The new Jeep Cherokee is really making people mad, and rightfully so. It is different, and different is strange. If you grew up driving a fullsize Cherokee Chief SJ (pre-'83) you were probably mad when they "watered it down" and made the Cherokee XJ ('83-'01) and made the big burly Cherokee into a unibody midsize SUV. And when Chrylser/Fiat/Jeep came out with the new Cherokee this past year with Unibody and front and rear independent suspension, you were probably upset if you are a tried and true XJ owner. But is it really as bad as we all make it out to be, or are we mostly just scared of change?
I can tell you that Jeep owners usually hate change until they get to know it. Jeepers can be a bit stuck in the rut and happy to be there. I say this out of my own personal experience as both a Jeeper and someone who's around them all the time. So when this new Cherokee arrived it attracted a mob of displeasure that almost escalated to pitchforks and torches en route to Jeep headquarters. Of course, the majority of the problem is the name. If they had just called it something else they probably wouldn't have this uprising on their hands. The reason OEM's keep repeating model names is due mostly to cost. It can cost them millions to get lawyers to trademark a new name, but an old name is easily and inexpensively applied to a new model even if the new one doesn't really look or act like the prior ones.
So what would be the most appropriate name for this new Jeep? What about Jeepster or Renegade? Maybe Liberty or Pioneer? Personally I think it should have been the Jeep Eagle because it reminds me more of an AMC Eagle 4-wheel-drive station wagon than the boxy XJ or big SJ, but no one asked me.
I have been torn over whether this Jeep should even be in 4WOR. It's pretty close to a Subaru in form and function, and I'm not sure they fit the bill for these pages, but it's also close to a giant RZR or side-by-side with its full independent suspension, and those things are all over the trails. Jeep did bring a pretty cool version to Moab ("Jeep's Jeeps," Sept. '14) built as a rally-type car and called the Dakar. I decided to take a stock Cherokee Trailhawk on an adventure road trip from Telluride, Colorado, to the Tuweep Overlook on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I know many will claim this Jeep is nothing but a car, but I can tell you I wish every car performed off-road as well as this Cherokee.
Jeepers like big flat noses like the one on this Jeepster Commando. They are not as fond of the swoopy new Cherokee's laidback grille and windshield. However, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation are really putting the screws to automakers, with stringent greenhouse gas emissions limits and average fuel economy minimums. That is why future Jeeps are going to be swoopier and less flat. Don't like the design? Vote in a new government.
We started in Telluride, Colorado, on the weekend of the Blues and Brews music festival with plans of crossing some cool mountain passes, but the Black Bear Pass out of Telluride was closed the one weekend we were there, so we took mountain roads to our next stop in Silverton via Ouray. The Cherokee Trailhawk is a fun little road trip machine, perfect for two people looking to camp and explore Colorado. But it could definitely have used more power under that matte black sticker for the high-altitude climbs, especially if you plan on bringing more than one friend (but, then again, we always want more power).
Due to lack of planning on our part we rolled into Ouray on the same day as a Jeep Jamboree event and didn't even know it was going on. Had we gotten there earlier we would have taken the Trailhawk over some trails with its flat-grilled brethren to see how it would do. As it was, we only got to park next to the bigger Jeeps, where we felt they gave our Trailhawk that look you give your weird little brother whom you suspect of being adopted. If you're looking for an opportunity to go wheeling in Colorado check out the Jeep Jamboree events. They have them countrywide, but Colorado has great trails with awesome views, so we'd recommend one there.
We opted to explore on our own from Ouray to Silverton and found a silver mine road to get dust on the too-clean Jeep KL (we'll refer to it as the KL from now on so as not to offend disgruntled SJ and XJ owners). The little scrapper was fun to chug up these roads, and the Firestone Destination A/T tires offer reliable traction on mountain trails that lead to unknown destinations.
We arrived in Silverton and stayed at one of the small private hotels along the main street. Silverton is an awesome town packed with more cool old 4x4s than we could shake our front and rear independent suspension at. Old Jeeps, Rovers, Cruisers, and trucks are hidden all over the backstreets of Silverton.
Silverton is also the destination of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (durangotrain.com). This train has been running between the two mountain towns for over 130 years and now hauls more tourists than the silver it was designed for. This area of Colorado saw a huge mining boom, and because of that, many of these small towns cropped up. We opted to head south in the Jeep rather than hopping the train to Durango.
Along the drive we kept coming back to the realization that the Jeep Cherokee is actually not a bad car, especially if you are looking for this type of car. We don't spend much time in cars-we're usually in trucks and SUVs-so it's hard to say, but we can really see that if you're in the market for something like a Subaru, you should definitely consider the Cherokee KL as a competitor.
Durango is a great southern Colorado town, but we were ready to get the Cherokee KL dirty. After one night in town we pointed the raked back grille and LED running lights south in search of something worth testing the Jeep on. We soon found ourselves on the Kennebec Pass, where the KL found itself diving into high mountain mud.
Keenebec Pass is just shy of 12,000-feet in elevation. The KL climbed up with ease. However, after reaching the V-notch at the top we started wondering how far we wanted to go. The Jeep was in low range and clawing along, with a few scratches added to the Mopar-equipped rock sliders, but when we were heading down the back side, the track got narrow and off-camber and was quite possibly a dead-end (or we'd be dead if we didn't stay on trail). We eventually opted to turn around (thank goodness for a short wheelbase) and go back the way we came in.
From there we left Colorado and headed toward Arizona, but we had to stop and grab a photo by this mountain cabin as a reminder that this type of vehicle is perfect for anyone looking for a capable weekend getaway machine. Though we don't expect huge aftermarket support to show up too soon for these crossover utes, we could see rally-inspired builds happening, perfect for moderate snow wheeling and gravel-road blasting.
We missed the epic views of the Rocky Mountains, but soon we were marveling at massive rock formations as we headed toward the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. We have been through this area before in lots of different old 4x4s (you may recall our "CA to PA in a CJ" story, Apr. and May '12), and we can honestly say that although a trip may be more exhilarating in an old Jeep that may or may not break down at any moment, the views and countryside are no less impressive in a late-model 4x4 with satellite radio, onboard Wi-Fi, a 3.2L Pentastar V-6, a nine-speed transmission, tons of power outlets, and Jeep's Active Drive Lock 4-wheel drive system.
We have a rule when it comes to 4x4s. You have to be able to sleep in them because you never know when you'll need to. When we went through Page, Arizona, and every hotel was booked (more bad planning, but great road tripping) we decided it was time to try out that folding flat rear cargo area of the Trailhawk. Our camping gear had been lost in shipping, but the local Wal-Mart was able to supply us with just enough gear for a safe, comfortable night car camping along the shores of Lake Powell.
From Page, we bonsai-ed to the final destination of the trip, Tuweep Overlook (also known as Toroweap, depending on whom you ask) on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. This isolated campsite is accessed via 60 miles of dirt from Kanab and Fredonia, a journey that gave the little KL a chance to spread its wings and fly over gravel corrugation and a few cattle gates. Be careful if you head this way, as there are plenty of oncoming work trucks, rocks looking to puncture tires, and big cows ready to crush your low-flying crossover SUV.
The camping at Tuweep is about as deserted as you can get in a vehicle, but even so you can't drive right to the edge of the Grand Canyon in your 4x4. Well, you could, but you're not supposed to. We only had 50 or so yards to go from the driver's seat to edge of our greatest American hole in the ground, so we followed the rules and walked the last segment. If you do plan to camp, you'll need to get a permit. We recommend a 4x4 to get there-the last few miles turn from easy gravel to rough rocky trail. Also, there are bathrooms at the overlook but no showers or water, at least not that we saw, so plan accordingly. If you'd like to visit the overlook but not stay, we recommend the cabins at Jacob's Lake or the North Rim Park of the canyon as nearby lodging, but check availability early.
I have traveled in a lot of different 4x4s and done quite a few off-road-trips in Jeeps, from old CJs to XJs. This new Cherokee is worthy of the Jeep brand name. Is it the most capable Jeep ever? No. Is it the most capable Cherokee ever? That is debatable because the SJ and XJ were never optioned with a rear locker, but they did have big strong axles and respectable suspensions plus a V-8, and we like V-8s. The real question is will the aftermarket embrace this vehicle and start offering suspension kits and accessories to make it even more talented off-road, or will the KL follow the Compass and Patriot as watered-down Jeeps good for gravel roads and not much more? We had a blast road tripping in this Jeep and never felt like it would leave us stranded, but we also drove with more caution than we would have behind the wheel of a Rubicon. Maybe that is the best conclusion we can draw: If you're looking for good moderate adventure, then you can get by with a good moderate adventure vehicle.