Which probably accounts for the new Cherokee . . . and what it’s not.
It isn’t a traditional SUV.
Reason? They’re a hard sell these days.
At least, as mass-market vehicles.
Despite Jeep’s boulder-hopping rep, the truth is most of Jeep’s current vehicles aren’t traditional SUVs anymore. In fact, only two – the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee – are still built around the traditional SUV’s RWD-based layout, with the rugged underpinnings of a hard-core off-roader.
But the Liberty never made much headway against the light-duty leaders, models like Toyota’s RAV4 and the Honda CR-V.
So it went.
The new Cherokee takes its place and – Jeep hopes – it will take some sales away from Toyota, Honda, Ford and other purveyors of compact crossover SUVs.
WHAT IT IS
The Cherokee is Jeep’s new FWD/AWD crossover – a step up in size (and features and amenities) from the entry-level Compass but smaller, more on-road-minded (and much less thirsty) than the still-RWD/4WD Grand Cherokee.
It’s also the only crossover, period, that comes standard with a nine-speed transmission.
Prices begin at $22,995 for the base Sport trim with FWD and 2.4 liter engine. A top-of-the-line Limited with the Active Drive II system and 3.2 liter V-6 tops out at $29,995.
Target competition includes the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and other medium-small crossover SUVs.
Unlike the Liberty – and previous Cherokees – the new Cherokee is a crossover SUV. Meaning, it splits the difference between a FWD-based passenger car and a traditional truck-descended SUV. It’s built on a modified version of the same chassis used to build the Dodge Dart – but unlike pretty much all of the also-car-based crossovers it competes against, the Cherokee can be ordered with either of two available “4WD” systems (they’re really all-wheel-drive, see below) that offer notched up bad weather (and bad road) capability – while being just as civil and fuel efficient on road as they are.
Wild-looking from head-on.
Hunky feel, without the hunky handling.
Bigger – and wider – than the competition.
But not too big.
Available V-6 (getting hard to find in this class).
Technologically impressive nine speed automatic.
More off-pavement capability than pretty much any other crossover in this class.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Looks nothing-special from the side (and from behind).
Nine gears may be the ticket for maxxing the MPGs, but it also means there are a lot of gears to drop down when you hammer it to pass someone. This sometimes results in a slight but noticeable delay or hesitation while the transmission gets itself organized.
Less cargo capacity than several smaller competitors.
Unlike a growing number of four-cylinder-only compact crossovers, the Cherokee is available with either a four or a six. It is the only new model to offer a six . Competitors that do, like the current Kia Sorento and Hyundai Sante Fe, are carryover models that may lose their available sixxes at the next update. There is also the Chevy Equinox – but it’s a larger (mid-sized) vehicle and leans more to the SUV-ish side of the aisle, too.
The Cherokee’s standard engine is a four that displaces 2.4 liters and produces 184 hp and 171 ft.-lbs. of torque. It is paired with a nine-speed automatic and your choice of front-wheel-drive, a light-duty all-wheel-drive system Jeep calls Active Drive I and a heavier-duty system (standard in Trailhawks) called Active Drive II. Jeep calls both “4WD” – and technically, all four wheels do drive – but this is a FWD-based (and biased) system in which most of the engine’s power goes to the front wheels most of the time.
As in other AWD systems, when the front wheels begin to lose traction, some of the engine’s power is automatically routed to the rear wheels. And there is no two-speed transfer case with this system – though Trailhawks do get a Low range setting for the nine-speed automatic.
The Active Drive I system features driver-selectable programming via a rotary knob on the center console for Snow, Sand/Mud as well as Sport and Automatic. This is a cut above, capability-wise. Sport – and Snow – modes for the transmission (and other calibrations) are fairly common in crossovers and cars generally. But the Cherokee’s Sand/Mud mode is unique – among its direct competition, anyhow.
The base engine delivers pretty solid acceleration – zero to 60 in just over 8 seconds with FWD – and 31 MPG on the highway, too. This dips to 28 highway if you buy the Active Drive I system, but it’s still epically better than the previous (2001) Cherokee, which posted a Hummer-esque 15 city, 20 city.
It should also be pointed out that the Cherokee’s base engine matches – or beats – the output/performance of the only-available engines in competitor crossovers like the Honda CR-V (2.4 liters, 185 hp, 23 city/31 highway and 9.5 seconds to 60) and the Toyota RAV4 (2.5 liters, 176 hp, 24 city/31 highway and 9.3 seconds to 60).
The base-engined Cherokee’s also much stronger than the base engined Ford Escape (2.5 liters, 168 hp) and stronger still than the Escape with its optional 1.6 liter turbo engine (178 hp). To get more-than-Cherokee hp in the Ford, you have to jump two engines up the ladder, to the Escape’s top-of-the-line 2.0 turbo four . . . at which point you’re also looking at much more coin than Jeep charges for the base Cherokee.
One of the few current cross-shops that comes with a stronger standard engine is the Hyundai Sante Fe (2.4 liters, 190 hp) and that just barely. The Sante Fe’s base price – $24,950 – also happens to be almost $2k higher.
The Cherokee’s trump card, though, is its optionally available 3.2 liter, 271 hp V-6. Very few vehicles in this segment offer more than a four (sometimes turbo’d sometimes not) chiefly because there is incredible pressure emanating from Washington to get every single new vehicle’s average fuel economy number into the mid-30s (35.5 MPG, to be precise). It is exceedingly hard for a six to make that cut. That’s why they’re going away – at least, as mass-market powerplants.
Thanks to the Jeep’s advantageous nine-speed gearing the V-6’s gas mileage is also very decent: 19 city, 27 highway for a “4WD” equipped version.
This is not a little bit better than larger, V-6 powered crossover SUVs like the Chevy Equinox (16 city, 23 highway with AWD) and the Kia Sorento/Hyundai Sante Fe twins (18 city, 25 highway). The Jeep’s also the quickest of this bunch – scuttling to 60 in about 6.9 seconds vs. 7-7.1 for the V-6 Chevy and 7.4 for the Kia/Hyundai crossovers.
The optionally available Active Drive II system is another notch-up, capability-wise, over the competition’s universally light-duty AWD set-ups. Though there isn’t a truck-type two-speed transfer case, there is a Low range gear for pulling through deep snow on unplowed roads – and you could even risk muddy fields, too. If you opt for the Trailhawk package, you’ll get an additional Rock crawl mode for the driver-selectable settings, plus an electronically locking rear differential and Hill Descent Control.
That plus 8.6 inches of ground clearance and a set of good tires will get you through almost anything. Or put another way, through things that would cripple most other crossovers.
Other reviewers have said this – and I will “amen” them: The Cherokee’s base engine is sufficient. Better than, actually. Note that Jeep lets you order “4WD” with the four. In marginal power cases, the manufacturer will often tacitly concede the deficit by only offering the marginally powerful engine with FWD (or RWD) and requiring an engine upgrade to upgrade to 4WD. In the case of Cherokee competitors like the RAV4 and CR-V, their manufacturers offer AWD with the gimped (and take ’em or leave ’em) fours – but the end result of this unfortunate pairing is a bad case of The Slows. The four-cylinder Jeep is almost two seconds quicker than they are to 60 – and that is an everyday difference that matters when you’re trying to pull into traffic, or climb a grade with a full load of people on board.
With the optional V-6, the new Cherokee is a potent performer. And puller. Its 4,500 lb. max tow rating is literally three times much as the Monty Burnsian RAV4 and CR-V (1,500 lbs. max each) and 1,000 lbs. stronger than the Escape’s maximum of 3,500 lbs.
The nine-speed automatic is an interesting item. Why nine speeds? For the same reason semi trucks have that many (and more) forward speeds: Leverage. To accelerate the vehicle without winding out the engine; and to cut down engine RPM to the lowest level once you’re up to speed. In order to have a really deep top gear overdrive (ninth in this case) without a bog/soft spot in between that top gear and the next lowest gear, you need a gradual series of “steps” down – and up. That’s why, in this case, the transmission has another three gears in between fifth and top gear ninth.
But, you won’t notice them much. The transmission behaves very much like a “normal” five or six speed automatic. The upshifts from fifth through ninth are so closely spaced as to be almost imperceptible. And the computer exercises absolute control – even when the gear lever is in manual mode. You can move the shift lever over to the left and tap it down or up – and the dashboard indicator will change from 9th to 8th or from 7th to 9th – but the computer will shift on its schedule and is deaf to your inputs. It will allow some manual control of up or downshifts from first through fifth, but the computer is the Decider here, too.
One issue that remains to be sorted is passing gear performance. You’re trundling along in ninth and floor the accelerator to pass a dawdler. It is a long way from ninth to passing gear – which in this case is fifth or fourth at the least. It inevitably takes a moment longer to drop from 9th to 4th than it does from 6th to 4th (as with a conventional six-speed box). So, there is sometimes a slight but significant pause before the onrush of acceleration. This transmission is designed primarily for economy, keep in mind. There is no other reason for so many gears. This is the price we pay to get our hands on that V-6. Without the efficiency edge conferred by the nine-speed, it’s not likely it would be in the lineup at all.
This Cherokee will corner – something no previous Cherokee could do and still keep all four wheels in contact with the pavement. It is much more athletic than the CR-V or RAV4 or the Sante Fe/Sorento. The Ford Escape is comparably willing – and able – to take a curve at speed and not telegraph increasingly urgent warnings that you’re pushing your luck. But, there’s that engine issue to consider… .
Though it’s based on a car, the Cherokee doesn’t have the fragile feel of a car. Instead it feels big and heavy and reassuring solid. Which it is. Though nominally a compact, a 4WD Cherokee V-6 weighs just over 4,100 lbs. – but all this unsprung mass is very effectively sorted by the suspension. You also enjoy that pleasantly authoritative, commanding view of the road that comes with being higher off the ground than surrounding traffic (well, most of it).
The Cherokee’s front end is radical. Slits for eyes – and a toothy grille. It reminds me of the old Isuzu VehiCross – but in a good way. Like the VehiCross, it’s daring. But unlike the VehiCross, it’s not bizarre. It’s the difference between Jennifer Lawrence in a bikini… and Borat in a thong.
Jeep did not carry this stylistic daring beyond the nose clip, however. The Cherokee’s flanks and tail are conventionally crossover. Nothing unattractive – just a little ordinary and something of a letdown after viewing the Jeep from head on.
Size-wise, the Cherokee, at 182 inches long overall, splits the difference between the true compacts in this segment like the Escape and CR-V (178.1 and 178.3 inches long overall, respectively) and mid-sized models like the Chevy Equinox (187.8 inches long overall).
It is also wider than all of these rivals – 73.2 inches vs. 71.6 for the CR-V, 72.6 for the RAV4, 72.4 for the Escape and 72.5 for the Equinox – and this gives it visual hunkiness the others (especially the Escape and CR-V) lack.
Legroom in both rows is pretty good – 41.1 inches up front and 40.3 in the second row. Pretty balanced might be a better way to put it. The Escape has more legroom up front (43.1 inches) but at the cost of a much tighter squeeze in the second row (36.8 inches). Same goes for the RAV: 42.6 inches up front – but 37.2 in the second row.
Interestingly, the Jeep’s interior is about as spacious (passenger room-wise) as the physically larger (mid-sized) Chevy Equinox’s. Though the Equinox is almost half a foot longer, it only has 41.2 inches of legroom up front and 39.9 in the second row. However, it has 31.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind its second row – and this brings us to the Cherokee’s sole objective deficit relative to its rivals:
A shrunken trunk.
Technically, of course, it’s not a trunk. Crossovers don’t have trunks. They have cargo areas. And the Cherokee’s is smaller-than-average: 24.8 cubic feet with the second row up and 54.9 cubes maximum, with the second row folded flat. The much smaller overall CR-V has 37.2 cubes behind its second row – and 70.9 cubes total. The RAV4? 38.4 cubes behind its second row – and 73.4 if you fold them down. And the Ford Escape? 34.3 cubes behind the second row and 68.1 with them folded.
Remember: All three of these models are smaller – yet they have significantly more cargo carrying room.
Unusual standard equipment includes an SD card reader, in addition to a USB port. You can order useful additional equipment such as heated windshield wipers (part of the Cold Weather package, which also includes heated front seats) a two-piece or panorama glass sunroof, and a perpendicular as well as parallel-parking assistant.
There’s nothing to indicate Jeep is actively considering it, but I can’t help considering what the Cherokee might be like with a version of the 3 liter diesel V-6 that’s currently available in the Grand Cherokee. Scale it down a bit (no need for 420 ft.-lbs. of torque in the smaller/lighter Cherokee) and tune it for say 40 on the highway. It ought to be doable.
And it would a nice poke-in-the-government’s eye. Beat their CAFE number – without killing off vehicles like this.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Other than having an on-the-small-side cargo area, the new Cherokee is everything the old Liberty (and Commander) were not.
Which is probably why it will succeed where they failed.
Throw it in the Woods?