New Jeep Cherokee offers unique return

by Aaron Cole :: posted in Reviews on October 22nd, 2013
Take a step back and consider the 2014 Jeep Cherokee’s position. There was a gaping hole where a mid-size SUV needed to be and the Patriot brick just didn’t fit. Actually, it didn’t fit for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was because it looked like said brick. Bon voyage, Jeep Barndoor.



Now take a step closer because it’s probably best that you look at the Cherokee up close. From too far away it looks awkward like teenage acne.



That’s not meant to be a dig at the earlier maligned styling of the Cherokee. Most people are moving past the initial knee-jerk reaction to the Cherokee when it was unveiled: Your older brother’s Cherokee, this is not. The new Cherokee is better in the flesh, trust me.



And the Cherokee is too monumental to dismiss as ugly on paper.



For starters, it’s a Cherokee that doesn’t have an old-world transfer case and probably can’t be fixed with a coat hanger. Sorry Moab friends, there’s no XJ to be found here. (But there is Moab to be found in the new one, more on that later.)  Second, it’s the first Chrysler to be stuffed with a 9-speed transmission. That’s right. Nine forward gears, three new four-wheel drive systems, a new engine and a brand new body. What could go wrong? Heh.



And last, it’s the Cherokee. And that means something. For me, I learned how to drive a manual on a 1984 beige, two-door Cherokee clad in flannel seats, no working suspension that I remember, and four forward gears — three of which, worked. I can’t remember if that specimen was a four cylinder or eight cylinder, and quite honestly, it could have been either. But I loved it like my right leg. And I’m not the only one.



But name recognition only gets you so far. After that, Jeep has to do the work. The Cherokee really makes hay with its 3.2-liter engine. That Pentastar variant, a smaller displacement version of the 3.6-liter that appears in the Grand Cherokee, makes 271 horsepower at the crank and 239 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s 87 more horsepower than the standard, 2.4-liter MultiAir four that’s also offered in the Cherokee, which, I’m not sure is the best choice if you live 3,000 or more feet above sea level. That’s not to say that either are a bad choice, but after driving a V6 around Los Angeles and the Malibu hills, even I can foresee a laborious trot or two up a mountain pass in a four-cylinder’s future. Both are mated to the aforementioned 9-speed automatic, which you may or may not have read about.



By the way, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Jeep hawing over its transmission. From the get-go, there have been fits over whether nine speeds in an SUV would be too much like Crystal Clear Pepsi was once. Maybe a while ago, Jeep would have fired first and aimed later. Having learned their lesson from the Dart, I’m guessing Chrysler would rather release an airborne form of eczema than a car that might not be ready.



Having said that, my experience in the Cherokee on pavement was sedate and unremarkable. Read: success. Nine gears pull just fine without being annoying, and on several occasions I forced the Cherokee into ninth gear via automatic gear selection just to say I made it there. Move over Felix Baumgartner.



The inclusion of the nine-speed was a necessity. Federal regulations demand that this car — in particular — get better mileage. For that, the Cherokee inches at 30 mpg on the highway (19/28 mpg in V6 4x4, 21/28 in the four cylinder 4x4) and that’s the way it is now folks. The mid-size SUV market is the largest with 1.7 million units sold last year. That makes the Cherokee and its competitors like the Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and others targets for CAFE mileage standards to increase average fleet mileage. If only we could ask our best-selling singers to clean up their acts too.



Under the skin, the Cherokee has four-wheel independent front and rear suspension with MacPhersons up front and four-link coils in the back. Approach, breakover and departure angles fall somewhere in the middle between the Grand Cherokee and Wrangler, meaning the Cherokee should be off-road capable as both on paper, with the engine and transmission being the only question marks.



So, to answer that, Jeep has done two things. First, they’ve put a Jeep badge on the front that’s slightly larger than the Grand Cherokee’s badge (I heard it’s the size of the Wrangler’s) to remind you that you’re still looking at a Jeep.



Second, Jeep is rolling out the Trailhawk edition at launch. Most of the time, carmakers roll out packages like the Trailhawk in the middle or end of a product’s lifespan to generate interest in waning sales years. For the first year, Jeep introduced the Trailhawk nameplate — a name taken from an off-road version of the Grand Cherokee — to show that fresh out of the crate, the Jeep can ball off road. The Trailhawk is resplendent with bigger wheel flares, bright red tow hooks, a sharper front air dam to increase approach angle and bigger 17-inch Firestones on the corners. Hey, look at me.



For gosh’s sakes, there’s a map of Moab’s Hell’s Revenge trail under the passenger seat. We get it; Jeep really, really wants us to believe that the Cherokee can go off road.





And for the most part, it can. Off-roading in the Cherokee is possible if not almost completely automatic. We took the Cherokee around an off-road course in California that, while not highly technical, is fairly rigorous for any normal car’s life. The steering is quick and the transmission is responsive when programmed correctly using terrain select and Jeep’s four-wheel drive systems. The Trailhawk edition adds a rear locker, whereas four-wheel drive versions of the Sport, Latitude and Limited models can’t offer that kind of rock crawling motivation.



Starting at $22,995 for the Sport and working all the way up to $29,495 for the Trailhawk (four-wheel drive adds $2,000 to the Sport, Latitude and Limited models, standard on Trailhawk) the Cherokee won’t necessarily break the bank the way the Grand Cherokee can. It won’t break your spine either; its ride is comfortable albeit not as coma inducing as some of its competitors.



And that’s where you understand Jeep’s position in the mid-size, great SUV race. It’s meant to fill a niche where Rav4 and CR-V fall short — namely in snowy, off-road or otherwise four-wheel-drive necessary areas. It’s certainly in the same category as those other SUVs, but the Cherokee is just, well, different. Which, I’m sure you’ve been saying about its looks for long before this story.  



Aaron Cole is a syndicated auto columnist. He enjoys hearing from readers. Reach him at aaron.m.cole@gmail.com

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