Does it live up to the legend?
If they’d called it Liberty or Commander or even Jeepster the KL could shoulder a little mediocrity. But Chrysler slapped on the KL’s fenders one of the most beloved, revered nameplates in the hallowed halls of Jeep’s history. And even though Cherokees of the past weren’t crazy off-road-ready machines out the gate, they did possess an inherent off-road capability, on-road versatility, and general do-all utility that garnered respect from enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. In short, the name Cherokee elicits emotion, not just recognition. Therefore, the new 2014 Jeep Cherokee KL has to contend with more than meeting stringent EPA numbers, a fickle buyer’s market, and competition from less off-road-capable cute-utes. It has to prove to the Jeep enthusiast it’s not just another pseudo-Jeep-on-car-chassis punch line to a joke…like Patriot or Compass. The name Cherokee? It has to earn it.
The styling is a bit like swimming in cold water. At first it’s a real shock to the system but eventually you go numb and before you know it you’re splashing around the pool without a second thought. Indeed, its looks are enigmatic; appearing at once the offspring of an Isuzu Vehicross and a new Kia while at the same time seeming derivative of nothing. I’ve said in the past I’m not here to argue the styling: you ei-ther love it or hate it. It’s growing on me, but I’ll agree to call its looks polarizing and move on since the real meat of the matter to Jeep en-thusiasts is the use of the name, Cherokee.
The computer determines how much power to send to the rear wheels and when to send it, which can prove frustrating at times. But more on that later.
So, the new Cherokee KL stands at the crossroads. Will it go down the path of Liberty, Compass, and Patriot and be shunned by the true Jeep enthusiast, or will it earn its off-road stripes and join the loyal brethren of models considered to be a true Jeep? Truth be told, it’s an important moment for the new Cherokee. And as Editor of the world’s largest Jeep-only enthusiast publication, Jp magazine, it’s an important review which I now write. I want to root for the home team. I want Jeep to pump out models which stay true to the brand’s off-roading and utilitarian roots. I want the new Cherokee to succeed. But I need to tell the truth...and as of this writing I’m not so sure which way the winds will blow.
ENGINES AND TRANSMISSION
Two engine choices are available. The 2.4L MultiAir2 Tigershark four-cylinder delivers 184hp and 171lb-ft and helps the Cherokee squeak along the highway at 31 mpg, but the official EPA numbers are 21/28 mpg city/highway. The 3.2L Pentastar V-6 delivers 271hp and 239lb-ft and is good for an estimated 19/28 mpg. Part of its ability to deliver these mileage numbers, in addition to many aerodynamic styling cues, comes from the new ZF nine-speed auto transmission. The nine-speed not only helps boost mileage, but and allows the engine to always find its sweet spot for spirited acceleration or towing up to the Cherokee’s 4,500-pound tow rating.
The KL sits atop a Fiat chassis which Jeep engineers breathed heavily upon to deliver as much off-road performance as possible. Three different 4x4 systems are available: Active Drive I, Active Drive II, and Active Drive Lock. No matter which you get, there is no transfer case to split power equally to the front and rear differentials. Rather, the Cherokee operates in front-wheel-drive at all times and engages the rear driveshaft and, in turn differential and pop shafts via a clutch system that sends varying degrees of engine torque to the rear. The level of torque split depends on the 4x4 system, the system’s terrain settings, and sensed tire slippage. In other words, there is no true 4x2 or 4x4 selection. The computer determines how much power to send to the rear wheels and when to send it, which can prove frustrating at times. But more on that later.
Active Drive I is a single-speed system that we consider an on-road system intent more on controlling understeer and oversteer or provid-ing a little more traction in winter to make it to the chalet in time for the last chairlift run. Active Drive II adds a real Neutral to the system to allow easier flat-towing, as well as twin 2.92:1 low-range planetary gearboxes; one at each differential. Active Drive II offers different 4WD modes of Auto, Snow, Sport, and Sand/Mud, with programming specific to each terrain. Active Drive Lock adds a “Rock” mode to those offered by Active Drive II as well as a true locking rear differential. Active Drive Lock is an available option on I-4 or V-6 Latitude and Limited models and is standard on the Trailhawks.
MODELS AND PRICING
There are four basic versions and each can be optioned heavily. From the bottom up, there’s the four-cylinder Sport (starting $22,995); Lati-tude (starting at $24,495); Limited (starting $27,995); and Trailhawk (starting $29,494). Obviously each model adds more trinkets and widgets as standard, but if you’re interested in off-road capability (and in our opinion much better looks) you’ll only be considering the Trailhawk.
Even the pedestrian Sport with cloth seats is a nice place to be. Quality throughout the interior doesn’t feel lacking. Much thought was put into shapes, textures, colors, and material quality. Non-plasticy surfaces, a quiet cabin, good ergonomics, and tons of user-friendly features like USB ports, adaptive cruise control, and Chrysler’s excellent Uconnect system (entertainment, phone, navigation, WiFi, Bluetooth, and so on) are but a few of the high-end techno toys available. The new Cherokee can be had almost as well appointed as its Grand Cherokee big brother. The seats, especially in the upper-end Limited and Trailhawk, are comfortable and supportive, but the tilt steering wheel’s positioning is decidedly Italian. Even when adjusted all the way down towards the driver’s lap it still feels like it’s too way high. It’s a weird angle that we didn’t like and never got used to. The rear-row seating slides forward and backward on tracks to increase rear passenger legroom and the rear and passenger-front seats fold completely flat for good interior storage carrying ability...or sleeping in the bush. Storage space abounds for such a relatively small vehicle. Every available nook is taken advantage of, from a compartment under the passenger-front seat accessed via a flip-forward cushion to a generous well underneath the rear cargo area (Trailhawk models have a full-size spare here).
The Trailhawk takes all the standard features found on the Latitude and then chucks a bunch of off-road specific parts at the exterior and drivetrain. For starters, the crawl ratio is a very respectable 56:1 for the four-cylinder and 48:1 for six-cylinder models. The flat-black accent in the middle of the sculpted hood offers a functional element to reduce glare while off-roading and the front and rear fascia are unique to the Trailhawk to increase approach and departure angles. The undercar-riage employs skidplating over all the vital bits and there’s heavy-duty engine cooling and an auxiliary transmission cooler to help maintain temps. The suspension is 1-inch higher than the standard Cherokee and the track is 2 inches wider. Functional red powdercoated tow hooks weren’t easy to engineer with regard to frontal crash regulations while retaining the necessary “twice the rated capacity of the vehicle’s GVW” but there they are, regardless. Suspension travel from the IFS/IRS suspension is 6.5 inches in the front and 7.5 inches in the rear and the tires are chunkier Firestone Destination A/Ts mounted on special 17-inch “spider monkey” Trailhawk-only wheels with styling derived from the SRT Grand Cherokee. Off-Road fender flares, Selec-Terrain drive mode selector, hill descent and ascent control, and Active Drive Lock are all standard on the Trailhawk, but what isn’t is some form of rocker protection. We’d really like some form of lightweight aluminum rock rails to be part of the Trailhawk package, but for now Jeep suggests going through its aftermarket Mopar division for steel rockers when available.
We drove both the I-4 and V-6 Trailhawk and Latitude models through the LaSalle mountains outside of Moab, Utah at elevations ranging between 5,000-6,000 feet. Keep in mind, at 6,000 feet the 184hp four-cylinder is down roughly 33hp and the 271hp six-cylinder is down ap-proximately 48hp. Perhaps that’s why acceleration in both felt fairly disappointing. Acceleration in the 3.2L Pentastar-equipped Cherokee was right around where we thought the 2.4L should be. And the 2.4L felt fairly pathetic for how high the engine rpms were winding and the noise it was making. Another possibility for the rather lackluster acceleration may have been that the vehicles we were driving all had preproduction transmission programming, so our up- and downshifts weren’t optimized. We’ll be getting back into both I-4 and V-6 Cherokees (hopefully with better tranny calibrations) closer to sea level and will report back on how well both new engines move the (roughly) 3,800lb Cherokee.
On the handling front, both the Latitude and Trailhawk delivered a very sporty ride without harshness. Both exuded confidence in the twisties and had exceptionally good braking and steering control. Surprisingly, the Trailhawk delivered a noticeably smoother ride than the Latitude, which could be from the taller-aspect off-road tires or perhaps the taller suspension. Either way, we’d take the Trailhawk over the Latitude any ‘ol day of the week.
We parked the Latitudes and Limiteds at the trial head and stepped in-to four- and six-cylinder Trailhawks to tackle Moab’s Hell’s Revenge trail. We’ve taken a dead-stock ’99 XJ Cherokee on street tires and open diffs through Hell’s Revenge without drama, so we had a good baseline for comparison. It isn’t a really hardcore trail, but it does have some optional sections that you can use to test the limits of a vehicle’s abilities.
The Good: Trailhawk delivers a good ride over the rough stuff. There’s little head toss and even with the tires at street pressure we didn’t feel like we were getting beaten up. Ground clearance under the center of the chassis is better than you’d expect and with careful tire placement we didn’t touch one of the skidplates or scrape a bumper fascia all day long. We were dragging the rear bumper and tow hitch of our ’99 Cherokee in numerous places and our T-case crossmember kissed more than one rock thanks to the XJ’s longer breakover angle. Although we find it gimmicky and only used it for test purposes, the hill decent and hill ascent control does work very well and allows the vehicle to steadily climb or descend at a constant speed automatically. Think of it as off-road cruise control. Also, the rear locker really locks. Lift a front or rear tire…or a front and rear tire…and you’ll keep pulling forward.
The Bad: Thanks to its lack of articulation, the Cherokee drives like a piece of plywood through off-camber sections of the trail, so thank goodness for that rear locker. Again, it may have been the altitude, but the 2.4L Trailhawk felt down on power, requiring more throttle than you’d think to make certain climbs and in the sand getting stuck always felt like a constant and imminent possibility. The V-6 Trailhawk did much better through the sand, powering up and over berms with no trouble and generating enough tire speed to keep going with no worry. We did run into a hiccup with the V-6 model trying to climb one particularly hard obstacle. Despite being in low range with the rear locker engaged and the traction control off, it kept chopping power as tire speed was being generated. The rock was covered in loose sand and as soon as the rear would start to climb the computer cut throttle and the vehicle would roll back a foot or so to the bottom.
The Ugly: We absolutely didn’t like the 4x4 system. Even in low range, Rock mode, and with the rear diff locked the Active Drive system only sends power to the rear wheels when it senses tire slippage. The result is a very distinct inability to drive elegantly. You line up at an obstacle and start to climb and the rear kicks in only after the front tires start to spin. In a sense, you drive the Active Drive Lock system like you would an old GM pickup with a Gov-Lok rear differential: generate a lot of wheel spin and then – Bam – the other side starts pulling. It was fine for the novice drivers in the group who were just ham-fisting up hills hard on the gas, but for experienced off-roaders like us used to driving elegantly, it was counterintuitive and not enjoyable.
Can the Cherokee go off-roading? Yes. Is it worthy of the Jeep name? Yes. Is it worthy of the Cherokee moniker? I’m still not so sure. As is, it’s kind of like going to a concert and when the curtain drops instead of Led Zeppelin there’s a cover band standing in their place. Sure, the guitarist may be playing a Les Paul through a Marshall amp and the singer is hitting all of Plant’s notes, but it’s still a pale facsimile of the real thing. I’m not sold on the durability of the Cherokee’s car-derived chassis yet. Only time will tell on that.
And while I acknowledge the hardware for decent off-road potential is there (low-range planetaries and a true rear locker), as it stands the programming of the 4WD system lets this vehicle down. If you’re in low range with the rear diff locked, the front and rear diffs should split power equally. I realize there’s no true T-case with a center diff lock, but program the darn thing to act like there is. Do that and it just may live up to the name. There’s still time for Chrysler to fix these preproduction bugs. But as it stands now, it’s in danger of having its picture hung next to Compass and Patriot on the wall of shame.