Test Fest 2014: SUV/CUV under $35,000

Jil McIntosh's pick: Jeep Cherokee

  • Test Fest 2014

The SUV/CUV segment is an important one for manufacturers. These do double duty as commuter cars and family haulers, and have to be well-equipped but at a reasonable price. The Cherokee and Encore are new models, while the Forester, RAV4 and Outlander are redesigned. Here’s how they ranked in my assessment.

Jeep Cherokee

$28,695 base, $33,160 as tested

The replacement for the Jeep Liberty, the Cherokee is a considerable improvement and a very good vehicle overall. A four-cylinder is available, but the test vehicle carried an all-new 3.2-L V6 that makes 271 horsepower and 239 lb.-ft. of torque.

SUVs were tested on rollers, which simulates driving on a very slippery road. Even with the mildest of the model’s three available AWD systems, the Cherokee outperformed all else in the category.

It had the quietest cabin of the group, and was equipped with heated seats and steering wheel, power liftgate, rearview camera, and navigation system. It doesn’t photograph well, and while not entirely pretty, it looks better in person.

Based on a Fiat platform, the Cherokee handles nicely, and feels well-planted on the highway.

The only downside is its too-busy nine-speed automatic transmission, which shifts to another gear on the slightest incline or smallest movement of your foot on the throttle.

Subaru Forester

$32,495 base and as tested

I rated the Forester only a hair behind the Cherokee, primarily because its ride was bouncier and bumpier, and it wasn’t as quiet inside.

A 2.5-L four-cylinder is available, but the tested model was the XT Touring, which uses a turbocharged 2.0-L four-cylinder engine with automatic continuously variable transmission.

It’s a feisty unit, making 250 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. Premium fuel is recommended but not required.

All-wheel-drive is standard and includes a button for X-Mode, which adjusts the transmission, throttle, and traction control to give the driver better control on muddy or slippery roads.

Its tall seating position provides excellent visibility, the controls are simple and easy to use, its steering is light and nimble, and there’s a lot of legroom in the rear seat. Those back chairs are simple to fold flat, and there’s a huge storage bin under the cargo floor.

Toyota RAV4

$23,790 base, $34,835 as tested

For far too long, Toyota’s interiors have mainly consisted of numerous colours and textures of plastic thrown together into a mishmash.

The company is finally getting over that. The RAV4’s interior is lovely, with a sweeping, stitched dash, well-designed controls, and comfortable seats.

The 2.5-L four-cylinder makes 176 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque. The transmission shifts smoothly, and there’s plenty of power for passing on the highway.

But the ride is bumpy and noisy, and, although this model was equipped with optional all-wheel-drive, it didn’t get through the “slippery-road” roller test as well as most of the others.

The rear seat is very roomy, and those seatbacks recline. They also fold for extra cargo space, but they don’t fall completely flat.

The tested vehicle included navigation, lane-departure alert, blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic monitoring, and power liftgate, but the overall package didn’t feel quite up to the price.

Mitsubishi Outlander

$30,998 base and as tested

The only one in the group with three rows of seats, the Outlander was tested with its available 3.0-L V6 engine and in all-wheel-drive. It makes 227 horsepower and 215 lb.-ft. of torque. Premium fuel is recommended but not required.

The engine is powerful, and the six-speed automatic is a good fit, but the ride is harsh and noisy.

Visibility is good, but it took me some fine-tuning to find the right spot on the manually-adjustable driver’s seat.

The rear seat is roomy, but the chairs are hard and flat. As is generally the case with most three-row SUVs, the third set of seats is cramped and mostly suitable for children.

Taste is subjective, and I find the Outlander’s front end a bit too concept-car cartoony. The interior is put together well, but it’s very plain, and a large blank panel in the instrument cluster that hides the warning lights just looks like something’s missing.

Buick Encore

$27,835 base, $34,910 as tested

The priciest in the category, the Encore is an upscale version of the Chevrolet Trax.

Tested with optional all-wheel-drive, it uses a turbocharged 1.4-L four-cylinder engine (but runs on regular-grade gasoline) that makes 138 horsepower and 148 lb.-ft. of torque.

That doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t. This little engine works hard. It cruises nicely once it’s up to speed, but it takes a while to get there.

The two-tone interior is primarily pebbly plastic but still looks good, and the as-tested price includes such features as a heated steering wheel, blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, premium stereo, and leather seats.

The chairs are comfortable and, for the Encore’s size, there’s decent rear legroom. But the thick C-pillar reduces rear visibility, and while the rear seats fold flat for extra storage (as does the front passenger seat), it’s a multi-step process to put them down

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