While Jeep is the ultimate affordable off-road machine, most buyers don't actually take their four-wheel-drive vehicles off the paved road. They buy them for the image, for the snow, for the dirt roads, for the space. So why get all that steel and off-road prowess when you don't really need it?
Subaru switched to all wheel drive years ago. Their all wheel drive system is reliable and fairly tough, and their cars are built strong. But nobody outside the snow belt bought "Subes" until they put their Legacy wagon onto a raised suspension, made some subtle sheet metal changes, and hired actor Paul Hogan (who played very tough but quiet Crocodile Dundee) to pitch it. The Legacy Outback was a bit hit, leading to imitations by BMW, Audi, and even Porsche.
The Outback has far better gas mileage than the Cherokee or Grand Cherokee, but manages to have similar acceleration to all but the V-8 Grand Cherokee, with better handling and, we suspect, better braking. The ride is superior to the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, as well, with better isolation and a quieter interior. Interior space is similar to the Cherokee, slightly less than the Grand Cherokee; but it is easier to get into the Outback because it is lower to the ground. For the same reason, it is easier to load with cargo.
The Outback's smooth, quiet horizontally-opposed six cylinder engine takes premium gas, but produces less acceleration than Grand Cherokee's V-8. Still, it's more than a match for the ancient Jeep six, which is more equivalent to the Outback's horizontally opposed four. Both vehicles have smooth transmissions, but the Grand Cherokee V8 transmission is also performance-oriented, where the Outback tends to upshift early and delay for long periods of time before downshifting.
The Outback and both Cherokees are very good in the snow, with high ground clearance and sophisticated all- or four-wheel drive systems ensuring that power is transmitted to the road. As a warning and reminder, steering and braking are the same for four wheel drive and all wheel drive cars as they are for any other cars.
Our top of the line Outback had a luxury feel and luxury appointments, matching the Grand Cherokee despite a more utilitarian instrument panel. Outback controls are generally logical, though there are a lot of them. A handy wiper de-icer ensures that the driver does not need to pull over to break snow and ice off the wipers. The windshield washers work well even in sub-freezing snowstorms.
Oddities in the Outback include a rear side window defroster that's on the wrong side of the car, unless you live in Japan, England, Australia, or New Zealand; an alarm that is set off when you open a door with the key; excessively loud honking to tell you when you have locked or unlocked the doors; and lights that shut off completely when you shut the engine, unless you press a special parking light override.
The interior of the Outback seems larger when you get the optional dual moonroofs. There is even more room than in the Grand Cherokee for shavers, phones, etc. Rear seats have special child seat anchors for the new generation of seats that lock directly into the car.
The Grand Cherokee's Infinity stereo was easily better than the Outback's. The Grand Cherokee also had advantages in the quietness of the vent fan and ease of use of vent controls.
If you need to go off road, and by that we mean really off-road - not just on dirt or gravel - the Grand Cherokee is the way to go. Likewise, if having an exceptionally good engine is important, the Grand Cherokee's 4.7 V-8 is quick and civilized. But these factors aside, the Subaru Outback is a better value and a more enjoyable daily driver.
Incidentally, for those who would compare the Outback to other cars - it stacks up nicely against the Intrepid, too. While not as spacious inside, and not as convenient for the driver and passengers, the Outback does have advantages - all wheel drive and a convenient wagon format are not trifling things, and resale values are high. Subaru has amassed a strong reputation for quality over the years. On the lighter side, most buyers will probably have a fairly strong preference for an Outback or an Intrepid (or 300M), so the decision won't be too difficult after you've driven both.
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