The 1984 Jeep Cherokee arguably invented the small SUV, and it ruled for 17 years until its slot was taken by the 2001 Jeep Liberty. Now it's back in the lineup. The 2014 Cherokee is new from the ground up, a redesign to knock your socks off. Cherokee looks cool again. And the base price is $400 less than the 2013 Liberty.
The 2014 Jeep Cherokee comes standard with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Called the Tigershark MultiAir 2 I-4, it makes 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque, with fuel mileage EPA-rated at 21/28 mpg City/Highway. We got 23.4 on the highway and winding mountain two-lanes.
The optional engine is a 3.2-liter Pentastar V6, making its debut in the Cherokee. It has many new features, some improving resource use, such as a disposable oil filter. It's derived from the 3.6-liter that's been one of Ward's 10 Best Engines for the last three years. It makes 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque and it's EPA-rated at 19/27 mpg City/Highway. We got 18.1 mpg in a 4×4 model. The advantage to the V6 is towing, rated to 4500 pounds (best in class says Jeep) versus 2000 pounds for the I4. For daily driving, we like the four-cylinder, it's smooth and powerful enough. However it's a tough call, because the V6 is only a couple mpg thirstier.
Both engines are aided by a new 9-speed automatic transmission, standard in all Cherokees. It's a compact marvel, raising the regular-car bar for tranny construction and packaging, not to mention the electronic and mechanical complexities of high-speed meshing of spinning steel gears. Our test drives revealed the shifts are smooth, while the programming is dominant even in manual mode. First gear is an aggressive 4.71:1 for low-end performance, while 6, 7, 8 and 9 are all overdrives for the highway, to increase fuel mileage and lower noise and vibration. Ninth gear is a super overdrive, at 0.48:1.
The off-road oriented Trailhawk will do amazing climbing and descending things, while looking too good to be able to do those things. Floods, blizzards, earthquakes, typhoons and the Outback are no worries mate. It breaks new ground with electronic descent control. With its tall 4.7:1 ratio for first gear, the crawl ratio of 56:1 is nearly as high as the Wrangler's.
There are three new 4WD systems introduced in the Cherokee: Active Drive I, with a one-speed Power Transfer Unit; Active Drive II with two-speed PTU and low range (it's towable); and Active Drive Lock with two-speed PTU, low range and locking rear differential. The basic Active Drive I is all-wheel drive, distributing some but not a lot of drive to the rear wheels when needed.
The Selec-Terrain traction control system has five modes: Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud, and Rock. There's a new independent suspension to go with increased torsional rigidity in the frame. There are significant standard extras, like LED headlamps and daytime running lights, fold-flat front passenger seat with storage, and more.
As for looks, it sure doesn't get lost in the SUV crowd. Its designers delivered style and distinction while enhancing the iconic image. Other SUVs dream of looking like the new Cherokee. The Cherokee Latitude is less blingy than the Cherokee Limited. Trailhawk looks best because it's tough, with raised suspension, overfenders and painted tow hooks. It says Jeep the loudest.
The interior is stylish and utilitarian, both. Everything has a function, while being easy to reach and operate. Many knobs. Knobs are good. There's a lovely storage bin on the dashboard that can hold a laptop. There are clear digital gauges between the speedometer and tach, lit organic white. Navigation on the touch screen is easy to read, with basic buttons. We wish the radio had a dial.
The Latitude standard cloth seats are rugged and sporty, and fit just right. You're surrounded by the right stuff in the right places: leather armrest/grab handle, deep door pocket and center console, clean and responsive center stack, black vents, trim like brown titanium, stitched leather on the dash of the Limited.
Behind the front seat, there's a lot of room and convenience for passengers and cargo. The 40.3 inches of rear legroom is nearly 2 inches more than big brother Grand Cherokee, due mostly to seat height. The 60/40 rear seats fold flat in a heartbeat.
Behind the wheel, it feels tight. Smooth and solid with a firm ride. The four-cylinder has plenty of power for daily needs, and to cruise easily at freeway speeds. The V6 has a bit of engine noise, with kick-butt acceleration. The V6 handling is good but it's not as attached as the four. The ride is softer except for undulations, while speed bumps are gentler. The V6 just feels bigger.
At the introduction of the new Cherokee, we were given the opportunity for comparison spins in a Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4, and Ford Escape. The Cherokee turned them into vanilla. It looks and feels like an Alfa Romeo, compared to its competitors.
The all-new Cherokee doesn't get lost in the SUV crowd. It delivers style and distinction while clearly being a Jeep. Maybe best expressed by the grille, the seven Jeep slugs backed by eggcrate, one vertical piece with the aluminum hood, a unique design described by Jeep as waterfall. The hood has a hump as on a muscle car, made into a flat-black wedge on the Trailhawk. The slugs are bright chrome in every model but the Trailhawk, where the eggcrate is black, changing the car's presence. All around, the Trailhawk with its rugged touches (wheels, tires, fender flares, tow hooks) looks more Jeepish.
Other SUVs dream of looking like the new Cherokee. Sweet little slits that look like headlamps are actually LED daytime running lights with turn signals, while the projector headlamps rise in black fascia over the front bumper, like bugeyes. They're so small they look more like foglights, while the foglights themselves are even smaller, down at the bottom corners of the fascia, again eggcrate black on the Trailhawk.
The Latitude is less blingy than the Limited, and therefore better looking.
There are trapezoidal wheel arches, with sculpted sides leading back to where the Cherokee tries hard but struggles. There's a big fat horizontal concave in the liftgate, reducing the inherent slab but obscuring the Jeep identity. It could be a Kia. The 4×4 models have more black fascia in the rear, which tweaks some style out of the slab. Big LED horizontal taillamps extend into the glass with a top-heavy touch that's apparently aerodynamic.
Tight, comfortable, everything a function, easy to reach, stylish. They nailed it.
The Jeep Cherokee Latitude comes with cloth seats on the are rugged and sporty, fit just right. Perforated leather seats in place of the cloth in the Limited. The excellent fat steering wheel makes you feel like you're in control. You're surrounded by the right stuff in the right places: leather armrest/grab handle, deep door pocket and center console, clean and responsive center stack, trim like brown titanium, black vents, stitched leather on the dash. And many knobs. Knobs are good. But not too many.
The knob for terrain has four positions: Auto, Sport, Snow, and Sand/Mud. There's an electronic parking brake, behind the shift lever. Cruise control and audio on the steering wheel. Big dead pedal.
Digital gauges between the speedometer and tach are clear, lit organic white, including a display for the transmission gear; it sure is strange to see a 9 there. Navigation on the touch screen is easy to read, with basic buttons. We wish the radio had a dial. There's a lovely storage bin on the dashboard that can hold a laptop.
The standard touch-screen is 5 inches, and the premium one is 8.4 inches. The rearview camera display is big and beautiful. Connectivity goes all the way, including wireless smartphone charging, internet radio, voice-command navigation, media hub with ports galore, and UConnect access, that can do everything from call 911 to read incoming text messages to you.
We like the instrument panel's function more than its design. Jeep designers spent endless hours trying to make the dashboard fluid, like water, with lines like the wings of an osprey. It seems a bit foo-foo for a Jeep. That's what the Compass was supposed to be for.
The center stack is supposed to harken a '40s Jeep grille, and the vents are supposed to harken a skeleton. As for colors, it's a world tour. There are the colors of Mount Vesuvius, Kilimanjaro, the Grand Canyon, Iceland, and Morocco at night. Kilimanjaro inspired the cloth-and-leather Trailhawk interior. Jeep says the Masai tribe that lives there influenced the design (we didn't ask how). If your imagination runs with the designers, you'll see it. The hues are sweet.
Behind the front seat, there's a lot of room and convenience for passengers and cargo. The 60/40 rear seats fold flat in a heartbeat. The 40.3 inches of rear legroom is nearly 2 inches more than big brother Grand Cherokee has, because the Cherokee's rear seat is higher. The SAE standard for rear legroom measures hip to ankle, as part of the equation to determine the total in inches.
The power liftgate can be opened with the remote or pressing the electronic latch button, which is right where you expect it to be. To close the liftgate there's a button inside that's conveniently located but hard to see. Slide out your cargo and press it, it's right there. At night, however, we groped around trying to find it because it is not lighted. Pressing the remote also closes it, of course. The cargo cover gets in the way at times with its big flap.
The first thing we noticed when we drove the Jeep Cherokee is how tight it is, smooth and solid with a firm ride. The steering is precise for an SUV, using a steering wheel that's satisfying in its shape and function. The steering column made a bit of noise when we turned the wheel on at least one model, however.
We got good seat time in both the 2.4-liter four-cylinder and the 3.2-liter V6, with their new 9-speed automatic transmission. You read that right, 9 speeds, squeezed into a box of gears not much bigger than a breadbox. Bold engineering by Chrysler, where good things are happening. We don't mean to write ad slogans, but it's true.
The V6 we drove wasn't much smoother than the four. The four-cylinder has plenty of power for daily needs, and to cruise easily at freeway speeds. The V6 is for people who like more acceleration performance, or who tow. The four-cylinder is rated to tow 2000 pounds, the V6 with tow package a class-leading 4500 pounds. If you don't tow often, the four-cylinder will be fine. The 9-speed gearbox will help. It will be busy.
During a day-long drive over varied terrain of freeways, winding two-lanes, mountains and off-road, we watched the transmission do its thing. Theoretically, a 9-speed transmission would shift almost twice as much as a 5-speed; but not in this case because the ratio of 5th gear is 1.00:1. So 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th are all overdrives, to reduce rpm's at highway speeds and increase fuel mileage. With drive ratios of .81, .70, .58 and .48, there's very little rev change with each shift, so you don't often feel more than five gears.
Shifting function is especially important in the Cherokee because in the Manual mode you've got those 9 speeds to play with (overdrive notwithstanding). But after you're in 5th gear, you might as well go back to Auto. Except in Auto, it almost never gets up to 9th on its own. Overall in Manual mode, it shifts a lot on its own, including casual upshifts at 2500 rpm.
There are more than 40 shift maps for conditions and forces that software detects, meaning that there's only a 1-in-40 chance that whatever we say about when it shifts will be correct. It's going to shift a lot. We didn't find it intrusive.
Like them all, it's programmed to shift based on data from sensors trying to read the road conditions and your pace and style. It seems not unlike Google noting your surfing and sending the info to advertisers who try to give (sell) you what you want, on your screen. If you think that invades your privacy, wait until government takes over the black box that records your every move behind the wheel.
The other thing with the new 9-speed is reliability, and time will tell. The transmission has four gear sets and six shift elements, including multi-disc clutches, dog clutches and brakes. Just more parts to break, the off-road old-timers with 4-speeds would say.
With the four-cylinder, having less torque than the V6, the transmission kicks down more, however the Sport mode in 4×4 Selec-Terrain, keeps it in the gears longer. We got 22.3 miles per gallon on the winding roads and freeway; it's EPA rated at 21/28 mpg City/Highway with 4×4. In the V6 the mileage dropped to 18.1 mpg; it's rated at 19/27 mpg.
After driving the smooth four-cylinder Latitude, we expected the V6 Limited to be super smooth, but there's some engine noise. But put your foot down and it flies, it's fast. The handling is good but it's not as attached as the four. The electric power rack and pinion steering ratio is the same, but the V6 steering is lighter. And the ride is softer and smoother; it doesn't take undulations as well as the Latitude, but speed bumps are gentler. The V6 feels bigger because it handles heavier due to the weight of the engine, true of all but the most carefully balanced and sophisticatedly suspended cars, none of them SUVs.
But the knockout punch with any Jeep is off-road capability. We spent a few hours facing off-road challenges in a Trailhawk. It breaks new ground, in particular in descent control. It will do amazing things. For some of those things it doesn't need or want your feet to be involved, to screw things up. It will climb up rocks and back down with your feet in the air; the driver just steers, and the machine takes itself down over treacherous terrain perfectly, safely. The descent advancement is that the driver can control the speed in .2-mph increments. That's way better than before.
The transmission uses a numerically high 4.7:1 ratio for first gear, for quicker standing-start acceleration. Coupled with the 4.08:1 final drive with the I4 (3.52:1 in the V6), and the Active Drive II or Active Drive Lock, that delivers a crawl ratio of 56:1, nearly as high as that of the Jeep Wrangler.
Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to test the traction of basic Active Drive I. Just because the Trailhawk with Active Drive Lock has offroad capability beyond real-world needs, it doesn't mean that Active Drive I will keep you moving in two feet of snow, sand or mud. However there are modes for those conditions in Selec-Terrain, and it is a Jeep, so we have faith.
At the introduction of the new Cherokee, we were given the opportunity for comparison spins in a Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4, and Ford Escape. Cherokee blew them out of the water. Compared to the Cherokee, the Escape is more nimble but has a mere 5-speed; the RAV4 has no feel and its transmission intrudes; the CR-V is boring and it labors.
The Cherokee claims the categories that matter, for example character, spirit and looks. It has a personality: decisive. Compared to the others it feels like an Alfa Romeo.
The redesigned Jeep Cherokee is a winner on many fronts, especially exterior and interior design, and character. The smooth four-cylinder works for all but big towing. The new 9-speed transmission is smooth but time will tell on reliability. Fuel mileage could be better. The Trailhawk is in an offroad class of its own.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Washington state after his test drive of the Jeep Cherokee.