2014 Jeep Cherokee returns with good looks, better style

 FETCHING 4X4: The Cherokee is no longer boxy but it still conveys the impression of a capable, small SUV.
FETCHING 4X4: The Cherokee is no longer boxy but it still conveys the impression of a capable, small SUV.
GEORGE KENNEDY

With any new Jeep, there comes an expectation. We expect the rugged durability and all-terrain prowess that characterize the brand. So what do we make of the reborn 2014 Jeep Cherokee? This car is as revered by Jeep fans as the iconic Wrangler, and thus needs to meet certain expectations even as it appeals to the massive compact SUV market.

Before our venture into the mountains above Malibu, skepticism was high. The new Cherokee rides on a platform that it shares with the all-new Dodge Dart. How could a Jeep possibly earn trail-rated accolades on a car-based SUV?

When the Cherokee debuted at the 2013 New York Auto Show, reaction to styling could be categorized as controversial. As time has passed, however, opinions of the Cherokee’s revolutionary new appearance have warmed. We interviewed Jeep president Mike Manly earlier this summer, who explained, “We wanted a vehicle that will look relevant 10 years from now, not just today.”

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We started our test drive in the Cherokee Limited for the on-road portion of the trip and switched to the Cherokee Trailhawk for the off-road portion.

While the exterior styling of the Cherokee may take some getting used to, the interior is the most attractive and usable in a segment that features the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, and Toyota RAV4. The seven-inch TFT digital is customizable, and the available 8.4-inch touch screen features controls for the optional heated/cooled seats, navigation system, stereo, and various other functions.

Storage and helpful features are plentiful. The glove box is designed to hold a laptop and/or tablet while the top of the dash features an additional storage compartment. The center console has a media center with auxiliary audio jack and a USB jack that doubles as a charging port. There is even an SD card reader and available 110-volt power outlet in the rear.

The base engine for the Cherokee is a 2.4-liter inline-4, making 184 horsepower and 171 pound feet of torque. The real story is the available 3.2-liter V6. It is a smaller version of the award-winning Pentastar 3.6-liter unit, and makes 271 horsepower and 239 pound feet of torque. This engine is fascinating because it delivers strong output in smaller, lighter packaging. (Hint: Think: next-gen Wrangler.)

With either engine, power is sent to the front wheels through a segment-first nine-speed automatic transmission. Though I was skeptical of its attributes, the transmission’s added speeds allow the Cherokee to find a more optimal gear ratio both on and off the trail.

The base Cherokee Sport starts $22,295. The mid-range Latitude is $1,500 more, while the Limited starts at $27,995. These three models come standard as front-wheel-drive, but are available with Active Drive I and Active Drive II. Both of these systems are essentially a more robust form of a FWD-based AWD system, with the latter offering the capability of a two-speed power transfer system with low range.

Though our goal was to test the Cherokee’s trail credentials, the most surprising experience was the on-road drive into the mountains. The tight switchbacks are typically the stuff of severe body roll, but not so in the Cherokee. Moving from tight right handers to sweeping lefts, the compact SUV performed unexpectedly well.

At the head of the trail, a Cherokee Trailhawk awaited us. The Trailhawk is the only model to actually wear a Trail Rated badge, and at $29,495, it is an inch larger and features added body cladding, unique red tow hooks, and OWL all-terrain tires. It is backed by Active Drive Lock, a four-wheel-drive system with low range and a locking rear differential.

With both systems engaged, we set out on the trail. Surprisingly, the Trailhawk can dispense with the same obstacles as a Wrangler, though in an entirely different manner. Rather than using gearing to crawl, the descent control and crawl control are modulated by the throttle and brake to crawl at only several miles an hour. The driver need only take his or her foot off the pedal and tap the plus and minus buttons on the gearshift to increase and decrease the speed in 1-km/h increments.

Impressively, the Cherokee managed these obstacles well, though I suspect with all of the technology needed to allow the Cherokee to navigate such a course, the aftermarket craze around the Wrangler will not take hold with the Cherokee. Any modification could seriously impact the perfect formula that Jeep engineers have created with the Trailhawk.

In years past, the Cherokee used the same DNA as the Wrangler. This new car is very different. Not every Cherokee that leaves the Toledo, Ohio, plant will be trail rated, but every Cherokee will leave as an attractive, well-sorted compact SUV, that, unlike its competition, appears to have a personality.

2014 Jeep Cherokee (Limited and Trailhawk)

THE BASICS

Price: $25,495. As tested: $29,495. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 19-22/26-31, depending on model. Drivetrain: 2.4L I4, 3.2L V6, 9AT, front-wheel-drive, 4x4. Body: mid-size SUV.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 184 (I4), 271 (V6). Overall length: 182 in. Wheelbase 106.3 in. Height: 66.2–67.8 in. Width: 73.2–74.9 in. Curb weight: 3,775–4,106 lbs.

THE GOOD

Looks far better in person. Superb driving manners, best interior in segment.

THE BAD

Must option up for Trail Rated capability.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A true Jeep for the 21st century.

ALSO CONSIDER

Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape.