The Jeep Cherokee and the Subaru Forester aren’t the biggest selling vehicles in the incredibly crowded small SUV class but they more than hold their own. The two vehicles also have standout personalities in a segment that is filled with lookalikes. The Jeep Cherokee may be the most all-around capable compact sport utility vehicle on the planet. In a similar vein, the Subaru Forester has taken a leading role in safety in the class, echoing one of its brand’s strongest chords. Both Cherokee and Forester appeal to buyers who would never consider segment leaders like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, so let’s take a look at how the two vehicles compare.

Exterior Style

Graced with the iconic seven-slot grille — did you expect anything else? — the Cherokee is immediately identifiable as a Jeep. Before a recent facelift, the Cherokee wore a controversial and not especially attractive version of the Jeep trademark grille, but that has been put to rest. Even if the Cherokee is used mostly for commuting off-road is the theme, so it has approach and departure angles and tow hooks that reinforce that story.

In contrast, the Subaru Forester is more on-road-oriented and its styling is less “brand-centric.” If you took the badges off the Forester it would still be an attractive compact SUV, but you might not immediately identify it as a Subaru. It’s telling the Subaru press material doesn’t say much about exterior design at all. With the Forester, the equipment you get — all-wheel-drive, boxer engine, and EyeSight safety system — are the important things and the styling is just the box they come in.

Powertrains

The Cherokee offers several engine/drivetrain choices with the most high-tech choice the 2.0-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder engine that delivers 270 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a highly efficient 9-speed automatic transmission, and it features engine stop-start technology. The base engine is a normally aspirated 180-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, and a normally aspirated 271-horsepower 3.2-liter V6 engine is also available. The 2020 Jeep Cherokee offers a choice of three 4×4 distinct systems — Active Drive I, Active Drive II and Active Drive Lock — and that demonstrates how serious Jeep is about off-roading.

In contrast to the Cherokee’s engine options, every Forester is powered by a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed direct-injection 4-cylinder engine that produces 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque. The engine is paired with a Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT continuously variable transmission that helps contribute to the SUV’s 29 miles-per-gallon combined fuel economy. While the Cherokee is available with front-wheel-drive and three 4-wheel-drive systems, all Foresters are equipped with Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. Standard Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-DRIVE) is a multi-mode system that enables the driver to tailor settings to current driving conditions.

Driving impression

As most off-road enthusiasts would guess, the Trail Rated version of the Jeep Cherokee is the most-capable off-roader of all the SUVs in its class. But you don’t need to buy the Trail Rated version to get a Cherokee with serious off-road chops. Our experience also showed the 2020 Cherokee also excels in everyday driving on streets, highways and even in parking lots. The base front-drive Latitude trim-level model was impressive on twisty two-lane roads while providing good ride quality on the highway, and the Overland model with the 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine was even more satisfying thanks to the engine’s broad torque curve.

The term “car-like” is a very apt one in describing the Forester. No matter the circumstances or the weather, the Forester feels like a compact sedan. Power from the Boxer engine isn’t overwhelming but is more than adequate, and the CVT transmission isn’t quirky or annoying the way some of them can be. The all-wheel-drive system is seamless and transparent in most instances, coming to the fore when the pavement is wet or otherwise compromised. The system does lack a two-speed transfer case or other provision to enable serious rock crawling.

Interior Design

The Jeep Cherokee’s interior is both good-looking and ergonomically easy to live with. The well-sculpted dash and high-quality materials give you the impression you could be in a luxury vehicle, especially in the top trim levels like the Overland. A USB port and 115-volt outlet are housed in the media hub ahead of the center console, and they are accompanied by a convenient place for smartphone storage and charging. Heated and ventilated front seats with memory are optional, and the 60/40 split second-row seats adjust fore and aft for increased comfort and cargo-carrying ability. Five occupants will find the Cherokee a comfortable, cozy place to be.

Five people will find the same in the Subaru Forester with ever greater levels of luxe as prices climb. The high-volume Premium trim level features a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 10-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar support, rear-seat air conditioning outlets in the center console and a cargo area cover. The Sport trim has an exclusive interior featuring dark gray material with orange stitching and accents. The Limited trim is distinguished by perforated leather-trimmed upholstery and dual-zone climate control. The top-of-the-line Touring trim offers a choice of black or saddle brown perforated leather upholstery, 10-way power driver’s seat with 2-position memory, 8-way power front passenger seat and heated rear seats.

Infotainment

The 2020 Cherokee offers the intuitive operation that characterizes FCA’s Uconnect systems. Buyers have a choice of 7- or 8.4-inch touchscreen displays that offer the functionality of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a wide variety of other apps. The driver is faced with a thin-film transistor LED 3.5-inch grayscale or 7-inch full-color configurable instrument cluster.

Subaru’s Starlink provides hands-free connectivity through the vehicle’s infotainment system. All Foresters are equipped with a high-resolution touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Aha, Pandora, Bluetooth, and AM/FM stereo. A surprise feature is the single-disc CD player. A 6.5-inch touchscreen is standard on Base, Premium and Sport trims, while an 8.0- inch touchscreen with voice-activated controls is optional for Sport and standard for Limited trims. Navigation is an option for Limited and standard for Touring trim levels.

Safety & Driver Aids

Depending upon trim level, an impressive array of active safety features is available on the Cherokee. Included on the list are Adaptive Cruise Control-Plus, Forward Collision Warning-Plus, and LaneSense Lane Departure Warning-Plus. The Cherokee also offers Electronic Stability Control, Electronic Roll Mitigation, Blind-spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Path detection. In addition to a rear backup camera with dynamic grid lines, the available ParkSense Parallel/Perpendicular Park Assist uses ultrasonic parking sensors on the bumper to find and guide you into an available parking space. The system controls the steering automatically, while the driver controls forward and reverse gear selection, brake, and accelerator.

The Subaru Forester is equipped with the brand’s well-regarded EyeSight Driver Assist Technology. It includes Adaptive Cruise Control, Pre-Collision Braking, Pre-Collision Throttle Management, Lane Departure and Sway Warning, Lead Vehicle Start Alert, and Lane Departure Prevention. Other safety features that are not part of EyeSight are Active Torque Vectoring, Auto Vehicle Hold, and auto-on/off headlights linked to windshield wiper operation. As you move up the trim levels additional safety equipment becomes available. Notable are Blind-Spot Detection with Lane Change Assist and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert. All Foresters for 2020 include Rear Seat Reminder, which is designed to help prevent child and/or pet entrapment in a locked vehicle.

Value for Dollar

While it is possible to purchase a 2020 Jeep Cherokee or Subaru Forester for about $25,000, most buyers will choose to work their way up the trim level ladder a bit. Cherokee buyers might be seeking more serious off-road capabilities, while Outback buyers could be looking for additional luxury and convenience. A base front-wheel-drive Cherokee has an MSRP of right around $26,000 plus a hefty $1,495 destination charge. The off-road Trailhawk has an MSRP of about $35,000, and the opulent Overland 4×4 trim has an MSRP of nearly $39,000.

A base Subaru Forester is less expensive than the base Cherokee, and the Forester includes standard all-wheel-drive, giving it an additional value advantage. The base Forester is less than $25,000 and the Subaru destination charge is just $1,010. A full-boat Touring trim level Forester that is heavily equipped with convenience and safety items has a list price of about $36,000.

As to which one is right for you if you want a Jeep you want a Jeep. There’s really no substitute. And to a lesser extent that is true about the Subaru as well. The brand’s vehicles are filled with safety equipment and their brand aura rings true with a giant audience. It’s hard to say you’d go far wrong with either.



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