the three-row Toyota Highlander and two-row Subaru Outlook might seem to be an odd match-up. However, it’s not unusual to come across buyers debating between the Highlander’s extra cost and space against the Outback’s value and capability.
Having spent time with both vehicles, I can say each has a distinct personality. The Highlander is the unsung hero of the SUV world. It does its job without complaint and is more than competent at most tasks. But few take their Highlanders out for joy rides.
On the other hand, the Outback has a split personality, depending on what’s under the hood. Over the years, Subaru has offered a mundane base engine and a zippy powerplant upgrade. At one point, the difference was determined by cylinders (four or six). But now it’s a choice between a non-turbo or turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Buy an Outback with a base engine, and you’ll own a solid family hauler that handles its duties with ease but not the greatest speed. Get one with a more powerful engine, and you’ll actually have a car that’s fun to drive. There’s no right or wrong here—purchase what meets your needs and budget.
I’ll skip the debate if the Outback is a wagon or crossover. There are credible arguments for each position. For the sake of this article, I consider the Outback to be a crossover, making for easier comparisons with the Highlander.
It’s also worth mentioning something unknown to most consumers: Toyota owns 20% of Subaru. As Subaru’s largest shareholder, the mega automaker holds some sway over its smaller rival. Yet, this connection doesn’t prevent the two manufacturers from competing for the same buyers.
I can lay the groundwork for this Toyota versus Subaru contest by summarizing that you’ll pay more for a Highlander. Its extra space comes at a price. Value seekers unconcerned about a third row and more cargo capacity will head to the Outback. Standard all-wheel drive is compelling, but older Outbacks are vulnerable to reliability issues. So, those going the used car route will want to research specific model years. The same applies to second-hand Highlanders; these Toyotas don’t have a perfect record either.
Dive in to learn more about this Toyota Highlander and Subaru Outback match-up. Other comparisons include Outback vs. Forester, RAV4 vs. CR-V, Civic vs. Corolla, Pilot vs. Highlander, and Odyssey vs. Sienna
|Income Bracket||Monthly Financing Cost Range||Cash Purchase Price Range||Toyota Highlander Years||Subaru Outback Years||Best Model Year:||Why?|
|$5k – $10k||$83-$125||$3,000-$4,500||2002||N/A||2002 Highlander||Low price, acceptable engine reliability|
|$10k – $15k||$125-$187||$4,500-$6,750||2007||N/A||2007 Highlander||Low price, acceptable engine reliability, and excellent safety score|
|$15k – $25k||$187-$312||$6,750-$11,250||2010||N/A||2009 Highlander||Good value, acceptable engine reliability, and excellent safety score|
|$25k – $35k||$312-$437||$11,250-$15,750||2012||2014||2014 Outback||Excellent safety scores, low repair costs|
|$35k – $50k||$437-$625||$15,75 -$22,500||2017||2017||2017 Outback||Excellent value, above-average engine reliability|
|$50k – $74k||$625-$925||$22,500-$33,300||2019||2019||2019 Outback||Excellent value, above-average engine reliability|
|$75k – $99k||$925-$1,238||$33,300-$44,550||2021||N/A||2021 Highlander||Excellent engine reliability|
Before you respond to the “For Sale” ad, check out this How to Buy a Used Car article for a step-by-step checklist.
Price History Comparison | Toyota Highlander Vs. Subaru Outback
Average Market Value – Based on Owners’ Self-Reported Mileages | Toyota Highlander Vs. Subaru Outback
Ask the typical car buyers what’s important to them about their pending purchase, and the price will be at or near the top of the list. A vehicle’s cost drives many decisions. So, knowing the Kelley Blue Book (KBB) market values for the Toyota Highlander (green) and Subaru Outback (gray) is critical.
Keep in mind this data reflects private-party transactions, which can be up to 50% lower than dealer-based purchases. Shop for older model years or examples with higher miles if retail prices don’t match your bank account.
For the most part, prices increase with each more recent model year. This is normal, as newer vehicles are worth more than their older counterparts (collectible cars are another matter). Some fluctuations disrupt this pattern, but this is due primarily to due mileage (which is incorporated into this data and based on information supplied by FIXD owner surveys).
For instance, there’s a dip in the value of the 2015 Highlander. This is attributable to the owners’ average 200,000 miles on their cars, almost double the previous model year. This is unusual but not impossible. You’ll also notice some ups and downs with the Outback, which result from above- or below-average mileage. The 2014 Outback didn’t increase in value because it’s a great car (it may be) but because owners put on fewer than expected miles.
There’s something else to be aware of: Highlanders (when new) usually cost more than Outbacks. So, given comparable model year, condition, and mileage, a used Highlander sells for more than a pre-owned Outback. That’s reflected in the chart. But this is also something to keep in mind if you want to stretch your dollar: Outbacks cost less than Highlanders.
Depreciation vs. Maintenance Expenses
Depreciation is the not-so-fun part of new car ownership. After a year, that once-shiny vehicle drops in value by 10%-15%. By the time a five-year loan is paid off, depreciation can cause the value to be cut in half. It’s an issue that affects mainstream cars, even ones with good reputations, like the Highlander and Outback.
Savvy car buyers also know that automobiles with at least a decade of use tend not to lose so much value, which creates a sweet-spot buying opportunity. However, the trick isn’t just to look at age but also repair and maintenance costs.
For the Highlander, the ideal window (the black-outlined box) is among the 2003-2008 model years. Yet, the opening is smaller for the Outback. Here, the 2005-2008 model years represent a good combination of low depreciation and modest upkeep expenses.
I’ll dive deep into Highlander and Outback repair expenses later, offering a better understanding of these sweet spots. Toward the end of the article, I’ll explore the best and worst years for these cars, which shrinks the buying window.
But don’t assume every example within these ranges is a smart buy. Learn more by reviewing the best and worst years of the Toyota Highlander and Subaru Outback. There’s also an at–a–glance summary towards the end of this article.
Reliability Comparison | Toyota Highlander vs. Subaru Outback
Two ratings are at the core of our look at the Toyota Highlander and Subaru Outback.
- The FIXD Reliability Score measures the number of check engine lights recorded for a particular model year by installed FIXD sensors. Think of it as an engine reliability score. While every check engine light doesn’t directly translate into reliability concerns (such as a dead battery or loose gas cap), these indicators still provide insight into a car’s dependability. This data is weighted by mileage.
- The second rating is the Owner Reliability Score. This is a subjective ranking of how surveyed owners feel about their respective vehicle’s dependability. Each owner estimates how capable their car is for trips of different lengths. A vehicle that can handle a cross-country adventure receives the highest score, while a car only suitable for a quick point A to point B trip gets the lowest score.
Both rankings are based on 1 being the lowest, 10 being the highest, and 5 being the average score.
We’ll also point out that both scores seldom align. The FIXD Reliability Score is determined by a definitive number, the frequency of check engine lights. On the other hand, the Owner Reliability Score is opinion-based. Owners tend to have pride in their automobiles, with higher ratings as a result. At a minimum, those with older vehicles are more accepting of check engine lights. For many, it’s the price of owning an aging car.
From an engine dependability perspective, the Highlander and Outback are well-matched. Toyota gains an edge for 8 out of the 21 years of FIXD Reliability scores. Meanwhile, Subaru is on top for seven, and both cars are tied for six years.
These crossovers are relatively consistent, even looking at bottom-of-the-barrel scores (3 or below out of 10). There were six bad years for the Highlander and five for Outback. I’ll add that while the Highlander had only one year with a FIXD Reliability Score of 1, the Outback had three bad years. All were from 2001-2005.
Still, I can’t declare an overall model winner or loser. You’ll want to drill down into specific model years for a better sense of engine reliability.
It’s also helpful to know that not every check engine light (CEL) is a message of doom and eye-watering repair bills. Simple issues like a loose gas cap or a disconnected hose can cause a dashboard to light up.
Check engine lights don’t discourage those already with a Highlander or Outback in the driveway. Among the early years (and accompanying numerous CELs), Owner Reliability Scores share little with the hard data of FIXD Reliability Scores. No owner ranked their 2001-2004 Highlander below a 6 (out of 10). Likewise, most Subaru Outback owners with similarly aged vehicles also rated their rides a 6 (the 2001 Outback received a 5 out of 10).
This tells me that owners are willing to put up with CELs and are biased towards their cars. There’s nothing wrong with pride in ownership, regardless of reality.
Longevity Comparison | Toyota Highlander Vs. Subaru Outback
Until now, I haven’t noticed anything that gives the Highlander a significant advantage over the Outback or vice-versa. However, there’s separation when it comes to the mileage reported by owners through FIXD surveys. The graph shows that older Highlanders regularly approach or cross the 200,000-mile mark. It’s less of an occurrence with aged Outbacks that tend to max out at around 150,000 miles.
Let’s look at this another way by reviewing for-sale listings on autotrader.com (November 14, 2023). Based on the 2001-2010 model years, 756 Highlanders and 458 Outbacks are available.
What’s really eye-opening is exploring the high-mileage details. Among the listings, 24.5% of these Highlanders had at least 200,000 miles compared to 12.7% of the Outbacks. Although this is an unscientific analysis, it’s fair to say that older Highlanders do a better job of piling on the miles than aged Outbacks. This is essential information if you’re looking for an older Highlander or Outback or already have one in the garage.
Of course, there’s more to vehicle longevity than the manufacturer. Ongoing maintenance and luck (no accidents) also matter.
2023 Toyota Highlander Vs. Subaru Outback | A Guide to Trim Levels & Optional Features
Trim Levels: Starting Prices
Let’s move on to new Highlanders and Outbacks. Comparing these crossovers is a bit of an apples-and-oranges effort, given the extra space and third row of the Highlander and the Outback’s smaller proportions and standard all-wheel drive (AWD). Nonetheless, understanding pricing can make decision time easier.
Those looking for the cheapest option will have to cough up $36,620 for the base Highlander and $28,395 for the starter Outback. So, choosing a Highlander means an outlay of an extra $8,225. Want AWD with your Toyota? Add another $1,175 to the total.
But let’s move up a trim level to more popular offerings. The Highlander LE costs $39,020 compared to $31.920 for the Outback Premium. That’s a difference of $7,100 or $8,225 when adding AWD to the Highlander. The resulting price gap is still significant.
What about the top-dog editions? Here’s how the math adds up for the Highlander Platinum ($51,000 with AWD) and Outback Touring XT ($43,520): the Toyota is $7,480 more expensive.
Some editions can’t be compared. For instance, the Highlander is available with a hybrid powertrain, while the Outback isn’t. Meanwhile, the Outback Wilderness offers additional off-road capabilities that aren’t available on the Highlander at any price.
Where you can make reasonable comparisons between competing versions, getting the extra accommodations of the Highlander means spending an additional $7,000-$8,000. Is that a bargain or an outrage? That’s a question that only the person making the monthly payments can answer.
|2023 Toyota Highlander Model||Starting Price|
|Hybrid Bronze Edition||$46,380|
|2023 Subaru Outback Model||Starting Price|
|Onyx Edition XT||$39,820|
2023 | Toyota Highlander Vs. Subaru Outback | Specifications | Safety, Interior, and Exterior Features
Sizing up the Toyota Highlander and Subaru Outback involves a look at each vehicle’s specifications. Here’s what you need to know.
Although the size differences between the Highlander and Outback are noticeable, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes both vehicles as mid-size SUVs. This determination is based on cabin passenger volume and cargo space.
Later, I’ll go into greater detail about interior dimensions, but I’ll just point to passenger volume to demonstrate how far apart these vehicles are. The Highlander has a cavernous 136-142 cubic feet (varies by trim) inside compared to 109 cubic feet for the Outback. The Highlander is 20%-22% more spacious inside.
|2023 Toyota Highlander||2023 Subaru Outback|
|Class||Mid Size SUV||Midsize SUV|
|4-Door SUV||L, LE, XLE, XSE, Limited, Platinum,
Hybrid LE, Hybrid XLE,
Hybrid Bronze Edition, Hybrid Limited, Hybrid Platinum
|Base, Premium, Onyx Edition,
Onyx Edition XT, Wilderness,
Limited, Limited XT, Touring, Touring XT
Engine Options & Specifications:
The only thing the Highlander and Outback share under the hood is that all variants rely on four-cylinder engines, but this is where the similarities end.
The base powerplant in the Highlander is a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine, about as basic as it gets. Toyota adds a turbocharger to produce an output of 265 horsepower and a 0-60 mph time of 7.5 seconds, which is respectable for a large family hauler. Meanwhile, the engine upgrade for the Highlander is a 2.5-liter hybrid four-cylinder setup that dials down performance (243 horsepower and 0-60 mph in 8.4 seconds) in favor of stellar fuel economy (36 mpg combined—fuel efficiency is covered in greater detail towards the end).
Subaru takes a very different approach to its four-cylinder engines. Rather than use inline architecture, the automaker uses a boxer design. Without getting too technical, a boxer engine is a reciprocating piston engine configuration in which the cylinders are arranged in two banks or rows that oppose each other, with the pistons moving in horizontal directions to turn the crankshaft. A boxer engine takes up less vertical space and helps lower a vehicle’s center of gravity.
The Outback’s base engine is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with a modest 182 horsepower. Its 0-60 mph time of 8.6 seconds means this Subaru’s acceleration won’t be setting anyone’s hair on fire. In contrast, the turbocharged 2.4-liter boxer that’s standard in upper trims is a barn burner. Its 260 horsepower is less than the base Highlander engine, but the Outback’s reduced weight translates into impressive performance. An acceleration time of 5.8 seconds for the 60 mph benchmark run is downright fast. Outbacks equipped with these upgraded engines will undoubtedly have many Highlanders in their rearview mirrors.
Transmission Options & Specifications:
Toyota sticks with a tried-and-true eight-speed automatic transmission for non-hybrid Highlanders, while the only gearbox found in a 2023 Outback is a continuously variable transmission (CVT). From a driver’s perspective, a CVT operates like an automatic (meaning there’s no need to select a gear for forward motion). However, gears are replaced by a belt system to maximize performance and fuel economy. The Highlander Hybrid uses an electronic CVT (eCVT). See the “Tech Talk” section below the charts to learn about CVTs and eCVTs.
TECH TALK: CVTs
A continuously variable transmission (CVT) does not use gears like a typical automatic transmission. Instead, it has two pulleys connected by a belt. One pulley connects to the engine, and the other connects to the wheels. The belt transfers the power between the pulleys. This setup allows the pulleys to continuously change positions as needed. The CVT automatically adjusts the pulleys as required, providing smooth and efficient power delivery.
An electronic continuously variable transmission (eCVT) uses electronic controls and electric motors to vary gear ratios instead of a belt and pulley system. Unlike a regular CVT, an eCVT has no physical pulleys or belts—the gear ratio is adjusted seamlessly by controlling the speeds of electric motors and generators. This electronic control allows faster, smoother gear ratio changes compared to a traditional CVT. An eCVT also provides more flexibility, needing less space and having fewer moving parts.
A look at drivetrains for the Highlander and Outback is straightforward. The Toyota comes standard with front-wheel drive, while all-wheel drive is optional. On the other hand, the Outback is always all-wheel drive.
|2023 Toyota Highlander Wheel Drive||FWD||AWD||RWD|
|Hybrid Bronze Edition||S||U|
|2023 Subaru Outback Wheel Drive||FWD||AWD||RWD|
|Onyx Edition XT||S|
NHTSA Safety Ratings
FIXD owner surveys show that the Highlander and Outback are used more for family transportation than other tasks. This comes as no surprise. At the same time, 27% of Highlander and Outback owners also use their cars for commuting and long-distance driving (combined as “lots of driving” in the survey). It all adds to significant time behind the wheel and a strong interest in safety.
Toyota and Subaru recognized the need for excellent safety scores, and the Highlander and Outback delivered. Both vehicles scored a 5 out of 5 in overall and side impact testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, the Outback continues the streak with the same perfect result in frontal assessments, while the Highlander received a still-respectable 4 out of 5. Both cars scored a 4 out of 5 in NHTSA’s rollover testing (this is a normal result for vehicles with elevated ride heights).
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) takes a somewhat different approach to safety testing. In particular, it focuses on its small frontal overlap crash test, which the organization feels represents a more real-world scenario (a single car running into a fixed object). IIHS also looks at side impact crashes, roof strength, headlight effectiveness, and advanced driver safety technologies (like automatic emergency braking).
While tested vehicles receive a Good, Acceptable, Marginal, or Poor grade, the true measure comes if a car gets a Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ designation. If “Good” is a “B” grade, Top Safety Pick notches things up to an “A-,” and the Top Safety Pick+ signifies an “A+.”
Chalk up IIHS testing on the Highlander and Outback as a tie. Each vehicle receives top honors as a Top Safety Pick+.
|IIHS Award||Tested Vehicle|
SAFETY PICK +
|2020 Toyota Highlander
LE 4-door AWD
|MIDSIZE SUV||2023 TOP
SAFETY PICK +
|2020 Subaru Legacy
|2022 Subaru Outback
|2023 Subaru Outback
Airbags & Head Restraints:
As mentioned, the Highlander and Outback are family cars, so they’re packed with airbags. Beyond the usual front-row devices, both vehicles get side curtain airbags that protect each row during a rollover or side-impact collision. Drivers also get a knee airbag that positions the body to minimize injury during a front-end collision.
Neither the Accord nor the Civic comes with overhead airbags. This newer technology replaces traditional front-row units (steering wheel and dashboard) with overhead devices. Active head restraints are usually found in specialty and high-end vehicles to minimize whiplash injuries. Mainstream cars like the Accord and Civic aren’t usually equipped with this feature.
While both automakers offer many technology-based features, neither the Highlander nor Outback comes with hands-free driving you’d find in cars from Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, or other manufacturers. These Toyotas and Subarus are mainstream vehicles designed to appeal to the masses, not buyers looking for cutting-edge (some would say bleeding-edge) technology.
However, both vehicles offer semi-autonomous systems to make driving safer and less stressful. To both Toyota’s and Subaru’s credit, all Highlander and Outback trims come with adaptive cruise control (ACC)—Toyota labels the technology Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. ACC automatically adjusts a vehicle’s speed to maintain a safe distance from vehicles ahead. Using onboard sensors, the car slows down (or stops) if it detects slower traffic ahead and accelerates again to the preset speed when the road is clear.
The Highlander and Outback have corrective steering support during everyday driving. The system alerts the driver if the vehicle wanders outside the lane and provides gentle steering guidance to direct the car back into the proper position.
Driver Warning Systems & Telematics:
Automakers love naming their newest technologies; Toyota and Subaru are no different. The latest advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are bundled under the Safety Sense label in the Highlander and EyeSight in the Outback. At a minimum, all trims of both models come with forward collision warning (FCW), automatic emergency braking (AEB), and lane departure warning (LDW). FCW monitors the road ahead and alerts the driver if it detects a possible impending collision, giving them time to react. Meanwhile, AEB can automatically activate the brakes if an accident seems imminent, helping prevent or reduce the severity of an impact. Most newer AEB systems include pedestrian detection at the front of the car.
The base Highlander and Outback editions don’t get blind-spot monitoring (BSM) and rear cross-traffic alert (RCTA), but these helpful technologies are optional or standard on higher trims. All Highlanders and Outbacks have a back seat reminder so backseat passengers don’t get left behind. However, only higher-end Outbacks have (as an option or standard equipment) a driver distraction mitigation system.
Road Visibility Features:
LED headlights and automatic high beams are becoming standard on more and more vehicles. So, these features are nothing special on the Highlander and Outback. However, I’ll give bonus points to Subaru for equipping all Outback trims with adaptive headlights. This feature, more common in upscale vehicles, directs headlight beams in sync with the front wheels to improve nighttime illumination. The Highlander also gets adaptive headlights, but only on the top-tier Platinum trims (which also get a heads-up display for projecting speed and other details on the windshield).
Highlander and Outback buyers who consider heated front seats a winter time essential can take comfort (literally) in knowing this feature is standard on most trims of both vehicles. Only the base Outback gets left out in the cold. Cell phone-dependent shoppers should also know that all 2023 Highlanders and Outback come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
And speaking of heated seats, some automakers offer this feature through a subscription service. This hasn’t yet happened in the U.S., but in certain countries, BMW offered heated seats for a monthly fee. The advantage is you can shut off the service during warm months, but you’ll need to keep paying (or pay a one-time upfront fee) to activate the heated seats. Recently, BMW announced it was backing away from this practice. Moving forward, the automaker will only charge a subscription for software-based services (like upgraded navigation). Hardware-based features will be part of the vehicle’s initial purchase price.
One industry study shows mixed results for consumer acceptance of features on demand (FoD), with about one-fifth not even being aware of the concept.
As covered, the Highlander is substantially larger inside than the Outback. But how this extra space is used will surprise you. Notably, the Subaru has modestly more legroom than the Highlander—42.8 inches vs. 42.0 inches up front and 39.5 inches versus 39.0 inches in the second row. So, choosing the Toyota over the Subaru for extra leg stretching ability would be a mistake. However, the Highlander is the way to go if you need to haul seven to eight people.
But where does all the Highlander’s extra room go? In the back. This Toyota gets a compact yet usable third row, and there’s also more cargo space. Behind the front row, the Highlander has 84.3 cubic feet of cargo capacity against 75.6 cubic feet for the Outback. The difference is especially noticeable behind the second row: 48.4 cubic feet for the Toyota and 32.6 cubic feet for the Subaru.
There are other dimensions where the Highlander excels, including shoulder and hip room.
Wheels may also be an afterthought for many car buyers. But wheel size can impact ride quality. Larger rims can translate into better traction and cornering but may result in a bumpier ride. Bigger wheels also offer better aesthetics by filling out the wheel wells more completely. This is why the higher the trim, the larger the wheel. Different materials (steel or alloy) and finishes also help separate the wheels among the various trim levels.
If your color tastes lean toward bright colors, then you’ll be disappointed by the paint options for the Highlander and Outback. Remember, these are family vehicles, so the vibrant choices are reserved for other models. While both automakers offer shades beyond the usual monotone lineup (white, black, gray, and silver), these reds and blue are muted and understated.
The Highlander is bigger on the inside than the Outback, so naturally, this applies to the exterior. At 195 inches in length, the Highlander tops the Outback by 3.1 inches. It’s also wider than the Outback (76 inches vs. 74.2 inches). A few inches difference may not matter for most owners, but the Highlander’s larger size could make a difference if you regularly deal with a cramped garage or tight parking space.
Lastly, the Highlander’s longer 112-inch wheelbase means a smoother ride than the Outback. More space between the axles helps lessen the impact of rough road surfaces (like highway expansion strips).
The Highlander and Outback are evenly matched regarding primary warranty coverage. Both vehicles have a three-year or 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and five years or 60,000 miles of powertrain plan for the engine, transmission, and drive axle. However, the Outback gets longer-term roadside assistance (three years or 36,000 miles instead of two years or 25,000 miles for the Highlander). Further, the Subaru’s air conditioner is protected for three years versus one for the Toyota.
|2023 Toyota Highlander
Factory Warranty Coverage:
|2023 Subaru Outback
Factory Warranty Coverage:
|Basic warranty:||36 Months/36,000 Miles||36 months/36,000 miles|
|Powertrain warranty:||60 Months/60,000 Miles||60 months/ 60,000 miles|
|Corrosion perforation warranty:||60 Months||60 months/Unlimited miles|
|Air conditioning warranty:||12 Months/12,000 Miles||36 months/36,000 miles|
|Battery warranty:||120 months/150,000 miles (Hybrid Battery)||36 months/36,000 miles|
|Emissions warranty:||Federal: 36 month/36,000 miles (defect), 24 months/24,000 miles (performance)
California: 36 months/50,000 miles (performance)
|36 months/36,000 miles (Federal), 36 months/50,000 miles (California)|
|Roadside assistance coverage:||24 months/25,000 miles||36 months/36,000 miles|
|Total unique recalls:||1 (related to driver’s airbag, NHTSA Campaign Number: 23V480000)||0|
Across multiple Reddit posts on r/whatcarshouldIbuy, users weighed in on the pros and cons of the Toyota Highlander versus the Subaru Outback. Regarding towing capacity and reliability, one user noted that the Outback is rated to tow 2,800 lbs safely if properly maintained; however, “you are more likely to have issues with that CVT transmission than you are from Toyota.”
Regarding technology and driver assistance features, one user pointed out, “Subaru’s [EyeSight] system is one of the best, and Toyota’s is literally absolute garbage.”
Regarding dimensions, cargo space, and passenger room, users highlighted the Outback as a smaller 5-passenger wagon versus the 3-row Highlander SUV. As one user put it, “New / small family? Outback. Larger family? Highlander.” The Outback was also noted to have significantly more cargo space.
Regarding ownership costs, reliability, and repairs, one Redditor advised, “I would steer you toward some of that mythical Toyota reliability and manufacturing quality control” over their experience with multiple burned-out light bulbs in one year on their Outback. However, it was also noted the Outback tends to hold its value very well.
In terms of performance and driving experience, the 4-cylinder Outback was described as “dreadfully slow” by one user, who recommended the 3.6R V6 as being much quicker and comparable to the Highlander in power and economy. The Outback’s lower ground clearance was also noted as being more dog-friendly.
Who Should Buy These Cars: The Legacy of The Toyota Highlander and Subaru Outback
No one will confuse the Highlander or Outback for a high-end luxury SUV. Sure, they offer top-tier trims with upscale features, but these are tried-and-true family vehicles. Safety scores are excellent, and fuel economy is respectable—qualities budget-minded parents appreciate.
For those who depend on their cars for commuting and long-distance trips, the Highlander and Outback are equally capable of meeting these requirements. However, the data suggests that the Highlander is more likely to reach 200,000 miles than the Outback.
|Toyota Highlander |
(Out of 5 Stars)
|Subaru Outback |
(Out of 5 Stars)
|Family Vehicle||* * * * *||* * * * *|
|Lots of Driving (travel/long commute)||* * *||* * *|
|Office on Wheels||*||*|
Best & Worst Years | Toyota Highlander Vs. Subaru Outback | 2001-2024
Buyers looking to save money by buying an older Highlander or Outback may be in for an unpleasant surprise. Most older examples are repair shop visits waiting to happen. In particular, aged Outback through 2013 should be avoided like the plague, especially model years through 2009. This was when the Outback suffered from notorious head gasket issues. The last thing anyone wants is a $2,000 repair bill equal to the car’s value.
At least there are more options with the Highlander. A carefully chosen 2002, 2007, 2009-2010, or 2012 example can make for a good buy. Interestingly, the tables turn starting with the 2014 model year when there are more green light options for the Outback than the Highlander.
I’ll also call attention to the undecided years (yellow) only because there isn’t enough information to give these editions a thumbs up or down.
Sometimes, all it takes for a car buyer to choose a particular vehicle is the availability of a single feature. So, the contest to add equipment and options becomes an arms race among automakers. This is especially the case with Japanese manufacturers, who are highly competitive against each other.
For the most part, when you see the introduction of a core feature, like something safety-related, others will often follow quickly. For example, it only took Subaru a year to add blind-spot monitoring to the Outback after the Highlander received the same technology. Similarly, the Outback got lane departure warning a year before the Highlander.
However, automakers can be slow to adopt trends. Subaru added Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to the Outback in 2018, while it took another two years before the Highlander received these modern essentials.
On the surface, repair and maintenance costs for these Toyotas and Subarus seem reasonable. According to FIXD survey data, annual upkeep costs in 2022 averaged $646 for the Highlander and $706 for the Outback, which doesn’t seem outrageous. However, a look at individual model years paints a different picture. Seeing several older Outbacks having repair expenses exceeding $1,000 is worrisome. This is only a concern with the 2012 Highlander.
One of the reasons why many older Highlanders and Outbacks don’t get a green light is due to higher maintenance and repair costs. Further, there are six years each for the Highlander and Outback when upkeep outlays exceed the average by at least 20%. But, ownership of the Outback can be especially expensive, depending on the model year (2003-2004, 2009, and 2012 are the worst).
Subaru, in particular, has been keen on incorporating safety into its marketing. The message has also not been ignored by Toyota. Both companies realize the importance of selling family vehicles with strong safety scores. This is undoubtedly the case with the Highlander and Outback.
The Highlander struggled in its early years (2001-2002) but quickly caught up to the Outback, although a NHTSA safety score of 4 (out of 5) is still considered acceptable. Subsequent years show solid results, offering confidence for Toyota and Subaru buyers.
NHTSA instituted more stringent testing requirements for the 2011 model year, which accounts for the modest test scores. However, both vehicles bounced back in the following years.
One of the trade-offs of the Highlander’s extra bulk is increased fuel consumption. A look back at the model’s early years (there’s no data for 2001-2004) shows an average fuel economy rating of 20 MPG. In truth, that’s quite reasonable for a three-row SUV.
Over time, though, the Subaru’s smaller stature turned into a greater advantage as the model approached 25 MPG. An extra 5 MPG may not seem like much, but that adds up to a 20% savings at the pump. In practical terms, this means keeping an extra $525 in your wallet each year (for someone who drives 15,000 miles annually and pays $3.50 per gallon).
Yet introducing a hybrid powerplant to Highlander in 2006 was a game changer. Fuel economy reached parity for the Outback and Highlander Hybrid. By 2011, hybrid-equipped Highlanders outpaced the Outback’s fuel economy and would reach new heights with the 2020 model year. Frankly, a large crossover capable of delivering 35 MPG is truly remarkable. If you drive a lot and carry more than four people, it’s hard to find a more compelling option than the Highlander Hybrid.
- Compare two vehicles, Toyota Highlander and Subaru Outback, and provide a comprehensive analysis.
- Gather relevant information and data on both vehicles from reliable sources, such as manufacturer specifications, expert reviews, customer feedback, industry reports, and data sources like manufacturer websites, FIXD App, Kelley Blue Book, FuelEconomy.gov, and NHTSA.
- Collect data on various aspects, including performance, safety features, fuel efficiency, maintenance costs, reliability, owner satisfaction, and market value.
- Identify the key criteria that will be used to evaluate and compare the two vehicles.
- Ensure the criteria cover both objective factors (such as performance metrics, safety ratings, and fuel efficiency) and subjective factors (such as owner satisfaction, comfort, and features).
- Assess the performance of both vehicles based on factors such as acceleration, handling, braking, and overall driving experience.
- Compare engine options, horsepower, torque, transmission options, and any unique performance features.
- Examine the safety features and ratings of both vehicles.
- Evaluate crash test ratings, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), active and passive safety features, and any notable recalls or known issues related to safety.
- Consider both NHTSA safety ratings and IIHS awards for a comprehensive safety assessment.
- Analyze the fuel economy of both vehicles based on EPA mileage estimates.
- Compare their MPG ratings, average full-tank range, and any significant differences in fuel efficiency.
- Assess the average annual maintenance and repair costs for both vehicles.
- Consider data from surveyed owners and other reliable sources, such as FIXD App owner surveys, to determine the overall cost of ownership over time.
- Evaluate the reliability of both vehicles based on owner reports, FIXD App data, and any known issues or recalls.
- Consider factors such as engine reliability, common problems by model year, long-term durability, and owner reliability scores gathered from surveys.
- Consider owner satisfaction by gathering information from forums, online communities (Reddit: r/whatcarshouldIbuy), customer reviews, and owner reliability scores.
- Summarize key factors that owners appreciate and any common complaints or drawbacks mentioned by owners.
- Compare the features and technologies offered by both vehicles.
- Highlight any notable differences in terms of infotainment systems, connectivity options, driver assistance features, interior quality, and available upgrades.
- Assess the market value and depreciation of both vehicles.
- Compare average prices, resale value, and how the vehicles hold their value over time.
- Consider average private-seller valuations from Kelley Blue Book (KBB) for a comprehensive assessment.
- Summarize the findings of the comparison, highlighting the positives and negatives of each vehicle.
- Provide a fair and balanced recommendation based on the comparison, considering factors such as budget, personal preferences, specific needs of the buyer, and the comprehensive analysis conducted.
- KBB Values: Average private-seller valuations as supplied by Kelley Blue Book (KBB), based on a Toyota Highlander and Subaru Outback with typical mileage for that respective model year.
- Fuel Economy: Mileage-per-gallon estimates according to the EPA MPG on Fueleconomy.gov.
- Annual Maintenance/Repairs: Upkeep expenses as reported by surveyed Toyota Highlander and Subaru Outback owners.
- Safety Ratings: Crash test data collected and reported by NHTSA. We average all ratings for each year to come up with a simplified, average safety score. This makes it easier to look at on a graph. We also collected IIHS Awards for this article.
- Vehicle Features: Most or all information gathered on vehicle features was from the manufacturer’s website, in this case, toyota.com and subaru.com.
Dave Goldberg is an automotive journalist and lifelong car fanatic. He writes for numerous enthusiast and business outlets and is an ongoing contributor to HotCars.com, one of the most popular car culture websites. When he’s not writing or driving, Dave is either under a hood or asleep. His credentials include a BA in Journalism from The George Washington University.