The Jeep Cherokee is one of the best-known SUV nameplates around the globe. And while the Cherokee disappeared from 2001 to 2013, it's now back. In its new form, the Cherokee is a good off-roader and a very comfortable, easy street performer; it could possibly be the first compact SUV to do both equally well.
During that time, the Subaru Forester has been on a steady path of progress. The Forester's gotten so good at blending wagon and sport-utility vehicle traits that we named it our Best Car To Buy 2014.
And that begs the question: Which is better at taking on everyday family tasks, while still giving off the right SUV flavor and texture?
The Cherokee's attempts at daring styling are strained, and they don't entirely 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.
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. Although in perceived space, the Cherokee feels smaller. It rides more quietly and more smoothly than the Forester, though. 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 federal government, and a Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS, although its rearview camera is optional on most models. For 2015 Jeep has improved the Cherokee's active-safety options, adding a forward-collision warning system; blind-spot monitors and rear parking sensors can be ordered in a package.
Finally, when it comes to pleasing passengers with tech wizardry, the Cherokee has it all over the Forester. Subaru's made some strides for 2015 with a new infotainment system, standard Bluetooth audio streaming, and a 440-watt optional audio system. The slightly more expensive Cherokee offers Chrysler's better, prettier Uconnect media center, in-car data services, and a reconfigurable LED instrument cluster.
The bottom line? The Cherokee impressed us more than we prepared for. It's a turducken of a crossover, a city-friendly ute stuffed with the heart of a Trail Rated Jeep. The Forester's a better real-world mix of trailblazing and childproofing. It has exceptional room for passengers and for cargo, and among all-wheel-drive vehicles, its gas mileage is a standout, too. It's also one of the safest vehicles you can buy—and in the crossover world, that's more important than even the best trail rating.
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