I want to replace my 2009 Subaru Outback with a medium SUV, my budget being $40,000-$45,000. My main requirements are safety; touring, as I average 25,000km a year; and competence off-road. I go bushwalking and end up along dirt roads, rarely hard-core, but the Outback was stretched sometimes with poor attack angle and the plastic bash plates came off. Candidates are Subaru Forester and Jeep Cherokee but I struggle to find others I’d trust off-road. I wonder also about the Forester’s continuously variable transmission. The off-road Trailhawk version of the Cherokee is expensive.
Mick Noonan, email
When SUVs were first conceived, decent off-road ability was non-negotiable. Today, medium SUVs you’d confidently take bush are in short supply. The Forester and Cherokee are the two best choices from the segment. Given the big distances you cover, there’s little point considering a ute-based large SUV. Despite their low-range hardware and go-anywhere abilities, they’re over-budget and far less comfortable on long road trips.
Subaru Forester has been the benchmark medium SUV for off-road activity. Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied
Our runner-up for Car of the Year last year, the Forester’s a cracking all-rounder. Its five-year warranty, reasonable fuel economy, full-size spare wheel and massive boot (1768L with seats folded) suit your needs and it’s impressively comfortable and quiet on long journeys, plus the CVT’s a good one. There’s excellent safety from Subaru’s EyeSight, and this grade scores side and front-view monitors to help negotiate tricky unsealed roads as well as car parks. Its 220mm ground clearance is marginally higher than your Outback’s 213mm, and the smart
X-Mode adjusts gearing and throttle on loose or slippery surfaces. If this still doesn’t cut it, aftermarket companies sell Forester skid plates and lift kits. Arm yourself with decent recovery kit and an emergency radio beacon as added security. Services are annual/12,500km, fixed price of $2387 for the first five.
The Cherokee comes with a lot of standard gear.Source:Supplied
Updated in late 2018, the Cherokee dropped its polarising looks and gained generous equipment. The Limited grade with drive-away pricing is about $5000 cheaper than a MY19 and you enjoy heated and ventilated leather seats, 8.4-inch screen, satnav, Alpine audio and strong safety suite. Its 200kW V6 makes it an unstressed cruiser, there’s plenty of surge when you ask for it but it’s less polished in corners and around town. The Selec-Terrain all-wheel drive’s a smart cookie but 185mm ground clearance is a limiting factor. That 3.2-litre with 9.8L/100km economy’s going to hurt your pocket on long trips. The five-year warranty gives assurance but there are well-reported issues with Jeep reliability. Services at 12 months/12,000km intervals are pricey, the first five costing $2650.
Skoda’s Kodiaq has mild off-road ability thanks to its low-grip surface driving mode.Source:Supplied
As off-roading mid-size SUVs are in short supply, the excellent Skoda Kodiaq from the large segment is worth comparing. It’s not cumbersomely large or heavy, looks striking, you’ll never want for space (2065L with seats folded) and it’s both comfortable and economical (7.6L/100km). Faux leather cabin, 9.2-inch screen, satnav, adaptive cruise control and five-year warranty are included but safety’s not as comprehensive. There’s an off-road mode for low-grip surfaces but ground clearance is just 187mm and its approach and departure angles are shallower than your Outback’s. It lacks a full-size spare too. Servicing, at 12 months/15,000km intervals, is expensive — the first five services add up to $2705.
The Trailhawk has serious off-road ability but most examples are budget busters.Source:Supplied
All of the above have only so much ability off-road. If you know you’ll be hitting some seriously out-there places, your sole mid-size SUV option is another Cherokee, the Trailhawk. A new one’s over budget ($51,300 drive-away) but I’ve found some dealer ex-demos for under $45,000 with just a few thousand on the clock. No leather seats but it gets off-road suspension, 221mm clearance, low-range, Rock Mode, locking rear differential, four underbody skid plates and you can option off-road tyres. It looks tough as nails, too.
The Subaru Forester is the standout option. It ticks all your boxes and hits your budget. You even have cash left over to fit aftermarket off-road bits if required.