2014 Jeep Cherokee first drive review: It may not be ‘Grand,’ but it’s certainly great

2014 Jeep Cherokee Limited It must have been hard for the Jeep team to sit and watch the other manufacturers sell the snot out of their compact SUVs, knowing it had nothing to offer that fast-growing segment of consumers. Ford Escape, Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4 and even Subaru were snagging sales that could have gone to a new Jeep product. And while the Wrangler does well enough in this segment, its unique look and features don’t appeal to the customers who basically are looking for a mid-size SUV but in a smaller package. The Liberty did it best to hang on to some buyers, but its 2012 sales of 67,773 were no match for the, CR-V and Escape, both of which sold well over 200,000 units last year.

Starting in October, however, things were different. Jeep has launched (or even reintroduced, if you will) its new Cherokee, and the brand knows it has something special that is sure to take a bite out of the top players.

2014 Jeep Cherokee LimitedAs the baby brother to the Jeep Grand Cherokee, everyone expected the Cherokee to be the same design, albeit in a smaller version. So you can imagine how the faithful started screaming when the first photos appeared and the famous seven-slot grille had been altered by curving the slots instead of laying them out in the traditional up/down position. Blasphemy!

When you dig deeper, however, there was precedence set, as the original 1974 Jeep Cherokee also had the shaped-slot grille. So just calm down everyone; take a deep breath. The bottom line is the more you look at the new Cherokee, the more you’ll like. The styling is a clean, modern adaptation of the legendary look, and is well proportioned nose to tail. A standout feature in front, besides the grille, are the Daytime Running Lamps that sit high and fool many into thinking they are the headlamps. They are slim, attractive and use a bit of the ol’ tromp l’oeil. If you look below the DRLs, you’ll see the real headlamps, which almost disappear into the front bumper. Clever design.

There are four different trims for Cherokee: Sport, Latitude, Trailhawk and Limited. Each has its own unique look, with the Trailhawk — the off-road version — focused on specific off-roading characteristics, such as a one-inch factory lift on the suspension, skid plates, impressive 56:1 crawl ratio, and 20-inch water-fording capability.

2014 Jeep Cherokee LimitedInside, the Cherokee is just as refined. We are so impressed with the improvements in interior quality, fit and finish, and choice of materials for Chrysler products over the years. It proves the company’s commitment to listening and reacting positively to the customer.

Recently, at an event at Calamigos Ranch in Southern California, we had a chance to drive both the Cherokee Latitude FWD model on the road, and a Cherokee Trailhawk 4×4 through some back trails at the ranch. While these essentially are the same vehicle, we had two completely different experiences.

cherokeebjJeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4×4

When it was time to drive (It was a gaggle of products, from RAM to Dodge to Jeep), everyone made a beeline for the Cherokee Trailhawk to drive on the off-road course. (We were no exception.) However, our first lap was in a Grand Cherokee (we were fast, but apparently not fast enough to get in the Cherokee), which gave us a chance to get familiar with the trail, and to solidify our already deep admiration of the Grand Cherokee’s capability in the dirt. For the second loop we landed the Cherokee Trailhawk. Our Deep Cherry Red Crystal Pearlcoat vehicle based at $29,495, and as tested ran $34,625. Climbing inside for the first time, we were pleasantly surprised how such a capable off-road vehicle could look so nice. Ours was equipped with the optional leather group that included leather heated (front) seats and a heated steering wheel. The seats were comfortable and supportive, even on the rockiest part of the trail, and the center console and dash — although full of buttons and switches — was clean and functional. LED interior lighting, bright trim pieces on the steering wheel and audio surround, and easy-to-use steering wheel controls will impress new Jeep owners and re-convince current owners why they love Jeep.