I almost fell out of my chair when pictures of the Jeep Cherokee leaked before its New York Auto Show debut. At the time, it seemed like the ugliest crossover I had seen since the Pontiac Aztek. Then I saw it in person and re-thought my volatile first impression.
|Engine: 3.2L V6 makes 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 19 MPG city, 26 MPG highway, 21 MPG combined
Pricing: AWD V6 starts at $28,235 including delivery, our test model costs $39,815
It looks better in the flesh and a colleague assured me that “it would sell.” He was right about the sales and I began to think I might have been wrong for being so critical.
A little less than a year after I first saw the Cherokee, it was starting to look pretty good. The front-end styling seemed less offensive and more provocative in a segment that sorely needs excitement. Face it; compact crossovers are usually as exciting as turkey served with warm milk and Jeep is one of the few brands offering something in the segment that is exciting for both its looks and capability.
Options: What a Spread
The Cherokee is offered with a wide range of options allowing it to compete with affordable four-cylinder rivals like the Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5. But it also offers a V6, three levels of all-wheel drive upgrades, skid plates, tow hooks, sharper approach angles and several run-on sentences worth of other equipment.
The model I borrowed from Jeep and spent a week in came with upgraded “Active Drive II” all-wheel drive, which is available on the Sport, Latitude and Limited models. It adds an inch of ride height, a 47.8:1 crawl ratio (56:1 with the four-cylinder model), a 2.92:1 gear reduction that enhances off-road climbing capability, plus an two-speed power transfer unit that enhances traction while driving on dirt.
It also had the V6, which sends 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque to the powertrain through a nine-speed automatic transmission. Depending on the model you select, there are both all-wheel and front-wheel drive versions with either a four- or six-cylinder engine. Regardless of other choices, every Cherokee comes with the nine-speed auto.
The “Trailhawk” package adds items like the improved approach angles, tow hooks and skid plates mentioned above. It’s also “trail rated,” which means this is the model Jeep means for its customers to take off-roading thanks to a locking rear differential and a body that’s been raised an inch.
But it isn’t without faults and some of them are big enough that you should think twice before spending money to own one.
Nine-Speed Still Needs Some Work
That gearbox was and is my primary point of concern about the Cherokee. You see, it was alarming enough that Jeep delayed launching the vehicle because of last-minute quality issues with the transmission, but it also isn’t fair to criticize Chrysler for waiting to be sure the thing was down pat. If anything, they deserve praise because it can’t have been a cheap choice.
I hoped to write off the transmission’s early issues, but I can’t. At low speeds, the shifts are disappointingly rough. That alone isn’t really cause for concern, but what happened after starting the car on a cold morning might be. No more than 20 feet from the parking space I pulled out of, the car briefly seized up, leaning slightly onto the front suspension. After a “bang” and a shudder I felt through the pedals and steering wheel, the car continued forward normally. Troubling.
Aside from that, the nine-speed performed its most important task – saving fuel – admirably by helping the car come close to its advertised 21 MPG average. It was bang-on the 26 MPG highway rating, but I lost mileage in town while driving with a heavy foot through cold weather.
Squishy on Pavement
The 3.2-liter V6 is new and offers plenty of power for such a small vehicle. If anything, it feels too eager to charge forward in low speed situations. Understeer is noticeable if you take corners quickly, but remember that this is supposed to be an off-road capable product so a little bit of body roll is totally excusable.
Considering all that, the Cherokee is actually pretty pleasant to drive with comfortable bucket seats and an ergonomic cabin. Chrysler’s Uconnect system is responsive, straightforward and is one of the best systems sold in any new car because of those attributes.
There’s also an optional panoramic sunroof that makes the cabin feel much more spacious if you’re willing to pay the nearly $1,400 Jeep charges for it.
Overkill for a Compact Crossover?
Even without the Trailhawk model’s intense off-road pretensions, Jeep lets its customers outfit the Cherokee with respectable off-road capability and that’s exactly what the model I drove had. Or so it would seem by looking at the equipment list.
To find out, we spent a few hours off-roading beside a diesel-powered Grand Cherokee also on loan from Jeep that week. Any complaints I had about the squishy ride and swaying body went straight out the window. Not only did the Cherokee keep up with its larger stable mate, but also it actually proved to be more adept than the Grand Cherokee at climbing up steep, slippery hills.
In fact, it performed so well that I was left wondering how worthwhile the Trailhawk upgrade really was until I got stuck in some deep snow. Then it became instantly clear how tow hooks and a locking rear differential are worth having.
On the one hand, entry-level models stack up nicely against similarly-equipped small utility vehicles. The entry-level four-cylinder model starts at $23,240 to offer comparable power and fuel economy to a Mazda CX-5 for almost $2,000 less.
On the other hand, pricier range-topping models offer the power and capability to compete with much larger utility vehicles. The Cherokee I drove cost $39,815 and came with most of the available options. For a car in this class, that’s a lot to ask.
Available With All The Toys
At that level, it came equipped with adaptive cruise control, a lane keeping assistance system that prevents you from absent-mindedly drifting on the highway, plus blind spot monitoring and crash mitigation. There’s also heated and cooled seats wrapped in surprisingly soft leather upholstery, navigation and an upgrade stereo system.
It’s also possible to order a model with the enhanced all-wheel drive system and V6 for about $30,000. At that price you would still wind up with a vehicle able to deliver enough capability to tackle plenty of stick-and-mud excursions. But if it were my money and I really planned to spend any time doing wilderness driving, the Wrangler Unlimited would offer the same seating capacity in a much more robust package – though in a much less urban-friendly package.
At 30 grand, you’re still paying an awful lot for a semi-serious machine and at the end of the day it’s probably a silly decision. The four-cylinder model makes for a sharp competitor to segment leaders but the brawnier V6 versions strike an awkward balance between being a serious off-roader and a suburban family vehicle.
If you’ve been pining for a comfortable daily driver that can still hang with the big boys in most places, the Cherokee is for you. Just get ready to pay dearly for having both of those privileges in one package.