The Jeep Cherokee is one of the best-known SUV nameplates around the globe, though it disappeared from 2001 to 2013. Now it's back, and as a good off-roader and a very comfortable, easy street performer, the Cherokee may be the first compact SUV to do both equally well.
The Subaru Forester? It's been on a steady path of progress in the Cherokee's absence. It's gotten so good at blending wagon and sport-utility traits, we named it our Best Car To Buy 2014.
Which one wins us over as we approach the 2015 model year?
The Cherokee's attempts at daring styling are strained, and don't work for us. The grille's too underplayed--isn't it what makes a Jeep look like a Jeep?--and the headlamps are split awkwardly. The rest of the sheetmetal could be a Rogue or a Santa Fe. The cabin's the fix: it's much nicer, much more carefully thought out, much better finished than any Cherokee before it.
The Forester's redesign last year cleaned up what's admittedly a more functional shape. Pretty? No, but the payoff for the more sedate look is excellent outward visibility. Where the Cherokee's interior is almost showy in its attractiveness, the Forester's cockpit is a workplace planned out for decades of use--think dashboard by Steelcase.
We're less satisfied with the Cherokee's powertrains, and with the Forester's suspension tune, and surprised at the amount of trail ability each possesses. The Cherokee's choice of an amply powerful four-cylinder is overshadowed by a very strong V-6, coupled to a nine-speed automatic that's had teething problems in its first year. With an occasional clunky shift and less than stellar fuel economy, the nine-speed's benefits aren't entirely clear. With the V-6, four-wheel drive, and a Trailer Tow Package, the Cherokee can pull 4,500 pounds--and in Trailhawk trim, it can go deeply into territory you'd never take an Escape or Santa Fe.
The Forester's base four-cylinder is a commuter special; the turbocharged four-cylinder's more special, even paired with continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The CVT has paddles and simulated gear ratios, and the "SI-Drive" system that tweaks shifting and throttle into a more aggressive mood. Steering is nicely weighted, and body control is as in-check as you'll find from such a tall, spacious utility vehicle--and standard all-wheel drive with 8.7 inches of ground clearance gives the Forester exceptional all-weather traction. Gas mileage as high as 27 mpg combined puts it near the class lead, too.
2014 Jeep CherokeeEnlarge Photo
Image aside, the core competency for each of these crossover SUVs is to carry five people and gear comfortably, wherever they choose to wander. The Forester does a better job here at opening up the cabin--it has a more airy interior, a huge optional sunroof, a lower and wider cargo hold, and a rear seatback that folds closer to fully flat with a one-touch mechanism. The Cherokee's also a roomy five-seater, with a back seat that’s suitable for adults, and its second row slides fore and aft to vary legroom and cargo space. It also rides more quietly, more smoothly than the Forester. Neither has an ideal setup for the driver: the Forester's front seats are flat, the Cherokee's steering wheel still inflected with a little of the old Italian-bus-driver tilt.
In safety, Subaru excels. A rearview camera is standard, as is Bluetooth--and the Forester's forward-collision system has helped it score some of the IIHS' best crash ratings on its way to a Top Safety Pick+ rating. The Cherokee earns only four stars overall from the NHTSA, and a Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS, and its rearview camera is an option on some 2014 models.
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