The ironic thing about the new Jeep Cherokee is that it replaces the Liberty, which was continuously dogged for being too crude and trucklike, and now its detractors insist that it’s too carlike. But that’s not exactly the case. The Cherokee is much more refined than its predecessor, it’s true. It’s just that this isn’t a departure from Jeep "tradition," because its big brother the Grand Cherokee has been playing the refined-SUV card for decades now.

Jeep has been very assertive about the Cherokee’s off-road ability. It may be the most slick and futuristic-looking Jeep ever, but the Cherokee remains faithful to the brand’s long history of capable performance. Jeep has taken steps to put this compact sport-ute at the head of the technological class as well.
I drove the new Cherokee for a week.

Continue reading for my review.

Exterior

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Some critics may not care for it, but I like the futuristic Cherokee. The forward-looking design breaks a number of styling barriers while retaining the requisite number of familiar Jeep styling cues. The seven-slot grille, squared-off wheel openings and the shape of the rear greenhouse identify it immediately as a member of the family, but that’s where the conventions end. The Cherokee’s got a unique sharp nose, and squinty, flat lights that are mounted where you’d normally expect headlamps but are actually running lights. The Cherokee’s headlights are below the high beltline. This isn’t a totally different look for a compact SUV — the Ford Escape has a similar silhouette — but it’s definitely new territory for a Jeep, and it’s one of the most distinctive compact 4X4s on the road.

Interior

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The Liberty was consistently dinged for cheap interiors, and the Cherokee has taken steps to right that wrong. The new compact seems to have borrowed the team that made the interior of the Grand Cherokee such a nice place to be, and one of the most striking things about the new Cherokee’s interior is that it doesn’t look at all utilitarian. It doesn’t feel utilitarian, either, with upscale materials and carefully designed two-tone and satiny silver trim.

"Keep a close eye out for Jeep's little styling Easter eggs, like the Jeep silhouette printed into the windshield trim."

The center stack is neatly laid out and straightforward, and the instrument panel includes a large configurable information display in the center. Jeep may have once been indifferent ti style, but that’s no longer the case. Keep a close eye out for Jeep’s little styling Easter eggs, like the Jeep silhouette printed into the windshield trim. As in the Grand Cherokee, several themed color schemes are offered, like the subtle brown and blue "Vesuvio" and the black on black "Morocco."

This interior wraps comfortably around passengers, and has room for five. Jeep’s put some thought toward the Cherokee’s expected life in the suburbs with clever cargo solutions. Dealer-installable options for the cargo hold include a grocery bag holder, tote bag and a cargo organizer.

Optional equipment includes a backup camera, heated and ventilated seats and automatic headlamps. The UConnect infotainment system is shared with other Chrysler products. A fully loaded Cherokee is a rather nice place to be indeed.

Drivetrain

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The Cherokee would appear to be punching above its weight, if the styling and interior are taken into account. But the powertrain brings things back down to earth. The standard engine is Chrysler’s 2.4 liter MultiAir four-cylinder, and it’s hooked up to a nine-speed automatic transmission. With more gears, the Cherokee’s able to pull 31mpg on the freeway, and boasts a range of over 500 miles from its 15.9 gallon fuel tank. Here’s the thing; for all its fancy, cutting-edge looks, the Cherokee presents a very ordinary drive. With the 184-horsepower 2.4 liter engine, the Jeep offers moderate acceleration and keeps up with traffic easily enough, but provides little to distinguish it from the competition from Hyundai, Honda or Toyota. The Cherokee looks pretty cool, but on the road it feels essentially the same. That’s a departure from the Liberty, whose less refined and sometimes downright crude road manners came across at least as a bit of necessary Jeepness.

The Cherokee’s transmission is geared for smoothness, which results in more noise and less acceleration sometimes. That can get a little frustrating, as it means the Cherokee doesn’t always make the most of its power.

A 3.2 liter V6 is also available, raising the power ante to 271. It doesn’t change the excitement level much, though; the V6 Cherokee is more powerful, but still smooth instead of overtly powerful. What the V6 does impart is some utility— a towing capacity up to 4,500 pounds, to be specific. Jeep includes a stop-start system on the V6 Cherokees, to improve fuel economy on the larger engine.

The upside to this smoothness is a very smooth and refined drive. The Cherokee powertrain’s not bad, it’s just somewhat ordinary. As is Jeep’s habit, the Cherokee’s available with a choice of three all-wheel drive systems: pavement-based Active Drive I, with a fully automatic torque transfer system. Active Drive II adds a low-range, while the Active Drive Lock adds a rear locking differential for off-road power control. That locker sets the Cherokee apart from most of its competitors, and opens up a wide range of possible roads, or things that look like roads. All-wheel-drive Cherokees include Jeep’s Selec-Terrain system, which modifies the all-wheel drive’s response to deal with a variety of different surfaces, including sand, snow and mud. It also disconnects the rear axle during dry-pavement travel to reduce parasitic fuel economy loss.

Don't let the smooth design fool you -- this Jeep is capable of off-road expeditions.

Opt for the Cherokee Trailhawk, with its Trail Rated badge, and things get a bit extraordinary. In the dirt, the Cherokee’s Jeep heritage comes through, and the Trailhawk is a confident and capable driver when the pavement gets bad…or disappears entirely. Don’t let the smooth design fool you — this Jeep is capable of off-road expeditions, and I drove the Cherokee Trailhawk through steep ravines and washouts that confirm it. It doesn’t feel like as much of a natural as the Wrangler does, of course, and visibility leaves something to be desired, but the approach and departure angles of 29.8 and 32.1 degrees respectively do allow an impressive amount of worry-free crawling. Ground clearance is 8.7 inches, with a 23.3 degree breakover angle.

On pavement, the Cherokee reverts to ordinary again. The standard suspension setup consists of McPherson struts in the front and a four-link rear. It’s designed for decent articulation off-road, and this usually translates to a squashy ride, but the Cherokee is tightly sprung and responsive, but the ride is much more car-like than truckish. It’s fine for knocking around town though, and arguably better at it than the Liberty was. Unfortunately this also means there’s a distinct lack of personality. Jeeps have always been vehicles with character, so this deficiency in the Cherokee is a bit of a disappointment.

Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, and the parking brake is electronic. Things get interesting if you opt for the SafetyTec option group, which adds a full suite of active driver aids, including blind spot monitoring, a lane-departure warning and rear cross-traffic detection. The lane-departure prevention system is curiously aggressive, pushing back if you try to change lanes without signaling. Forward-collision mitigation is available, and so is a nifty self-parking system that can pull the Cherokee into parallel or perpendicular spots for you. It works similarly to other systems; just push the button and let it do its work.

Prices

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The Cherokee is available in Sport, Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk trims. All except the Trailhawk are available with front- or four-wheel drive. The Trailhawk is the rugged “traditional Jeep” model, featuring a more aggressive look, Active Drive Lock and a more off-road stance.

The Sport has an MSRP of $22,995, and it’s well-equipped enough to make it a worthwhile purchase. This is about as close as the Cherokee gets to the utilitarian feel of the Liberty. Moving up to the Latitude brings the bottom line to $24,795 and adds a standard backup camera and brighter exterior trim. The Cherokee Limited , starting at $28,595, is somewhat fancier with standard UConnect and leather seats. Though the more expensive Cherokees are good-looking vehicles, the prices brings them into competition with some very nice vehicles at this point. The exception is the range-topping Trailhawk, with a $30,095 base price; its honest off-road ability and classic Jeep cues effectively set it apart from the field. If you want a Jeep that will take you off road without subjecting you to the nightmare that is a Wrangler on pavement, then yes, it’s worth it.

Competition

Ford Escape

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The Escape has the "crossover" thing down pat, offering some of the best road manners in the class coupled with excellent bad-weather stability. The Escape’s recent redesign did away with the hybrid model, but improved fuel economy of the conventional models to the point that it doesn’t really matter. It’s got the racy family looks of the Focus and Fusion, and there’s a surprising amount of space inside as well.

Read our full review here.

Land Rover LR2

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The only other dedicated off-roader in this class apart from the Trailhawk is the LR2. Land Rover’s smallest offering is overdue for replacement, and while it’s capable off-road and has a measure of British charm, it also feels outdated in terms of appointments, ergonomics and styling. The LR2 is a capable off-roader, but it’s cramped inside.

Read our full review here.

Toyota RAV4

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The RAV4 is the family-hauling champ in this class. It has a capacious-feeling interior and a friendly, "drives small" feeling that inspires confidence in drivers who have trepidation about driving an SUV, even a small one. The RAV4 recently did away with its external spare and side-opening rear door, the last vestiges of its origins as an honest compact off-roader. It’s thoroughly domesticated now.

Read our full review here.

Conclusion

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Jeep has been here before. When the Grand Cherokee first debuted in 1993, it got criticism from the hard-core Jeep fans who weren’t sure about its looks. The Grand Cherokee quickly proved its off-road prowess, though, and its smoother lines were quickly forgiven. The new Cherokee is a similar departure from Jeep tradition, but its real ability keeps it in the family in the right ways.

In terms of kicking a Jeep-shaped hole in the compact and mid-size crossover market, the Cherokee’s fortunes are somewhat more mixed. Its swoopy looks stand out on the road, and Jeep’s unique color and trim choices will serve it well, but the Trailhawk’s go-anywhere ability doesn’t mean as much compared to the excellent freeway manners of the Ford Escape or Hyundai Tucson. There’s also the fact that the market at large has not always been forgiving of the little quirks Jeeps tend to have.

Initial sales seem to be off to a good start, however. Thus far the future of the new Cherokee looks fairly bright.

  • Leave it
    • * Less power than we’d like from the four-cylinder
    • * Entry-level models only just avoid feeling cheap
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