I recently became the first person not on Chrysler’s payroll to drive the new KL Cherokee. I left with unanswered questions, which is why instead of trying to cram the review in this issue, you’ll have to wait until next month to get Jp’s unique take on this newest Jeep. I need more seat time and answers from Chrysler about issues I had with the vehicle’s off-road performance, which may have been the result of preproduction computer calibrations. In short, I wasn’t blown away, but I do acknowledge the hardware, and therefore, the potential for good off-road performance is there. It’s an important vehicle not only for Chrysler, but for the Jeep enthusiast. Why? Because it’s called Cherokee.
I pontificated about Chrysler’s use of the name, Cherokee, and the public reaction to it in my June ’13 Trail Head. The Cherokee name elicits emotion, not just recognition. Had Chrysler called it Liberty, Commander, or even Jeepster, the consequences for vehicular mediocrity wouldn’t be as dire. But as soon as Chrysler called it Cherokee, it set the bar higher than any other vehicle in its market segment—by a wide margin.
I do applaud Chrysler for trying to stay true to its off-road roots that stretch back to the WWII flatfenders. At least the Trail Hawk Cherokee KL is proof of this. Coming up with that off-road-friendly package wasn’t an easy engineering feat, considering the stringent fuel efficiency, drivability, and chassis constraints the design teams had to work within. The KL, after all, is based on a Fiat car platform , so any off-road performance enjoyed by the Trail Hawk Cherokee is not by happenstance—it’s the result of hard work and determination. So although the new KL has its work cut out delivering enough off-road performance and enthusiast flexibility to earn the Cherokee moniker, the mere fact that an off-road version exists speaks to the commitment to honor the brand’s off-road heritage.
Since you’re reading Jp instead of Motor Trend or Automobile, you’re almost certainly saying to yourself, “Why is Hazel still going on about this stupid econobox that stole the Cherokee name?” Because the efforts that went into making an off-road Cherokee variant speak to the mindset of the Jeep brass. And knowing the brand is still rife with off-road enthusiasts should be welcome relief, considering a full redesign of the Wrangler is right around the corner. It wasn’t long ago that rumors of independent suspension, a non-removable top, and a windshield that wouldn’t fold down were considered serious possibilities for new Wrangler designs. Thankfully, at least with the next generation Wrangler, it seems that those affronts to the off-road community won’t become reality.
Imagine what the landscape of our sport would look like if the current JK Wrangler had made allowances to off-road performance in the interests of civility. Look what those allowances have done for Wrangler’s (to use the phrase loosely) competitors, such as the Hummer H2 and H3, the Toyota Land Cruiser, and Land Rover Defender. These models are either dead or circling the drain. And had the Wrangler gone down that path, a whole generation of enthusiasts initiated into our off-road community thanks to the Wrangler’s performance, popularity, and versatility may have taken up model railroading or bird watching instead. Jeep started the off-road 4x4 enthusiast movement, and it’s beginning to look like it will be the only brand left as fuel economy, crash safety, and other governmental red tape strangle other manufactures who care less deeply about it.
So as a devotee of all Jeep models of the past and most of the present, I tip my hat to Jeep for endeavoring to keep the tradition alive in the face of regulatory adversity and for realizing the depths of the Jeep loyalists’ passion. But I also offer a warning: Stray from the past and you could risk future sales, but mess up the Wrangler and you risk more than just your success in the marketplace.