Crossover SUVs have surged in popularity because they bridge the gap between car and truck-based SUV. More capability (and versatility) than the former – but not to the extremes of the latter.
People like to ride higher off the ground – and they definitely like not getting stuck in the snow. They also like having a roomy interior with lots of space for cargo. But they often do not need the rock-crawling, mud-bogging capabilities of a traditional four-wheel-drive SUV – and don’t want the gas-thirsty drivetrains and often oafish handling that’s part of the traditional SUV ownership experience.
Hence the crossover SUV.
The latest Jeep Cherokee’s a different take on the crossover concept. It’s not quite as rugged/off-road-capable as a traditional SUV (like for instance its big brother, the Grand Cherokee). But it’s a lot more rugged and capable than most crossovers – especially if you buy the Trailhawk version.
If the typical crossover is “50-50” – straddling the line between car and SUV – the Cherokee is more like 60-40, toward the SUV side of the scale.
Not too much.
But maybe just enough.
WHAT IT IS
The Cherokee is Jeep’s newest 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.
Unlike almost all the other compact crossovers in its class, the Cherokee is available with a fairly large six cylinder engine – and can pull fairly serious weight (up to 4,500 lbs.). It offers two 4WD systems – a light-duty Active Drive I system that is basically “set and forget” all-wheel-drive similar to what you’d find in competitor crossovers – and a heavier duty Active Drive II system, which includes low-range gearing and a locking differential. This system delivers much more capability than the crossover-typical AWD and is unique to the Jeep.
The Cherokee is also the only compact crossover SUV in the under $30k class that comes standard with a nine-speed transmission – two or even three more forward gears than is currently common.
Prices begin at $22,995 for the base Sport trim with FWD and 2.4 liter engine. A top-of-the-line Limited with 4WD and 3.2 liter V-6 tops out at $30,195. The Trailhawk model’s base price is $29,695. It comes standard with the heavier-duty Active Drive II 4WD system and M/S-rated 17-inch wheel/tire package, among other upgrades.
Possible cross-shops include the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Subaru Tribeca and other medium-small crossover SUVs in the $30k and under bracket.
Minor tweaks for 2015 include automatic engine start-stop with the optional V-6 (this slightly increases gas mileage by reducing wastage from idling at lights and so on) and a new crash-mitigation system as an available option. All trims except the base Sport now come standard with back-up cameras and automatic headlights.
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.
Stout (4,500 lbs.) max tow rating.
More off-road (and snow-day) capability than any other crossover in this class.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
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.
Conventional crossover looks from the side – and from behind.
Unlike a growing number of four-cylinder-only compact crossovers, the Cherokee is available with either a four or a six.
In fact, it is the only new model to offer a six.
Competitors that do, like the current Kia Sorento and Hyundai Sante Fe GL, 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 systems “4WD” – and technically, all four wheels do drive (or rather, are driven by engine power). But these are FWD-based (and biased) system in which most of the engine’s power goes to the front wheels most of the time. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, for most on-street driving it’s the ticket – preferable to a part-time 4WD system (as in a truck or a traditional SUV) because it provides a dry/wet road handling advantage when cornering as well as greater traction when the road is slick.
But the nomenclature is a little confusing because – until fairly recently – “4WD” meant a heavy-duty, truck-type system with a two-speed transfer case that normally routed all the engine’s power to the rear wheels, unless the system was put into 4WD. Also, these systems are designed to enhance off-road traction in a straight line and at relatively low speeds. They are not designed to improve high-speed cornering capability.
The Jeep’s system splits the difference – combining functional aspects of both traditional all-wheel-drive and traditional four-wheel-drive.
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 Cherokee’s base four-cylinder engine delivers pretty solid acceleration for a vehicle in this class: Zero to 60 in about 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 generation (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 by model year 2016. 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 quite decent: 21 city, 28 highway with the Active Drive 1 “4WD” system – which is 1 MPG up in both categories vs. last year, due to the newly standard (with the V-6) auto-stop-start system which kills the engine when you roll to a stop – and automatically re-starts it when you press on the accelerator.
The EPA numbers of the V-6 Cherokee are more than just a little bit better than those of 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 V-6 equipped 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 or slogging through rain-soaked, muddy fields. 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 gnarly all-terrain tires will get you through almost anything.
Or put another way, through situations that would cripple or trap most other crossovers.
Other reviewers have said this – and I will “amen” them: The Cherokee’s base engine is sufficient. Better than, actually. Which is something that’s less easy to say about some of the under-engined competition.
Note, too, 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 terminal 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 is fifth or fourth at the least. It inevitably takes a moment longer to drop from 9th to 5th or 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. This is the price we pay to get our hands on that V-6.
This Cherokee will also corner not clumsily – 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.
The Cherokee’s front end is concept car 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.
Trailhawk models come with a M/S-rated 17 inch wheel and tires package, tow hooks and underbody skid plates – in addition to the enhancements for the Active Drive II system previously described.
A new addition to the roster for 2015 is a collision mitigation system that can be ordered with Latitude and Limited trims. It will brake the vehicle automatically if you don’t react to a potential wreck situation in time. Lane Departure Warning and Adaptive Cruise Control are also available.
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 (420 ft.-lbs. of torque might be a bit much in the smaller/lighter Cherokee) and tune it for say 40 on the highway.
And it would a nice poke-in-the-government’s eye. Beat their 35.5 MPG 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.
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