First Drive

2019 Jeep Cherokee First Drive Review | Still the most truck-like crossover SUV

The Trailhawk is incredibly capable, too

  • Image Credit: Jeep
  • Engine
    2.4L I4 / Turbo 2.0L I4 / 3.2L V6
  • Power
    (2.4) 180 HP / 171 LB-FT (2.0) 270 HP / 295 LB-FT (3.2) 271 HP / 239 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    9-Speed Automatic
  • Drivetrain
    FWD or 4WD
  • Curb Weight
    3,655-4,108 LBS
  • Towing
    2,000-4,500 LBS
  • Seating
  • Cargo
    25.8 CU FT (rear seats up) 54.9 CU FT (rear seats down)
  • MPG
    (3.2) 18-20 City / 24-29 Hwy
  • Base Price
The history of the SUV has been one of ever-increasing refinement, and that arc bends towards carlike forms. It's a trend that even the hardiest of nameplates has succumbed to, including the venerable Cherokee, which for 2014, moved from the solid-axle brick of yore to the shark-nosed, independently suspended crossover of modern-day. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing. We found it to be quite a competitive machine at the time, and one that was plenty capable.

But time marches on, and five model years later, Jeep has updated the Cherokee. The polarizing shark nose has been toned down, with all the headlight elements integrated into single units on either side. The hatchback has been revised and now sports a cutout for the license plate. Besides improving the looks at the back, Jeep says it allowed them to expand the rear cargo area to 25.8 cubic feet, an increase of 1.2 cubes, because moving the license plate space allowed them to pull the latch assembly farther out. It should be noted, though, that the Cherokee still doesn't have as much cargo capacity as the new 27.2-cubic-foot Compass.

Besides the cosmetic changes, the new Cherokee gets a new engine, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder good for 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque that shares commonality with the Jeep Wrangler and Alfa Romeo Giulia engines. However, it lacks the mild hybrid technology of the Wrangler because of space issues, and it has a cylinder head with two camshafts rather than the Alfa's single-overhead cam design.

In addition to the new 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, the Cherokee's old naturally aspirated engines, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder (180 hp, 170 lb-ft) and a 3.2-liter V6 (271 hp, 239 lb-ft), carryover unchanged except for the addition of standard engine start-stop functionality. The question is, can mild changes to the Cherokee keep it competitive in a segment where several rivals have been completely redesigned?

In terms of capability, the answer is a resounding, "yes," particularly for the Trailhawk, which in turbocharged guise, has even shorter gearing for its low-range four-wheel-drive setting than before at 51.2:1. Like the previous model, the Trailhawk includes different front and rear bumpers for improved clearance and approach and departure angles. It features a set of skid plates and gets a steel oil pan for protection from obstacles, and the rear axle can be locked for additional traction. It also gets a complement of off-road assists such as hill descent control, and an off-road low-speed cruise control setting similar to Toyota's Crawl Control.

That hardware allowed the Cherokee Trailhawk to master a selection of obstacles that, yes, were designed by the folks at Jeep, but were still a few steps above plain dirt roads and trails. They included a rugged rock garden in which the Cherokee scrabbled across without any need for pedal input. It tilted and tipped along articulation sections and managed to maintain traction, and eased itself down steep dirt roads. Simply put, in Trailhawk configuration, the Cherokee is a solid on-road vehicle that can also get you far away from civilization. If you need to go further than a Trailhawk can take you, there's always the Wrangler.

And if you don't need all of the Trailhawk's goodies but want some extra traction in slick conditions, it's still possible to equip lesser Cherokees with four-wheel-drive and low-range, and there's a single-speed four-wheel-drive system if you're looking just for added traction in inclement weather or on dusty paths. And of course plain front-drive versions are available for those who really just want the Jeep looks and value a few extra miles per gallon over 4x4 traction.

That the Cherokee is a segment champion off-road is nothing new. The same could be said about last year's version, and although Jeep didn't provide a Trailhawk to drive on pavement, we would suspect it will continue to be a little rougher and noisier than the rest of the Cherokee lineup that was on-hand for on-road driving.

We got a chance to sample 2.4-, 3.2- and new 2.0-liter models, and in short, the Cherokee remains competitive in some aspects on the road, but has issues in others largely due to the fact that even the less-dedicated trim levels are more capable than other crossovers.

Let's start with the good: It's an impressively quiet machine. Road, tire and wind noise are all barely noticeable. The ride does a nice job soaking up bumps and you don't hear the bumps much, either. Hit a bump in the road, and the Cherokee takes a while to settle down, due in part to the Cherokee's weight, which hovers right around two tons depending on spec.

Curves start to throw off the Cherokee, as do situations in which acceleration demands are frequent and heavy. The steering, though weighted decently, is numb and lacks precision. It isn't particularly quick, either, and turn-in isn't eager. There's moderate body roll, too, but the Cherokee does manage to stick pretty well and for longer than you would expect. These characteristics are noteworthy because most of the Cherokee's on-road-oriented competitors (including the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape that Jeep provided as points of comparison during the press launch), have far more responsive handling, sharper steering and yield a more car-like experience. Of course, fans of traditional SUVs and more serious multi-terrain capabilities may forgive the Cherokee's on-road foibles.

(You can see how the Cherokee compares to the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Ford Escape and other competitors here. You can also check specs and compare the Cherokee to any other SUV using our car comparison tools.

2019 Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk

While all three engines are quiet at cruising speeds, they become fairly loud when accelerating hard and holding high RPM, which can get tiresome. It's worst in the sluggish 2.4-liter version, and best with the throaty 3.2-liter V6, which actually sounds good at full throttle and only gets annoying with sustained revs. The new turbo engine falls between the two, but scores points thanks to its ample, accessible torque that can push you back into your seat in a very satisfying way.

Unfortunately, the nine-speed auto's sluggish shifting continues to be a problem. It's reluctant to downshift, especially on hills, and although Sport mode rectifies this to some extent, there are always issues picking a gear. Pairing it with the new turbo-4 doesn't help things, either. When acceleration is demanded, it kicks down at least one gear too many, resulting in a violent punch in the back as short gearing and lots of boost arrive simultaneously. The V6's smooth character seems to fit the nine-speed the best, but really, an entirely different transmission is the answer.

As for towing, the new 2.0-liter can handle a stout 4,000 pounds when equipped with a tow package, while the V6 picks up an extra 500 pounds over that. Most competitors are in the 1,500-2,000-pound range, as is the 2.4-liter Cherokee. Here is certainly another area in which the Jeep's truck-like capability shines through.

Fuel economy numbers for the four-cylinder engines weren't available, but the EPA says the V6 ranges from 21 to 23 mpg in combined driving depending on drivetrain. Given the addition of automatic stop-start, the 2.4-liter might get a small bump from 2018's 23-25-mpg combined range, but we'd seriously doubt it'll result in challenging its 27- or 29-mpg competitors.

2019 Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk

Unlike the exterior, the interior remains largely unchanged. That's just fine, as it remains a bright spot despite having less passenger and cargo space than its competitors. The reason is its superior ergonomics, which are aided by the latest versions of Jeep/Chrysler's UConnect touchscreen entertainment system. Regardless of screen size, either 7- or 8.4-inches, you get a high-resolution, highly responsive touchscreen that's easy to use and thankfully has dedicated shortcut buttons at the bottom of the screen no matter what function you're using. We would recommend springing for the bigger screen, though, since some of the touch functions on the 7-inch screen can be crowded and small.

In the end, our time with the Cherokee proved that it's still competitive, offering comfortable and quiet cruising, strong engines, and available off-road ability that's unmatched. But we'd only say it's competitive, not class-leading, in most areas. Its old-school, truck-like tendencies in handling, fuel economy and interior space hurt it when compared to more civilized compact crossovers. But, if you're looking for something that feels closer to bigger, burlier SUVs and trucks rather than something that's more akin to a tall hatchback, the Cherokee's rough edges could be considered an advantage. It just depends on how much capability you need.

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