What It Is
Jeep's controversial compact crossover with a bull's-eye right on the class's top-sellers.
Luxurious, capable, fuel-efficient, one of the most fun crossovers out there to drive on- and an off-road.
Transmission could use some fine-tuning, "controversial" is another way to say "ugly."
Looks aside, this might just be one of the best SUVs on sale today, period.
The name "Cherokee" resonates strongly with Jeep faithful, representing one of the first attempts at building a modern SUV. It had car-like unibody construction with some truck-frame reinforcements and hoards of amenities that were more for cars than any rough-and-tumble SUV when it was introduced in the 1980s. If it were an athlete, it'd have had its number retired years ago when it bowed out in 2002.
And yet, Chrysler seemingly blasphemed its legend at the New York Auto Show this April when it introduced the 2014 Jeep Cherokee. Instead of looking like a beefy trucklet, the new Cherokee had a front end that more resembled the oft-mocked Isuzu VehiCross of the 1990s (for the record, I like the VehiCross no matter what anyone says about it). It shared a chassis with an Alfa Romeo compact car; how far off-road could it possibly go? Over the grass at a county fair? Perhaps worse than its controversial looks was the fact that Jeep put the storied Cherokee name onto a car-based crossover that looked nothing like any Jeep before it.
Except, it does. And it's not just another cute-ute with no prowess to back up its high seating position and kid-hauling credentials. It's a certified badass in many different facets, and more deserving of that Cherokee name than anyone could've possibly imagined.
WalkaroundYou can't help but stare at this thing. Some find it sinister; others think it's among the ugliest things ever bequeathed upon the car-buying public. After a while, we just thought it looked like any other crossover out there with a Jeep nose on it and beady tail lights that resembled part of what happens when a Jeep and an Italian Alfa Romeo have a one-night stand.
In any case, it grows on you. After actually looking at it for, oh, 30 minutes, it's actually pretty nice, with details that draw influence from everything from the original WWII Jeep CJ to the 1974 Cherokee's bent grille that serves as inspiration for the Cherokee's reimagined seven-slot grille.
Jeep has received plenty of flak for this new interpretation of its design language, mostly because Americans are stubborn curmudgeons who fear change. I'll admit it, I do. Truth be told, the Cherokee needed to happen the way it did because Jeeps were starting to look stale.
Sitting DownThe only controversy about the 2014 Jeep Cherokee's interior is how much better it is than anything else in the class. And we find that surprising to say. Chrysler hasn't always had the best interiors out there, but this one is far and away better than anything it competes against, with the upcoming Nissan Rogue tentatively proving to be one of the few challengers for that title.
Most basic models (Sport and Latitude) come with black cloth seats and gray denim-like accents, but they also feature soft-touch plastics all over the dashboard and doors. Then, there's more cloth covering door panels. It's not a huge deal, but it shows Jeep sweated the small stuff, and it makes even the cheapest versions feel quite upscale.
Then there are the premium Limited and Trailhawk versions with embroidered this, that, and the other, and five different interior "themes." Click the box of your choosing, and you'll have the option of Morocco (black interior with yellow accents), Iceland (cool gray and black), Kilimanjaro (chocolate brown with gold accents; exclusive to the Trailhawk), Grand Canyon (deep brown), and Visuvio (Wasn't that a Phil Collins song?), all of which offer unique color and trim combinations that are designed to fit your specific tastes. Our favorite was probably Visuvio, with brown and indigo blue accents. Bordering stitched materials around an 8.4-inch Uconnect infotainment system, we dare anyone to find a better ambience in this class. Our only objections to the 2014 Cherokee's interior came by way of loose-feeling door panels--partly attributable to being a preproduction car--a smallish cargo bay, and a small, odd, and somewhat cheap-feeling mechanism for the tilt/telescoping steering wheel that we're sure had to have been cribbed from something out of the Fiat portfolio.
DrivingThe first Cherokee we drove was a mid-range, front-wheel-drive Latitude that Jeep expects will be one of its top-selling versions. It came equipped with the same 184 horsepower "Tigershark" 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine as the upcoming 2014 Dodge Dart. We were expecting it to behave like a basic small crossover without much dynamic prowess. Instead, we got what might be one of the few credible alternatives to the Mazda CX-5 when it comes to fun utility vehicles.
Where the CX-5 feels light on its feet as so many Japanese vehicles do, the Jeep Cherokee exhibits a heavier steering feel with precision and solidity, not unlike a good number of sporty European cars. It's a pleasure to drive through twists and turns, displaying handling neutrality without the top-heaviness often shown in crossovers. It's also remarkable how quiet and refined its driving behavior is over the road, as we had the opportunity to drive it back-to-back with a Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape--both fine crossovers in their own rights--and we couldn't help but think how much less noise and vibration were transmitted to the Jeep's cabin. Whatever pact Jeep's engineers worked with the devil to make the Cherokee ride as well as it does, we're not going to question it. We just want Jeep to extend that contract as long as it can.
Other models we drove had Jeep's new 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6, rated at 271 horsepower. They came paired with Active Drive 1, a basic all-wheel-drive system; Active Drive 2, featuring a two-speed transfer case for off-roading; and Drivelock for the Trailhawk, which adds a lower-range gear set, skid plates, and a rear locking differential for heavy off-roading, making the Cherokee the only vehicle in its class to offer a low-range. And it works much better than we could have ever imagined.
Jeep's trailheads took us through severe ruts, up and down hills that might give some folks heart attacks, and over rocks and loose dirt. Whether using one of the number of off-road modes provided by Jeep's four-wheel-drive system or winging it, the Cherokee Trailhawk proved unstoppable. While this thing may be based on a compact Alfa Romeo hatchback sold overseas, no one should doubt its abilities. It's breathtaking to say the very least. I have a picture of me driving down a steep hill with a wheel in the air and my best "Holy crap" face to prove it.
So what are the downsides? The new nine-speed transmission lugs in higher gears at times to preserve fuel economy; we saw about 22 mpg over the course of a day with the two-wheel-drive Latitude and about 19 mpg with a V-6, all-wheel-drive Limited. That makes it feel a little more sluggish than one might expect and certainly slower than a 2.0-liter EcoBoost Escape in a seat-of-the-pants, unscientific comparison. Adding to that feeling of leisure was the Jeep's manumatic shift function, which proved slow and would often display selected gears on the car's TFT monitor even though it was obvious we weren't using them, like ninth gear at 45 mph for instance. In addition, the Trailhawk's 6.7 inches of suspension travel in front and 7.8 inches of rear travel, coupled with the 29 degrees or approach and 32 degrees of departure angle, proved fine on the course we were on, but those numbers might not hold up as well against a true body-on-frame beast like a Wrangler on a more rugged course. That said, any more rugged of a course would have been impassable by even a mountain goat. We were certainly glad that the Trailhawk has standard underbody skid plates, but we found more than a few instances when the Cherokee's rear locking differential had its work cut out for it, as one of the wheels would be stuck high in the air.
Otherwise, the Trailhawk's tires prove a little louder over the road, with that model not handling quite as well as its more street-biased siblings. But overall, these are relatively minor quibbles for a vehicle that shames anything else in its class off road, and could even give more serious off-roaders a run for their money. And we didn't even mention its gnarly bright red tow hooks built into its frame, loud and functional like so much of the rest of the Trailhawk.
SummaryWe went into driving the Jeep Cherokee expecting it to be a dud, not because we expected it to be particularly bad. We thought it would drive okay, have an alright interior, look a little weird, and otherwise just be a pretty nice crossover. None of that would have made us give a second look. We didn't expect it to be overwhelming overachiever this Cherokee certainly is.
And that puts us into a weird position. Should we apologize for making fun of the way it looked when we first saw it because it was so off-beat? Should we instead say that the auto industry should be put on notice because this thing is really that good?
No. Instead, we'll just say this: You'd be an idiot not to consider the 2014 Jeep Cherokee if you're in the market for a new compact crossover. Between its technology, amenities, and abilities, it's a whole generation ahead of just about anything else in its class. It is a blueprint for what a Jeep should be both now and for decades to come.