There are three sentences that, for this reviewer, define what needs to be conveyed about the 2014 Jeep Cherokee. The first: it is very good.
Jeep spent 27 years building the Cherokee and its brand, from 1974 to 2001. Twelve years ago, the Cherokee nameplate rolled away into the distant hills and retirement, at least here in the NAFTA colonies, and it was replaced by a loaded word we knew as "Liberty."
Now the Liberty is gone, mostly unmissed, replaced by the highly anticipated vehicle that both returns the Cherokee name to our North American lives and returns Jeep to the midsize crossover segment and its 1.7 million annual sales. Those expecting something more conventional have
Which brings us to the next two lines you should know about Jeep's new mid-sizer: the Jeep Cherokee is dead. Long live the Jeep Cherokee.
First, let's think about how we got here. The Liberty had almost nothing to do with The Mythological Archetype of the Cherokee, no matter that it was called "Cherokee" outside of the US. In an earlier time, seeing a dirty Cherokee was an auspicious sign of the day, like reading welcome news in a pile of steaming goat entrails. Seeing a dirty Liberty was an indicator that the driver had made a wrong turn or gone to the park for a picnic.
Truth be told, though, by the end of its run, even the last Cherokee model, the XJ, wasn't The Mythological Archetype of the Cherokee, viewed by a fair few of the Jeep faithful as the weakening of the brand.
The 2014 Cherokee actually does what the Liberty was meant to do.
Enter the Liberty and its Benjamin Button evolution: when it arrived in 2002, it was curvy inside and out – at least by Jeep standards – and had those round headlights that, in spite of the brand's round-headlamp heritage, only reminded you how far away from it the Liberty was. Ten years later, when the Liberty was writing its last will and testament and preparing to cross the Styx, its exterior and interior design had been backdated 15 years to the aesthetic known as "Jeep Brick."
Yet no matter what it was called, the Liberty didn't really replace the Cherokee, it intended to set a new course for Jeep in that segment. The name change, though, allowed Cherokee lovers to keep the torches burning, chanting dirges while waiting for the Liberty to die and The Myth to return. Well, now it's official: that truck is dead, and so is the era that created it. Jeep would probably rather we didn't say this, but the 2014 Cherokee actually does what the Liberty was meant to do: combine Jeep off-road capability with a fine interior without the punishing twin tariffs of crude on-road manners and poor fuel economy.
When it comes to every aspect of the 2014 Cherokee save for its face, we'll start by saying, "It's not like you weren't warned..." When Fiat presented its five-year plan in November, 2009 – Allpar has an in-depth piece on it – we were told that vehicles on Fiat platforms would have Jeep DNA like the seven-slot grille, "short overhang, trapezoid wheel-arches, functional interior ... visibility, durable materials, handling in bad weather, advanced four-wheel drive and towing capacity." The plan was "to re-establish the brand with a new look, feel and attitude," focusing on on-road manners, fuel efficiency and adding content for its "largest group of owners," the "Dreamers" around the world busy with life's typical obligations who want "authentic gear for the time they'll be able to 'do more and dream less.'" This was to be done without gutting off-road ability.
The new Cherokee is one of those vehicles, and the originality of that philosophy is most quickly and pointedly expressed in its face.
The designers can tie almost every area of the new Cherokee ... to something important to Jeep.
The designers can tie almost every area of the new Cherokee and many of its details to something important to Jeep. In fact, the repeated references to brand cues, especially the Jeep Willys, was almost a case of 'Thou doth effuse too much;' the way the lower line of the front window dips away from the front mirror is said to be reminiscent of the half-doors on the Wrangler (yes, you need to look really close), the brightwork around the UConnect screen and vents in the center console is meant to evoke the grille-and-headlight graphic face of the Willys (yes, you need to use your imagination), Willys icons are used to illustrate the parking assist feature in the gauge cluster (ok, that's neat), the obligatory trapezoidal wheel arches are echoed in the stitching atop the instrument panel (neat, and good looking), there's a Willys-on-a-hill graphic on the lower windscreen (ok, we get it), and each hook on the Jeep Cargo Management System features the Willys face (had enough?). Oh, and there's a map of the Hell's Revenge trail from Moab, Utah molded into the interior plastic (it's an Easter egg you'll have to find yourself).
But that one-piece "waterfall" hood? It's a riff on the creased grilles of the original SJ Cherokees from the mid-1970s. Mark Allen, head of Jeep design, said the team had a sketch of the front end that they liked and they realized they could pull it off if they played around with the position of the lights. That's how you get a front end with deep, acutely beveled edges most notable for the LED daytime running lamps at the top and a pair of projector main beams located almost entirely below the line of the grille.
How much of the rancor is because people don't like it, and how much of it is that people don't like that it's a Cherokee?
Who knows – if they had put big, round headlamps on either side of that hood or not called the vehicle "Cherokee," they might have stifled some of the howling the look has caused. How much of the rancor is because people don't like it, and how much of it is that people don't like that it's a Cherokee? But Allen said that not only did they need to do something different, they needed to do something that they could develop, and "Not calling it 'Cherokee' is just avoiding the issue."
Designers also had to do something that was more efficient than "Jeep Brick," with the cudgel of Corporate Average Fuel Economy mandates menacing the industry and one of the pillars of 'new' Jeep being fuel efficiency. Said Allen, "The previous, blocky Cherokee was so aerodynamically inefficient, it would be wrong to do it."
We'll admit to being spooked by the looks when images leaked. But our own experience matched the results of an informal and thoroughly unscientific survey we conducted among a few scribes at the launch: it grows on you. Having spent a day with it, we're fine with it and now think it looks like a full-sized version of some Hot Wheels diecast. We think you'll get a chance to get used to it, too. Why? Because our informal and thoroughly unscientific opinion is they're going to sell tons of them. Why? Because it is very good.
Step away from the front and there's a handsome, if unadventurous, vehicle in which one might find cues from all kinds of other vehicles – we even heard the Subaru Tribeca come up in a discussion of the rear end. The "spline line" that wraps around the Cherokee, interrupted only by the wheel arches, separates the "sleek" bits up top like the fast windshield and punchy spoiler hanging out over the rear glass in back, from the functional, spare bits on the bottom. Character lines break up the expanse of the sides, the rear LED taillights separating the upper and lower portions of the back view.
Qualifications aren't needed when it comes to the Cherokee's interior.
Qualifications aren't needed when it comes to the Cherokee's interior. In ten hours of driving we neither found nor stumbled upon a single item that made us think, "Oh. This is cheap." It was usually the opposite. Interior designer Klaus Busse said "We didn't look at the Liberty when we did the Cherokee, we looked at the big brother, the Grand Cherokee, and asked 'how can we get that into a smaller, more affordable package?' Except for the leather-wrapped instrument panel and the Alcantara headliner, everything else [from the Grand Cherokee] you can get in the Cherokee. It's either the same material or from the same family of materials."
It is pleasing and harmonious in design and covering. The vinyl and plastics are soft to the touch. The steering wheel on the volume-seller Latitude model we drove was thick and leather-wrapped. The door-pulls are plastic with a metal finish, but they have the heft and feel – down to their temperature – of actual metal. Behind the new three-spoke steering wheel on the Limited model is a seven-inch screen featuring a customizable gauge cluster. The color schemes that define contrasting colors and cross-stitching were inspired by cities and geography like Morocco, Iceland, Mt. Vesuvius and Kilimanjaro. Cloth seating is usually an area where the best you can say is, "Hey, they did their best – it's cloth, after all." Not so in the Cherokee. The type of fabric used was inspired by the thick outer coverings worn by Scandinavians. The Icelandic-themed material in our Latitude was laid over firm foam, the intermingled black and light gray panels set off by silver cross-stitching atop the buck of a sport seat. They were comfortable all day.
One of the design goals Jeep adhered to with the interior was maximizing storage, and it seems there's a pocket carved into every space not being used for something else. Not having a CD player in the dash enabled the cubby atop the instrument panel. Vertical mounting of the climate control unit meant they could make a deep glovebox. There's a tiny pocket in the door armrest just ahead of the window controls. In front of the center armrest is a depression for holding something shaped unlike any object we've ever seen. The passenger bolster lifts to reveal a receptacle built into the seat form. Many of the pockets have tabbed rubber inserts that can easily be pulled out and cleaned. This is a vehicle made for gatherers and human squirrels.
It seems there's a pocket carved into every space not being used for something else.
With the driver's seat set for our five-foot, eleven-inch frame, our knees had room to swing when we sat in the back. A gripe? We could say that while it feels fine in the hand, we're not fans of the look of the gearshift lever. That's a long way to go when hunting for a manufactured grudge, though.
The standard engine will be the 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir 2 four-cylinder with 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet. It's EPA rated at 22 city, 31 highway and 25 combined miles per gallon on 4x2 models, which will get you "nearly 500 miles" on a single tank on the highway. That puts it right in with the competition, the Ford Escape SE with its 2.5-liter Duratec four-cylinder putting out 168 hp and 170 lb-ft, returning fuel economy of 22 city, 31 highway and 25 mpg. The Honda CR-V with its 185-hp, 2.4-liter engine gets 23 city, 31 highway and 26 combined mpg.
The optional engine will be the first application of the 3.2-liter Pentastar V6 with 271 hp and 239 lb-ft. It is EPA rated at 19 city, 28 highway and 22 combined for the 4x2 models. Back to the competition, the Ford Escape with its 2.0-liter EcoBoost that makes 240 hp and 270 lb-ft gets 22 city, 30 highway and 25 combined mpg.
Fuel economy is a beneficiary of the design of the three 4x4 systems available on the Cherokee.
That fuel economy is a beneficiary of the design of the three 4x4 systems available on the Cherokee: Active Drive I, Active Drive II and Active Drive Lock. The first two are available as options on the base Sport, volume Latitude and luxury-oriented Limited models, while the last is standard fitment on the Trailhawk model. They all feature an automatic rear-axle disconnect to eliminate parasitic losses from the driveline when four-wheel drive isn't needed; not even the driveshaft turns when in two-wheel-drive mode, a shift collar at its head controlling when it's in use.
Active Drive I uses a single Power Transfer Unit (PTU) to get power to the Rear Differential Module, Active Drive II adds another PTU to enable a 2.91:1 low-range gear reduction for both axles and adds about an inch of suspension lift. Crawl ratios are different depending on the engine, a 56:1 ratio available with the 2.4-liter, a 47.8:1 ratio coming with the 3.2-liter V6. The Active Drive Lock on the Trailhawk adds a locking rear differential.
Torsional rigidity is 14,800 foot-pounds per degree, a 36-percent increase over the Liberty.
The Cherokee's body structure is composed of 65-percent high-strength steel. Torsional rigidity is 14,800 foot-pounds per degree, a 36-percent increase over the Liberty. The suspension is independent MacPherson struts up front, a four-link setup in the rear. There's no trickery, no whiz-bang electrical aids, just good geometry, and components and isolation in the rear where the rear drive unit is isolated inside a cradle, that cradle further isolated from the body. Front articulation is 6.7 inches, rear articulation is 7.8 inches.
When crossovers first arrived all those many moons ago, their name was only meant as an indication of their unibody, car-like construction. The promise attached to them by marketers was that they drove more like cars, but it was more truthful to say they drove less like body-on-frame trucks.
That was then. There are finally a few current crossovers, the Cherokee among them, that fulfill the first, idealized promise: it really does drive like a car. It sits on the same Compact US Wide platform as the Dodge Dart, and the architecture has given up nothing in the composure department when going from sedan to on- and off-roader.
The ZF-sourced nine-speed transmission, the one that has been giving Chrysler engineers fits, aids the effort. Unless you're hard on the throttle, shifts are imperceptible – it wasn't until we started pretending the Cherokee was a Porsche 911 that we could get it swapping cogs in places we might not have chosen.
An interesting feature of the transmission is Electronic Range Select.
An interesting feature of the transmission is Electronic Range Select. Unlike so many other gearboxes on the market, you can't choose any gear for the nine-speed to be in; what you do is tell the transmission the range of gears it has available to it, and it will choose the best gear for the current driving situation and fuel economy. It's for situations like towing, for instance, when you're headed up a grade and you know you don't want the transmission to shift above fourth gear. When you move the gear selector over to its 'manual' position and choose fourth, the transmission doesn't take that gear – it will use any gear from first to fourth, and go no higher.
Those four-wheel drive systems also add to the Cherokee's at-speed manners, managing torque apportionment automatically and at any speed and working to maintain a torque split of 40/60 front-to-rear when in Sport mode.
We drove the 3.2-liter V6, throwing it into every one of the numerous corners found in the canyons Malibu is known for. The revelation was that we did not have to forgive anything about its performance because it's a Jeep – we didn't have to think about driving a crossover, we only had to think about driving and finding a good line. The electronic power steering system provided realistic, simulated loading, and the 225/65 R17 Firehawk Destination tires were grippy, supple and quiet under all but the worst manhandling. Understeer wasn't a factor until you jettisoned all good sense with the throttle and braking points. The thing didn't sway and spend half the corner getting set up for the turn, and even late and mid-corner corrections didn't throw it off. We put it into Sport mode, thought about it like a car and pushed to its limits like a car – say a mid-$20K sedan with unexpectedly spirited abilities – and that's exactly how it performed.
Even with all that, it's not a Jeep until it proves itself off-road. Our minders had prepared a loop in the hot, dusty and scorpion-infested hills of Canyon Ranch to test the tougher and more purposeful-looking Trailhawk model. The three non-Trail Rated Cherokee trims get four modes for their Selec-Terrain traction control systems: Auto, Snow, Sport and Sand/Mud. Our only question about the setup is why Snow comes before Sport on the dial, when it seems the latter will get much more use. The rear diff-lock on the Trailhawk graces it with a fifth mode: Rock. Its larger 245/65 R17 Firehawk Destination tires also give it another inch of lift over the other trims, for about two inches of total ride height increase, and exclusive front and rear fascias increase approach, breakover and departure angles compared to the other models. Lastly, towhooks front and rear can get you out of trouble when you've pushed everything else further than it was meant to go.
Will it do more off-road than anything we can think of in its competitive set? Yes.
As we've written about these kinds of interludes before, the couple of hours we spent getting dusty was an exercise in finding out how much a particular vehicle can do even though almost all of its owners won't ever do it. Not willingly, at least. But still, it's there for the one time they need it. Will it do more off-road than anything we can think of in its competitive set? Yes. (That answer might only be different if the Land Rover LR2 didn't start at $37,295.) Is it a Jeep? Yes. Is it a Jeep Wrangler? No – and there's no need for it to be, because Jeep already has the Wrangler. Remember, the Cherokee is designed for "Dreamers," and even the bit of off-roading we did would be a bad dream for most of them. If you know what you're doing, then you can go a lot of places with the new Cherokee. And if you're an expert at going off-road, then... perhaps Jeep can interest you in a Wrangler...
The major new feature is Selec-Speed Control, activated by pressing a button within the Selec-Terrain controller. It will keep the Cherokee moving at a base speed of 0.6 miles per hour, increasing that by 0.6-mph increments at the driver's request through nine speeds, up to 5.5 mph. There was a bit of confusion at first, because just above the button for Selec-Speed Control is the button for Hill Descent Control (HDC), which does partly the same thing and can be set in 0.6 mph increments. But whereas HDC uses the ESC system, engine torque and brake pressure to maintain a set speed on downhills and has only five speeds, Selec-Speed Control is essentially cruise control when off-roading, and it works no matter the incline, decline or obstacle and has nine speeds.
We've been at this for roughly 3,000 words and we still haven't gotten to the 4,500-pound towing capacity with the 3.2-liter V6, the ten airbags and 70-plus safety features, the brand-new Parallel/Perpendicular Park Assist System, the Adaptive Cruise Control-Plus that can run the Cherokee in stop-and-go traffic, the Forward Collision Warning-Plus, and LaneSense Lane Departure Warning-Plus, 911 assist call, Blind-spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Path detection.
It might not be the Cherokee you were looking for, but hey - the Cherokee is dead. Long live the Cherokee.
We've got this far without mentioning the words "Dana," "locking front differential" or "transfer cases." We used the phrase "solid front axles" only as a joke. And yet we've been talking about a Jeep Cherokee – and an excellent one, at that. It might not be the Cherokee you were looking for, but hey – the Cherokee is dead. Long live the Cherokee.
We will not be surprised at all, however, if it's the Cherokee that a lot of people – that global audience Jeep wants to lure again – are looking for. The 2014 Jeep Cherokee is, after all, very good.