2015 Jeep Cherokee

For its follow-up to the Liberty SUV, Jeep has dusted off its storied Cherokee nameplate to create a thoroughly modern and radically-styled midsize crossover. While some purists likely won't approve of the polarizing look, the Cherokee nonetheless impresses with an industry-first nine-speed automatic, loads of safety features and three available four-wheel-drive systems.

In place of the boxy design of the original model, the new Cherokee wears wild sheetmetal that Jeep says is designed for the future. An unusual three-tier layout of lights and a creased version of the automaker's iconic seven-slat grille mark the front end, while the rear features a sculpted tailgate and narrow horizontal tail lamps.

The outlandish duds are underpinned by an Alfa-Romeo-sourced unibody platform that's shared with the Dodge Dart compact sedan. It helps keep weight down and provides a car-like driving experience that's optimized for the kind of excursions for which crossovers tend to be used these days - trips to the mall, journeys to Costco, etc.

Two engines are available - a standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 184 horsepower and 171 lb-ft. of torque, and an optional 3.2-liter version of Chrysler's Pentastar V6 that's rated at 271 horsepower and 239 lb-ft. of torque. Both are paired with an efficient nine-speed gearbox that helps front-wheel-drive four- and six-cylinder models return 22/31 city/highway mpg and 19/28 mpg, respectively. The V6-powered Cherokee comes standard with a start/stop system.

Adding four-wheel-drive reduces four-cylinder mileage to 21/28 mpg, while the 4WD V6 Cherokee is rated at 19/27 mpg.

When equipped with the V6, the Cherokee offers best-in-class towing capability of 4,500 lbs.

High-tech cabin
Fluid lines and upmarket soft-touch materials mark the Cherokee's interior space, which comes standard with a five-inch touchscreen for the Uconnect infotainment system. An 8.4-inch unit with an upgraded Uconnect Access setup is optional (for a complete description, check out Leftlane's Spotlight On: Uconnect article).

Generally regarded as one of the more user-friendly infotainment setups on the market, Uconnect Access integrates most of the truck's audio, navigation and climate control functions into one unit. An 8.4-inch touchscreen mounted on the dashboard is the central component of the system, but redundant buttons and knobs for climate and audio volume and tuning are also included.

Uconnect Access featres a voice command system that allows the driver to place phone calls, use the sound system, input navigation destinations and more without taking his or her hands off the wheel. Other notable aspects of the system include the ability to function as a Wi-Fi hotspot over a 3G network - for an additional monthly fee - and downloadable applications such as Bing search.

Other nifty interior items include an optional seven-inch TFT screen located in the instrument panel that relays a variety of vehicle info. A ParkSense park assist system transmits data to the aforementioned TFT screen and, amusing, replaces surrounding vehicles with as many 1941 Jeep Willys as needed.

Another notable extra is a wireless charging system allows passengers to top off the batteries of cell phones and other portable devices by simply placing them in the center console.

Real Off-Roading Chops
Even though precious few crossovers venture beyond the pavement, Jeep has something of an image to protect when it comes to off-roading, so the Cherokee can be had with no less than three four-wheel-drive setups. The first, dubbed Active Drive I, is fully automatic and primarily designed to provide extra foul-weather traction in everyday driving situations.

For buyers interesting in tackling trails, Active Drive II adds legitimate rock-climbing capability in the form of a low-range transfer case that can lock the front and rear driveshafts and provide a 2.91:1 gear reduction for optimal torque. Finally, an Active Drive Lock adds a locking rear differential for extra low-speed power during serious off-roading.

All three systems offer brake-based torque vectoring that reduces understeer, and are also equipped with a Selec-Trac traction control system with five different modes - Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud and Rock - designed to maximize traction in a variety of conditions.

Additionally, a unique rear-axle disconnect feature helps to save fuel by switching to 2WD mode when full 4x4 capability isn't needed.

Trim Level Breakdown
The Cherokee is offered in Sport, Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk trim levels.

The Sport comes standard with A/C, power windows and locks, a six-speaker AM/FM stereo with AUX and USB inputs in addition to an SD card reader, Uconnect with 5.0-inch touchscreen, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, remote keyless entry, LED running lights, LED taillights and 17-inch steel wheels. An available Cold Weather Group brings heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated exterior mirrors and a windshield wiper de-icer, while stand-alone options include a CD player, satellite radio and alloy wheels.

The Latitude builds on the Sport's features with body color exterior trim, roof rails, tinted windows, a rear-view camera, foglights, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, ambient LED interior lighting, a fold-down front passenger's seat with underseat storage, a 115-volt power outlet and 17-inch alloy wheels. In addition to the Cold Weather Group, buyers can select Uconnect Access with 8.4-inch touchsceen, a retractable front sunroof and fixed rear sunroof, the 3.2-liter V6 and a premium audio system. There's also a Comfort/Convenience with dual-zone automatic climate control, a rearview camera, a power liftgate, remote start, automatic headlights, a power adjustable driver's seat, a cargo area cover and net, and satellite radio.

The off-road-focused Trailhawk proudly wears Jeep's Trail-Rated emblem and boasts a more exterior aggressive design with skid plates front and back, red tow hoods and model-specific trim inside and out. The Trailhawk also boasts smaller bumpers on both ends that improve its approach and departure angles, and the Active Drive Lock four-wheel-drive system comes standard. Inside, it features Uconnect Access with 8.4-inch touchscreen and satellite radio; the premium sound system and Comfort/Convenience group can be spec'd.

On top of the Latitude's features, the Limited boasts leather upholstery, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, Uconnect Access with 8.4-inch touchsreen, a rearview camera, remote start, automatic headlights, a power adjustable driver's seat, a cargo area cover and net, and satellite radio. The optional Luxury Group adds premium leather upholstery, a power liftgate, xenon headlights and ventilated front seats.

Occupant Safety
All Cherokee models come standard with an impressive array of airbags, including dual front, front knee, front side, rear side and full-length side curtain units. Traction and stability control systems.

A variety of safety tech is optional, including a blind-spot warning system, a lane departure warning plus and rear cross path detection, which alerts the driver if objects are in the Cherokee's path during backup maneuvers. A forward collision warning system uses radar and video sensors to detect potential obstacles, warn the driver and, if necessary, apply the brakes to effect a full stop.

Key Competitors
The midsize Cherokee faces competition from a wide variety of so-called "compact crossovers" that are actually quite dimensionally similar to the Jeep. These include the sedate but highly practical Honda CR-V, the efficient Subaru Forester, the tech-packed Ford Escape, the popular Toyota RAV4 and the Chevrolet Equinox.