Driving the Jeep Cherokee of today is nothing like driving the Jeep Cherokee of old. Let’s get that out of the way right off the bat.
Though it had been 12 years since Jeep sold a Cherokee in the United States, the now-defunct Jeep Liberty that followed the original Cherokee carried on many of its traits, good and bad. It was unmistakably a Jeep, trucklike and capable off-road, but somewhat spartan inside and not a vehicle most folks would consider refined.
And while nostalgia is great, sometimes it’s best to let the past live in the past. Take Star Wars or Indiana Jones, for example. The first three movies still hold up great, just like the boxy design of the first Jeep Cherokee. But monkeying with the originals and trying to create new films using leftover parts hasn’t been received quite so well.
Perhaps George Lucas could take a lesson from Sergio Marchionne.
PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to see more photos from the test drive
Whereas the film director keeps warming over the old, the chief executive officer of Chrysler Group LLC started from scratch with the new Jeep Cherokee.
What he created is an Italian wolf in Jeep’s clothing.
Though the Cherokee retains decent ground clearance, this Jeep sneaks up on curves and gobbles them right up. Riding on the same Fiat-designed platform as the Dodge Dart, there’s little to no body roll as the Cherokee digs in and tracks well through sweeping corners.
The steering is tight and direct, and despite that the Cherokee still weighs a somewhat portly 3,800 pounds, it feels light and eager. It’s fun to toss around, and you don’t feel as if you’re imminently close to ending up rump over teakettle in a ditch, wishing you had one of those “If you can read this, roll me over” decals.
In a word, the Cherokee is carlike.
That may anger hardcore Jeepers, who feel as if the brand has turned its back on its heritage and abandoned its base. But Jeep executives know that those people, vocal as they are, represent a tiny slice of the market. And Chrysler needs this Jeep to have broad appeal to compete with the likes of the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4.
We drove a front-wheel drive Latitude model in Brilliant Black Crystal Pearl Coat paired with black and “morocco” interior. The Latitude is the middle trim level, with a base price of $24,495.
All Jeep Cherokees are built in Toledo.
Our Jeep was equipped with two options — the 8.4-inch Uconnect infotainment system and the 3.2-liter V-6 engine. That pushed the total sticker price to $27,680.
Inside, the Cherokee benefits from Chrysler’s campaign to rid the world of hard, ugly plastics. Most surfaces the driver or passengers will touch are soft, and the interior borrows heavily from the Cherokee’s big brother, the brand’s flagship Grand Cherokee. That gives it a bit of an upscale feel.
The cloth seats in the Latitude are supportive — a little too firm, but comfortable.
Buyers can option up all sorts of safety and technology features, including rear-view camera, blind-spot warning systems, adaptive cruise control, and self-parking.
Though our Cherokee didn’t have those features, it still had plenty of ways to plug in. The Uconnect will interface with your smart phone, and the center console has places to plug in a USB cable, auxiliary cable, and SD memory card.
This is a Jeep that puts just as much emphasis on keeping you plugging in as it does helping you go off the grid.
However, without the optional $2,000 comfort and convenience package, the Cherokee’s climate control resets each time the vehicle is turned off. While the temperature can be set via the touch screen or buttons below it, it’s a pain to have to reset it every time you hop back into the car, especially during a cold northwest Ohio winter.
There’s also a sort of faux-woodgrain insert underneath all four door armrests. It’s not ugly, but it doesn’t match anything else in the interior and looks out of place.
Room for people
The Jeep feels roomy. We stuck a 6-foot, 6-inch guy in the driver’s seat. He fit but visibility wasn’t ideal. Still, he guessed someone a couple inches shorter wouldn’t have the same trouble.
The back seats are not quite as comfortable as the front, but two adults fit nicely. There are three seat-belts, but anything more than the shortest of trips sitting in the middle would be pushing it.
The back seats split 60-40 and fold flat for extra cargo space. Still, with seats up or down the Cherokee has less cargo space than some of its rivals, such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
Since the start, Jeep has promised good fuel economy out of the Cherokee, and it seems to have delivered.
On a 45-mile all-highway trip from Napoleon to downtown Toledo, running at speeds between 60 and 75 miles per hour, the Cherokee returned 29.9 miles per gallon, according to its on-board computer.
Over our entire drive with the Cherokee, we averaged 23.5 miles per gallon.
Both are slightly better than EPA estimates for the V-6 model and approach the ratings the government gave for the four-cylinder.
We’d be interested to see what the four-cylinder gets, but if the six can return that good of mileage while giving a lot more power, the extra $1,500 seems well spent.
9 speeds ... they say
Now, about that transmission.
The Cherokee is the first Chrysler Group vehicle to get a new nine-speed transmission.
That gives the vehicle a leg — gear? — up on the competition, but the complexities of installing it in the Jeep contributed to fairly significant delays in getting the vehicle to market.
Officials say they’ve got it all sorted out and the transmission is working as designed.
However, we never did see ninth gear, even on flat, smooth highways at speeds in excess of 75 mph.
Given all the concerns and extra scrutiny of the transmission, we asked Chrysler for an explanation.
Mark Champine, Chrysler’s director of transmission and driveline platforms, said everything from speed to grade to wind conditions and road friction factor into what gear the transmission chooses. He also said Chrysler doesn’t want the transmission endlessly switching between eighth and ninth trying to find the right gear.
“We’ve calibrated it such that you’re only going to be in ninth gear when you can hold that gear,” he said. “That operating window may be small, but it does exist.”
Still, if the Cherokee doesn’t find top gear cutting across Ohio’s flat farmlands, it makes you wonder if it ever will.
Also, a couple times it seemed as if the transmission should have shifted to a higher gear before it did. Accelerating in cruise control from 70 to 75 dropped the transmission down from eighth to seventh. But once it reached 75, the Cherokee was stubbornly stuck in seventh at about 2000 RPM.
In spite of that, the fuel economy numbers didn’t seem to suffer. And as Mr. Champine said, the gear itself doesn't really matter. What matters is that the engine is operating as efficiently as possible.
The Cherokee runs smoothly and quietly, and with the 271-horsepower V-6, it has no shortage of passing power on the highway. A six-cylinder option is a bit of a rarity in this segment, but it fits the Cherokee well.
No doubt, the exterior styling of the Jeep is different. The front end, particularly, is divisive. However, the general consensus from people who talked to The Blade has been that it looks better in person than it does in photos.
Part of it may be just getting over the shock of seeing something so different from a brand that has had such a clear styling direction.
There’s not much out there to compare to the Cherokee’s styling. Its front end falls somewhere between the luxury Land Rover Evoque and the compact Nissan Juke. The Cherokee doesn’t look quite quite as upscale and traditional as the Land Rover, but it certainly isn’t as cute and weird as the Nissan.
Jeep’s designers kept the brand’s seven-slot grille for the Cherokee, but they re-envisioned it by sweeping the top third over the leading edge of the hood. The bottom two-thirds of the seven-grille slots are functional as air passes through the honeycomb-shaped cutouts.
But it’s not functional on the top third, the part that’s most easily seen. That makes it look somewhat like a tacked-on plastic afterthought.
Besides that, the most questionable styling choice may be the back end. It looks as if there should be something else — a badge, a lift handle, the license plate, something — between the rear window and the bumper.
Another complaint we had was that condensation developed inside the headlamps while we were driving the vehicle. Though we’d not expect to see that much in a brand new vehicle, it was damp and rainy while we drove it.
For those who are looking for more luxury or off-road capabilities, Jeep is happy to oblige.
The Cherokee also comes in a Limited trim and in a Trailhawk trim, which sets up the Jeep for life beyond the pavement.
In the Cherokee, Jeep hasn’t just revived a name from its past with a new sport utility vehicle, it has redefined it.
The company set out to build a vehicle that would have broad appeal and compete in the heart of the market, and it seems to have hit the mark.
Its success now depends on how well it attracts those consumers.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at email@example.com or 419-724-6134.