The Subaru Forester is, in some ways, the opposite of the venerable Jeep Cherokee. In other ways, they seem like two of a kind.
Take the engines. Jeep stays with its ancient AMC straight six and straight four cylinder engines, while Subaru keeps its traditional boxer four. Both Jeep and Subaru use 2.5 liter four cylinders. But Subaru's boxer produces 165 horsepower with 166 lb-ft of torque, considerably more than Jeep's four.
The Forester's doors almost seem to have been designed with the Cherokee in mind. It is easy to get into and out of the Forester, which is lower than the Cherokee but higher than most cars. In this way, the Forester resembles a PT Cruiser more than a real SUV.
The Jeep is based on the Wrangler, and feels at home when the only road is dirt between the trees. The Subaru, based on the Impreza, is not designed for off-road use, but has all wheel drive for inclement weather. Both are welcome in a snowstorm or rainstorm.
The Jeep really shines for those who actually go off-road. The Subaru is terrific for people who have to deal with snow or bad weather on a regular basis. The Forester, though, is also a good everyday vehicle, with relatively good gas mileage (about 22 on average, very good handling, a comfortable if firm ride, and a quiet, easy to live with interior.
Indeed, we suspect most Cherokee buyers would be happier with a Forester, though it is lese majeste to say it in these pages. The all wheel drive system is best suited for the conditions most of us encounter, and seems to be more reliable in the long run than four wheel drive. (It is also always active). The quiet interior is spacious in front and has good cargo room, though the rear seats are short on legroom. Headroom is very good, with an unusually generously sized moonroof. There are storage areas for coins, cups, sunglasses, and other things. The controls are well executed, and the instrument panel is easy to read at a glance.
Handling is much better than the aging Cherokee, while the ride is better cushioned. The interior is quiet, with well designed controls and a clear instrument panel. The stereo has good imaging, though the sound is a little muddy. The engine quickly warms up and provides strong heat.
Subaru's reliability record is strong, and the Forester is built on the durable Impreza platform. Until the new Cherokee comes out and has had some time in the field to work out the flaws, we recommend that Jeep buyers who plan to stay "on-road" find a Subaru dealer and give the Forester a long, hard look. It mixes the atmosphere of an SUV with the driveability of a car, with a reliable all wheel drive system and Paul Hogan to lend a little machismo. Taken together with a reasonable price and (we expect) high resale value, the Forester is almost a bargain.
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