Photo By: Courtesy of Jeep
With a rainy season that’s stretched well into spring and the mountains an easy driving distance from the Bay Area, we’re enthusiastic about the growing number of car models with all-wheel drive (AWD). Slick streets, dirt roads and chain requirements practically scream out for better traction.
Last month we drove a pair of gas-powered, four-wheel-drive vehicles: the 2012 Subaru Impreza Sport Premium (priced at $22,414) and the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4x4 ($42,080). Only a few months ago, we wrote about the diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec ($59,940), built on the same chassis as the Grand Cherokee.
We think each of the three cars is an excellent choice in its respective price range, but what differentiates them?
Let’s start with the Subaru. Since the introduction of the Legacy in the U.S. in 1989, Subaru has been known for its distinctive powertrain consisting of an opposing-four-cylinder (boxer) engine, mounted ahead of the front wheels, driving all four wheels.
For this review, we drove the 2012 Impreza five-door, a practical example of the lineup. It offers all the flexibility of the hatchback body style, though not quite the versatility, of the higher-clearance Subaru Outback.
The rear end of the hatchback is nicely integrated into the overall styling on the compact, easy-to-maneuver chassis. As with other Subarus, the interior is nice without being fussy. There isn’t any effort to make the occupants feel as if they’re in a paneled living room, but controls are easy to use, trim is straightforward and neatly installed, and materials are practical. Interior space is comfortable for four, with rear doors providing easy access to the backseat.
We were pleased to discover that with the rear seats folded down to create a flat rear floor, we could easily load in two 3-foot-by-7-foot boards that protruded only a few inches out the back. With the top-hinged hatch easily tied down over them, we could safely haul the wood home for a weekend project.
On city streets and highways or up in the hills, the Impreza – with a base price of $20,595 – comes into its own. The AWD gave it a tight, confident feel in corners and on curves. We couldn’t find any ice, gravel or dirt to test out the all-wheel-drive mechanism, but we’re confident from previous tests that the Lineartronic mechanism – which uses an electronically controlled differential and clutch system to channel torque where it will be most effective – would provide good traction on a variety of surfaces.
The nice thing is that even with this complex powertrain, the Impreza still covers 30 miles on every gallon of gas in all-around use.
We think this pleasing and practical vehicle is an excellent alternative for the one-car family that alternates home-project and big-box shopping weekends with camping and skiing getaways but still needs a fuel-efficient everyday car for most of its needs.
Jeep Grand Cherokee
The Jeep Grand Cherokee, in its middle-of-the-range Limited 4x4 trim, provides a number of contrasts to the ultra-sensible Subaru. To start, it is 16 inches longer, weighs nearly a ton more and offers 16 cubic feet more cargo space (about the volume of a standard refrigerator). In addition, even with the V-6 engine (a V-8 is also available), it can tow a 5,000-pound trailer – enough for two wave runners or a small camping trailer.
Of course, there’s always a trade-off – a fully loaded Grand Cherokee pulling a trailer is going to be visiting the gas pump three times for every two visits of the Subaru.
However, when sitting in the cabin, there will be no mistaking this Jeep for a utilitarian economy vehicle. On the contrary, since Fiat has been loosening the purse strings to allow Chrysler to upgrade the quality of its interiors, the occupants are more likely to think they’re in the cabin of its upscale cousin – the Mercedes-Benz ML. It’s a very capable, comfortable, well-handling vehicle.
And about that family relationship: During the past two years that Daimler owned Chrysler, these newest Grand Cherokees were first planned in parallel with the MLs introduced earlier this year. The divorce agreement specified that the development would continue after the separation, with the two companies sharing designs and specifications for the chassis, drivetrains and suspension components.
For Chrysler, that meant Jeep would sacrifice the body-on-frame structure that characterized the trail-ready Jeeps but in return would get the Selec-Terrain system that comes with the optional Quadra-Trac II drivetrain. This system electronically controls all the functions that on older generations of four-wheel-drive cars required separate levers and buttons for setting up the vehicle for dry pavement, wet pavement, sand, mud, snow and rock conditions.
The ride height is adjustable – from 1.5 inches lower than normal to 2.6 inches higher than normal – by using the air suspension.
Make no mistake: For owners who actually need this capability, the Grand Cherokee – with a base price of $39,295 – is still off-road capable and can even be upgraded with a rear electronic limited-slip differential for true sport-offroading.
For purposes of comparison, we mentioned the Mercedes-Benz ML350 that came off the same drawing boards at the same time. On the face of it, the additional $18,000 that separates the Grand Cherokee from the ML we tested in December might seem excessive.
However, the Mercedes-Benz interior is more luxurious and comfortable, the sound system better and the ride smoother. In addition, the diesel V-6 engine that is the preferred powerplant in the Mercedes (and a better engine) is not available on the Jeep.
It delivers 455 pound-feet of torque, which means better acceleration numbers and greater trailer-towing capability – and its engine is more fuel efficient.
For the family on a budget, the most practical all-around vehicle of the three is the Subaru Impreza, but as we’ve noted in the past, we think that a good five-door crossover is, for most families, a more sensible choice than an SUV.
However, if you are in the market for a near-luxury SUV, it is nice to know that there’s a solid choice, with an all-American heritage, in the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.