The Jeep Cherokee is a wolf learning to live in a field of sheep.
It’s an interesting approach to the compact crossover segment. One that illustrates why so many people buy Jeeps and how the brand has developed such a following over the years. A buyer might test drive three or four models before settling on their choice, many of which feel very similar to each other.
Not the Cherokee.
Spend a week with the recently redesigned crossover entry from Jeep and the picture of how different the Cherokee really is becomes very clear. Part of the difference stems from the fact that our off-road-ready Trailhawk model sat higher on beefy off-road tires and is clad in some heavy-duty plastic body protection. The Jeep also has a more rugged driving feel, thanks in part to those tires, but also because the brand starts developing the vehicle with a requirement that it be legitimately capable off road. It’s a philosophy that keeps people flocking back to Jeep, so let’s take a look at what that means to an everyday driver.
When Jeep brought back the Cherokee name for the 2014 model year, the new vehicle’s appearance was… controversial to say the least. In a departure from the boxy, utilitarian designs that dominated the Jeep lineup, the new Cherokee was curvy and modern. That model also had running lights mounted where headlights normally are and placed the headlights lower into the front fascia.
While the 2019 Cherokee retains many of the curves that were a signature of its predecessor, the new model’s front lighting has been shuffled back to a more conventional setup. Our Trailhawk test vehicle was clad in rugged black plastic bumper and body covers that are as functional as they are visually striking.
Jeep also redesigned the Cherokee’s backside by sharpening lines and adding striking LED taillights. The look here is very much like a scaled-down Grand Cherokee and it works. The new Cherokee is more sophisticated with a stronger and commanding visual presence than the version before it.
The Cherokee’s new optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is so good that there’s almost no reason to consider the other two engines. As a $500 upgrade, it has more power and torque than the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder and gets better fuel economy than the available V6. All of that and it can still tow up to 4,000 pounds – more than enough to pull even a decently-sized pontoon boat.
The nine-speed automatic transmission does its job without much fuss. Shifts are sharp and predictable, and the drivetrain is well-calibrated to deliver maximum power from the engine. During our stretch behind the wheel, there was never a time where the powertrain was caught off guard, found the wrong gear with a sharp throttle jab or held onto a gear too long under acceleration.
True to form for a Maine January, we saw nearly a foot of snow during my time with the Cherokee, which predictably gave the Jeep no trouble at all. Automatic four-wheel drive and a steady foot make for a rather brainless snow-driving experience. The Trailhawk comes with brawnier suspension and tires over the other trims, but it certainly isn’t a required upgrade for anything but the most taxing off-road adventures. That said, the harder-core nature of the Trailhawk trim does not detract from the on-road driving experience in any way.
At the Trailhawk trim level, the Cherokee comes with FCA’s spectacular Uconnect infotainment system packaged into a bright and colorful 8.4-inch touchscreen. The base Sport trim gets a 7-inch touchscreen, but the results are the same no matter the size: Uconnect-driven systems are dead-simple to use and responsive to the touch. Our Cherokee had optional navigation, but most buyers will be fine using maps on their smartphones with the included Apple CarPlay or Android Auto functionality.
Jeep offers a Technology options group that includes all the advanced safety goodies like lane departure alerts and forward collision mitigation. It’s a $995 upgrade that is money well-spent, but I’d like to see some of those features creep into the standard column, especially at the Trailhawk’s $33,320 starting price.
Jeep spent a considerable amount of time, effort, and money to make one of their other vehicles, the Wrangler, more drivable every day without sacrificing off-road ability. The lessons they learned there have trickled down to the brand’s other models, particularly the Cherokee. The increased suspension travel and newly-enhanced electronic steering bestow the Cherokee with effortless handling and pleasant on-road manners. From a comfort standpoint, this translates to a quiet cabin with very few of the harsh jitters and bumps that typically come along with an off-road capable vehicle.
The Trailhawk’s upholstery is cloth by default, but ours was upgraded to Nappa leather. This is a welcome enhancement that brings heating and ventilation as well as the supremely soft leather covering. Even without this luxury, the Cherokee’s seats are wide and supportive, though the seat bottom may prove a bit too long for shorter drivers.
The ergonomics benefits brought on by the vehicle’s recent redesign can’t be understated. There are plenty of elbow and armrest positions to help drivers settle in for a long drive, and front seat passengers will find generous legroom even with a taller back seat passenger in tow.
Rear legroom is plentiful, even for my six-foot-tall frame, and the roof tapers gently to allow better headroom in the second row. A couple of occasions required me to fit three car seats across in the back, and other than the ride height making it difficult to load a squirming two-year-old into the middle seat, all three kids rode without complaint (mostly.)
The Cherokee’s ability to be both an everyday family crossover and a Jeep enthusiast’s toy is what sets it apart in the hyper-competitive compact SUV market today. Its biggest challenge with buyers may well be the price tag because at just over $40,000 fully-optioned there are several other compelling choices in the segment. Then again, none of those choices is a Jeep, which may be all that matters for Cherokee buyers.