At one point in the last century Jeeps were driven by no one beyond farmers, fishermen and iconoclasts. And the iconoclasts would have outnumbered the farmers and fishermen by – we’re just guessing – roughly 50:1. Jeep CJs were so far from the mainstream owners couldn’t even see, feel or hear the stream, and that was just how they liked it. With all-terrain capability, a stone axe powertrain and bodywork so minimalist you couldn’t really call it bodywork, the postwar Civilian Jeep was as back-to-basic as Henry’s Model T. And if those early adaptors are still alive, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee will undoubtedly give them pause…and then some.
To be sure, it’s not only traditional Jeep loyalists scratching their heads – and other body parts – at the debut of the newest Jeep Cherokee. With a platform originating in Italy (the same one that underpins Dodge’s Dart and a smallish Alfa Romeo) and sheetmetal – to hear some tell it – that could awaken the dead, this Jeep is more of an outlier than is typical of even ‘Jeep’. And against its intended competition – Toyota’s RAV4, the Honda CR-V and Ford’s Escape – Jeep execs will take the controversial exterior and real off-road capability up against a veritable Romper Room, trying to sell it to Mothers of the Year. It all sounds like something autowriters (a professional group fond of station wagons, 4gawdsake…) will absolutely love.
Our first drive of the Cherokee, at last fall’s Texas Truck Rodeo, was a revelation, especially when comparing the new Cherokee to its immediate predecessor, Jeep’s Liberty. While the Liberty, built on a rear-wheel drive/4WD platform with a relatively narrow track and – let’s admit – awkward proportions, did nothing to endear you to its dynamic, the new Cherokee actually provided a dynamic. It was the upscale Limited, had the 3.2 liter V6, and went down the road during our brief drive outside of San Antonio as if it had been engineered by BMW’s SUV team. It was refined, especially when compared to what Jeep has been doing previously for compact and midsize CUV prospects: Liberty, Patriot and Compass.
Our test Cherokee, delivered to us in January, was the ballsy (can we say that?) Trailhawk, easily differentiated from lesser Cherokees by increased ground clearance, Jeep’s Selec-Terrain traction management system, enhanced traction via its 4X4 drivetrain and more/better articulation than Larry Olivier. Outside differentiation includes ‘Trail Rated’ badging and optional (ballsy…) hood-mounted decal.
Whereas the visual bulk of the Cherokee makes lesser trim levels look a tad under-tired, the Trailhawk variant – with more aggressive all-terrain rubber – looks just about perfect. An athletic stance, the aforementioned ground clearance and reasonable front-and-rear overhangs (if we forget – for a moment – the Cherokee’s de Bergerac nose) provide quite the look, one almost smack dab between our still-going-strong 2006 Grand Cherokee and Range Rover’s neoclassic Evoque. It’s a visual and stance I like, and liked even better after our week of driving.
Inside, the Cherokee Trailhawk benefited from leather-trimmed seating, heated front seats and heated steering wheel. Inexplicably, the driver’s seat and wheel were always on with the ignition, and needed to be manually turned off via the center-mounted touch screen; not a big deal, but curious. When engaged the heated seats work (you could grill your brats, uh, sausages there…) to even my wife’s satisfaction, which is high praise indeed. And while the individual buckets weren’t designed for your local SCCA meet, they did an adequate job of holding you in place in most areas this side of Moab.
Of course, with an MSRP of almost $37K (on a base of just over $30K) our Trailhawk also enjoyed/suffered its share of nanny-type assists. The Technology group provides parallel and perpendicular parking assist, blind spot and cross path detection, and a bunch of other things necessary only if you’re not paying ANY ATTENTION; it’s $2200. Comfort/Convenience does a lot of things automatically, if you’ve grown too tired of paying attention, and is $1900. Add the aforementioned leather trim and $800 of Chrysler’s Uconnect entertainment and navigation system – which we liked about as well as any – and you’re up to $37,000.
Regrettably, the $37K in this example doesn’t get you the V6. And while Chrysler’s 2.4 liter MultiAir ‘Tigershark’ four is perfectly adequate propelling a Dart, it seems overworked when moving the Cherokee’s two (or so…) tons. And at idle it provided an almost diesel-like clatter without offering any of a diesel’s conspicuous torque. With the four cylinder and 2,000 pounds of towing capacity we suspect you could put auxiliary power in a trailer behind your Cherokee, but it’s far easier just to spec the V6 – and its 90 additional horses.
On urban streets or suburban thoroughfares, the Cherokee’s all-independent suspension soaked up virtually anything thrown at it. With the higher ride height and all-terrain tires the Trailhawk wasn’t as precise – at least subjectively – as our previous Limited, but few of these vehicles are sold for their precision. It felt secure and sure-footed, and in a chance encounter with Dallas snow(?) did everything we would have expected from a product built in Toledo, Ohio.
We didn’t subject the Trailhawk to any off-road trails, but think this newest Jeep would be just fine doing what most activity-oriented adults do; getting to the trailhead for hiking, biking or other adventure. For hopping boulders the Wrangler is still the one, and for toting friends and loved ones there’s a good argument to be made for a modestly equipped 4X4 Grand Cherokee Laredo, selling for roughly the same money as this Cherokee Trailhawk. But for those wanting to drive – on-and-off-road – from the last century to this one, few SUVs will do it better than Jeep’s new Cherokee.