Sharing only a name with its beloved but boxy predecessor of yore, the latest Jeep Cherokee presents a decidedly international - and controversial - face to the world.
Just as the original Cherokee was highly unconventional back when it hit the market more than 30 years ago, the latest model - conceived on a Fiat-based car platform and swathed in some of the more curious sheetmetal around - is raising some eyebrows.
But after more than a decade of bland, uninspiring sub-Grand Cherokee models in Jeep's lineup, maybe that's just what this rugged division of Chrysler needs.
What is it?
Slotting in below the acclaimed Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Cherokee is a five-passenger compact/midsize SUV/crossover. Yes, we're describing it using a lot of categories because, frankly, it defies convention. It's sized somewhere between compact and midsize and its positioning, depending on trim level, is either pavement-oriented crossover or off road-styled rock crawler.
Cherokee rides on a modified version of the Dodge Dart's Alfa Romeo/Fiat-derived passenger car platform, an obvious link to Chrysler's new Fiat parent. That means the Cherokee uses a decidedly street-friendly fully-independent suspension to send power to either the front or, optionally, all four wheels.
Both a 2.4-liter four-cylinder and an optional 3.2-liter V6 are mated exclusively to a new nine-speed automatic transmission. A host of trim levels are on offer, culminating in the off road-oriented 4x4-only Trailhawk seen here.
Trailhawks come reasonably well-equipped at around $30,000, but the extra $7,000 added to our test car brought with it the expected leather trim and navigation system plus a number of high-tech features not normally seen at this price point: Forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control and a system that parks the vehicle itself into either a parallel or perpendicular spot are among the highlights.
Our tester lacked only the optional V6 and a power moonroof.
What's it up against?
Mainstream Cherokees square off against the Chevrolet Equinox, Subaru Forester, Hyundai Santa Fe and Ford Escape in the "more premium" compact crossover segment.
Opt for the Trailhawk and we suppose you could cross-shop the off road-oriented Nissan Xterra and Toyota 4Runner as well.
What's it look like?
We'll say this: The Cherokee looks way better in person.But it's still not attractive by conventional standards.
Its front and rear ends appear to have been designed by different teams, resulting in a less-than-cohesive look overall and an oddly proportioned side profile. A trio of lights up front control, from top to bottom, LED running lamps, headlamps and fog lamps. Out back, the look is surprisingly unoriginal and bulbous. There's a distinct lack of subtlety, although credit is due to the Jeep design team for at least trying something different.
Still, opting for the Trailhawk does bring with it some nice stylistic add-ons. The unpainted fender flares, bumper garnishes and lower side cladding are appropriately rugged and they work well with a suspension that sits up around an inch higher than stock. Taller-than-standard all-terrain tires also add to the butch look, as do the quirky but appealing red-painted tow hooks.
All that said, we really wish Jeep had channeled more of the boxy chiseled good looks of the circa-2001 Jeep Cherokee. Like a three-day beard, that Jeep has a timeless simplicity clearly lacking in today's model.
And on the inside?
Forget what you've seen outside. This interior is quite good. Even if its design isn't all that interesting, the Cherokee's inner trappings are upscale and classy, feeling more like a genuine luxury car than a dressed-up small crossover.
In stark contrast to the Cherokee's exterior, its dashboard itself is generally conservative and logically-arrayed. Switchgear seen in other Chrysler products affronts the driver: An LCD screen in the instrument cluster, an 8.4-inch unit in the center of the dash and redundant push-button climate controls.
The big screen controls Chrysler's excellent Uconnect infotainment system, which sets the industry standard for both ease-of-use and lack of information overload. Moreover, the system responds quickly to user inputs, something we can't say about infotainment systems offered up by most rivals.
Both driver and passenger sit in comfortable chair-like thrones. Rear seat space is ample and even the cargo area is nicely finished and plenty roomy.
Materials are universally class-above and fit and finish on our early-production tester felt excellent.
But does it go?
Cherokee uses the same 184-horsepower, 171 lb-ft. of torque 2.4-liter engine as several other Chrylser products, but what makes it unique is that the automaker has fitted an industry-first nine-speed ZF-developed automatic transmission.
The transmission itself was responsible for a several month delay in the Cherokee's launch. Unfortunately, we think Chrysler still needed to work out a few kinks. When it was cold, the transmission's first few gearchanges were especially clunky, sending a noticeable thump through the cabin. Once warmed up a little, it became smoother and more predictable, but, despite the large number of cogs available, the gearbox never seemed like it was in the right place at the right time.
Over and over we found ourselves stomping on the throttle to convince the transmission to drop down a gear or two for passing. In part, that's because the Cherokee isn't all that much of a lightweight at around 4,100 lbs. as-tested given its relatively low power output. Once we learned to work with the transmission, we grew more accustomed to the way it operates, but we were rarely satisfied.
Refinement isn't exactly this four-cylinder's virtue, either. It growls under full throttle and rumbles at idle, two characteristics at odds with the rest of the way the Cherokee drives. Nicely-weighted and direct steering combined with the Cherokee's stiff chassis and soft suspension tuning to give it a reassuringly confident feel through the twisties. There's more body lean in the Trailhawk than in other trim grades thanks in part to its higher stance and taller tires, but we hardly found that objectionable.
In fact, we liked the way the Cherokee tackled some light-duty off roading. A knob in front of the gear lever lets drivers pick between several different traction control and throttle tuning modes depending on terrain types. Moreover, the Trailhawk uses a true two-speed transfer case, meaning drivers can put it into low gear range for slow speed off roading. A manual-locking rear differential is also included for extra traction - and that's important given how little the Cherokee's suspension flexes over undulating terrain. It relies heavily on the traction control, which stands in contrast to the highly-articulating suspension of the original Cherokee.
Which one is better off road? It depends on the type of terrain you're likely to encounter, but we have to admit that we were more impressed that we anticipated being with the Cherokee's off road ability given its car-derived platform.
On the other hand, we weren't blown away with its fuel economy. The nine-speed gearbox's big advantage is supposed to be the way it forces the Cherokee into a higher cruising gear to save gas, but EPA ratings of 21/27 mpg aren't all that impressive for 184 horsepower.
We saw a combined 22 mpg and hit just 26 mpg on a highway trek. If anything, it's a testament to how inefficient this 2.4-liter apparently is since the V6-powered model is rated at 26 mpg highway.
Leftlane's bottom line
If its looks are your thing, there's a lot to like about the new Jeep Cherokee. A refined interior and excellent driving dynamics combine with surprisingly good off road ability to make this a vehicle worth coveting.
That said, we were put off by its gruff four-cylinder and confused nine-speed automatic gearbox. Stay tuned for a more detailed evaluation of the V6-powered Cherokee in the future as we suspect that powertrain's extra power will offset our concerns about the transmission.
2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4x4 base price, $29,495. As tested, $36,820.
Technology Group, $2,195; Comfort/Convenient Group, $1,995; Leather interior, $1,295; Black hood decal, $150; Navigation, $795; Destination, $995.
Photos by Andrew Ganz.