Jeep is the reason Chrysler bought American Motors back in the 1970s. It's the main reason Daimler-Benz bought Chrysler in 1989. It's one of the major reasons Cerberus Capital bought Chrysler in 2007. And it's perhaps the biggest reason Fiat acquired Chrysler in 2009.
Why? Because of the brands under Chrysler's roof -- Chrysler-Dodge, Ram and Jeep -- only Jeep has a legitimate future as a true global brand, a profit-maker on every continent. The brand has fans -- passionate, animated and sometimes even ornery -- as well as customers and epic brand recognition in North America, South America, Europe, India, the Middle East and China. Everyone the world over knows the Jeep Wrangler, which descends from the Jeep Willys Army vehicle.
This discussion of Jeep, a brand that sold over 700,000 vehicles worldwide last year, brings us to the 2014 Jeep Cherokee. For reasons beyond knowing, DaimlerChrysler killed not only the Cherokee 4x4 in 2001, but the name too; that, despite the fact that Cherokee was a beloved nameplate, having done as much as the minivan to kill off the American station-wagon category. It replaced it with the Jeep Liberty in North America, while it kept the Cherokee name in every other market. Seriously, for all the acumen German car executives have when it comes to bringing us breathtaking, heart-stopping, hair-tingling automotive porn, they couldn't find their own rear-ends when it came to managing Jeep, or Chrysler as a whole.
The Liberty was boxy and had egress problems through every door, plus an overly plastic interior that made me think I was inside the Tupperware display at Target. The only vehicle that made the Liberty look good was the hapless Dodge Nitro, built on the same platform, but with even less thought and attention to quality than the Liberty.
The revival of the Cherokee, built at Jeep's sprawling assembly complex in Toledo, Ohio, has been designed atop a Fiat-derived front-drive engineering platform that is also the basis of the Dodge Dart. But before you cry "Wuss!," and write off the Cherokee as an Italian wimp-mobile, consider that it has a trim-level that is trail-rated to go up and down the most challenging off-road tracks previously tackled by Jeep Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. Why not, there are Alps in Italy, so it's not like the Italians don't get the whole off-roading thing.
I put the all new Cherokee through its paces in Southern California on road and off, and here is the verdict.
Sticker price: $23,990 base price for Sport up to $29,990 base price for Trailhawk.
Invoice price: NA
Engine: 2.4 liter Multi-Air Tigershark inline-four-cylinder; 3.2 Pentastar V6
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Performance: 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque for the i4;
Fuel economy: 24/31/27 estimated for the i4.
Cargo: 24.8 cubic feet when the back seat is in use.
Exterior DesignFans of the old Cherokee will be shocked, saddened or at least surprised at the lack of boxiness anywhere on this 21st century Jeep. Indeed, to the chagrin of Cherokee's designer, I commented to him that its profile looks like it could come out of Mazda or Nissan's studios. Indeed, but for the seven-slot grille, I wouldn't be able to pick it out of a lineup from fifty yards out.
But perhaps the biggest driver of the generic look aft of the windshield is fuel economy. All those undulating lines create great aerodynamics and cut down on wind drag. It's one ingredient in the 45-percent improvement in fuel economy from the Liberty to the new Cherokee. And forget boxy front ends from anyone in future due to pedestrian safety regulations, as well as fuel economy.
One feature that's received a lot of commentary and bloviation from critics since the first pictures of the Cherokee broke last February is the crease in the grille. Really? Those who rend their garments over that one need to find a Groupon for a new life. It's hardly a deal breaker.
If the Cherokee's profile is a bit generic, it is good generic, like a well-tailored blue blazer.
Interior DesignFor those who haven't tested or at least climbed through a Chrysler, Jeep or Dodge in the last three years, you have missed the fact that the company's interiors in the hands of American and Italian designers quickly became first-rate and top of the industry as soon as penny-pinching Daimler-Benz, the soul-killing private equity hounds from Cerberus and a certain former General Electric executive all grabbed the last trains out of Detroit.
The top of the trim lines -- The Limited and Trailhawk -- with leather, the eight-inch infotainment/nav screen, will cost you somewhere between $30,000 and $37,000 depending on how many feature boxes you check, and including destination charges. But considering the average vehicle today transacts for around $31,000, this well-above average job feels and looks like a value and is competitively priced against less rugged rivals like Honda CR-V and Ford Escape.
Soft-touch surfaces abound. Fashionable French-stitching holds the dash-covering together. This is an interior for the modern day commuter who wants four-wheel-drive, comfort, class and a bit of brand pride that comes from Jeep.
Passenger And Cargo SpaceThere is seating for five. My 5'11'' stout frame felt perfectly comfortable in both the driver and passenger seats. Move to the backseat and it was all good there too, especially since the rear seats move fore and aft.
We found a lot of well-thought out storage -- hidden cubby under the passenger front seat, door pockets, map pockets, a spot for a cell phone next to the USB port at the base of the center stack. The Cherokee comes with an optional cable-less charging pad for phones for the center console, which we like a lot. The rear storage area includes hooks to hang plastic bags. The second-row of seats folds neatly flat to open things up for gear and those bags or recyclables.
Driving DynamicsThe base-model Cherokee is powered by Chrysler's 2.4-liter MultiAir2 TigerShark I-4 -- an engine developed by Fiat -- that creates 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. This engine at times, felt a smidge short of the job of moving the Cherokee around twisty roads of the canyons outside Los Angeles. But I could gladly live with it for the added fuel economy, which is 31 mpg on highway.
The 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6 engine felt like a more natural fit -- 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque. But don't write off the four-banger by any stretch. The four-cylinder is an excellent hamburger -- the Pentastar V6 adds bacon, and who doesn't like bacon?
We worried the new nine-speed transmission would wander as we accelerated, but it performed perfectly on twisty roads with plenty of hills as well as highway driving. Electric power steering performed flawlessly with just the right amount of feedback. The Cherokee has a front independent suspension combined with a rear multi-link suspension. What does that mean for you? A Jeep that rolls great on the highway, and makes easy work of dirt rutted roads we tested.
There are three four-wheel-drive set-ups. Active Drive 1 -- available on Sport, Latitude and Limited trim levels -- works like a typical all-wheel drive system, such as what Subaru offers, employing the rear wheels to help drive the Cherokee episodically and as the sensors deem necessary for optimal traction, such as under snowy or wet road conditions. In other words, the front-wheels are driving the car most of the time, and that's just fine, and the rear wheels help when you are driving through slop. Active II -- available on the same three trim levels -- adds the ability to vary the torque from front to back and includes a low range that locks the front and rear together to for maximum traction -- sand, mud, etc. Active Dry-Lock is what the weekend rock-crawlers want and need, adding a locking rear differential to the above options.
The Selec-Terrain system, available on all trims, provides a dial that allows the driver to select traction based on the actual road conditions -- auto (for general driving),snow, sport, sand-mud-rock. It's worth noting that while every trim level will tackle snow and the mud created on dirt roads with plenty of muscle, only the Trailhawk model is "Trail Rated" to tackle the Rubicon Trail.
Technology And InfotainmentThe center stack comes with either a 5-inch or 8.4-inch display screen to view the navigation map and operate some of the vehicle's controls. The smaller is standard, while the larger comes with added feature packages and the up trim levels. Pay up for the big screen if you can as it is worth it. The newest version of Chrysler's UConnect system -- an AOL favorite and winner of our 2012 Technology of the Year Award -- comes with an even better voice-command system than in the previous two years we have tested it. We like the new built-in Yelp app that tells you where just about anything is that you are looking for. We even asked it for the nearest taxidermy outfit in LA, and it gave it to us.
The Cherokee is the new standard in the mid-sized crossover segment. I can hear the folks at Ford, Toyota and GM saying that the Jeep is over-engineered for road-going travel. I disagree. The engineers and designers at Chrysler did what I thought was impossible -- turn an Italian-engineered, front-drive vehicle platform destined to be used for more than a half-dozen vehicles including the Dodge Dart, and make it a legitimate, rock-crawling, snow screwing son-of-a-gun Jeep. And they did it while providing a comfortable, attractive logical interior.
For mindful drivers who need to be prepared for an array of driving conditions brought about by their own recreational choices, weather, global warming or geography, there is great peace of mind knowing that the best tool in your box is the car you are driving. Welcome back Cherokee.