Old Name, New Tricks
When it was first leaked that the Cherokee nameplate was coming back, but this time sans a transfer case and with a fully-independent suspension, purists went nuts. Heightening the drama, the new Cherokee would not only be a radical departure from the old, but the first Jeep to share a platform with its mother company Fiat. Replacing the Liberty, Jeep’s goal with the Cherokee is to infiltrate the midsize SUV segment with a vehicle that is trendy and fuel-efficient, and of course, Trail Rated. Using a front-wheel-drive-based platform, this would be no easy task.
We were eager to get behind the wheel of the controversial Jeep and recently, we got the chance. Flying into Moab, Utah, we were able to experience the on- and off-road handling with an assortment of new Cherokee models in the scenic and legendary red rock backdrop. While the Cherokee has a range of model types (Sport, Latitude, Limited, and Trailhawk), we spent most of our time in what’s touted as the most capable Cherokee model, the Trailhawk.
The Cherokee offers two fresh engine options, an 184hp 2.4-liter Tigershark inline-four and a 271hp 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6. While the Pentastar shares much of its DNA with the 3.6L found in the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee, the inline-four is a fresh platform for those who are looking to be more fuel conscious. Expanding on its relationship with ZF, Jeep introduced a first-in-class nine-speed automatic transmission that will be standard across the Cherokee model line. The transversely-mounted nine-speed transmission is extremely compact in size and hosts an impressive 9.8 ratio spread.
Traditionally, we would give you the rundown on the transfer case next, but one doesn’t exist in this platform. In its place is a PTU (power transfer unit) that splits power to the rear differential. Instead of having one set of low range planetary gears in the transfer case, the 2.92:1 planetary gears are placed with each differential assembly. This unique system provides gear reduction, but without the parasitic loss and weight of a transfer case. This system was not only innovative, but necessary since the unibody Cherokee is based on a front-wheel-drive platform-one that is shared with Fiat and the Dodge Dart.
The three four-wheel-drive systems include: Active Drive I, Active Drive II, and Active Drive Lock (a two-wheel-drive version is available as well). Active Drive I is equipped with a one-speed PTU, so no low range option. Active Drive II receives a two-speed PTU with low range. Fitted in the Trail Hawk is Active Drive Lock, which has a two-speed PTU that offers low range, along with a selectable rear locker.
Driving the Cherokee through the twisty and scenic backroads of Utah was surprisingly fun. The electronically-controlled steering (something most manufactures are switching to) actually delivered a precise and tight on-road feel. Since the models we tested were equipped with the Selec-Terrain feature, we cycled through the sport and auto modes on-road. Jeep spent time calibrating for the different driving settings and the payoff was noticeable. On the Sport mode the transmission, throttle, and steering inputs were all heightened to create a more enjoyable driving experience.
The Cherokee’s suspension kept body-roll in check while carving through Utah’s backcountry, and though we enjoyed the sporty feel, at times the suspension felt a bit firm- especially when navigating some of the older city streets. Power in-town and through the hills felt adequate with the V-6, and mostly tolerable with the inline-four. A turbo on the inline-four would likely do wonders (hint, hint). Proper communication with the nine-speed transmission was extremely important to achieve performance goals, and despite the large range of gears, shifts went mostly unnoticed. Fuel economy numbers are still to come, but are estimated to be in the high 20s to low 30s. Certainly helping to achieve those numbers is Jeep’s first rear-axle disconnect system. The advanced four-wheel-drive system monitors wheelspin and uses the disconnect system to disengage the rear axle when it’s not needed.
When we pulled onto the Hell’s Revenge trail with our V-6-powered Trailhawk Cherokee, it was a very surreal moment. For the first time that we can remember, we were embarking on a trail ride with a Jeep that we were not entirely certain belonged on the trail. Despite the fact that the Trail Hawk version sits one-inch taller, two inches wider, and receives a Cherokee-spec set of Goodyear all-terrain tires, in the back of our mind we knew that the front-wheel-drive based rig wasn’t exactly the ideal trail rig. The shift into low range was electronically controlled, and per the advice of the Jeep Engineering team, we switched into Rock mode on the Selec-Terrain dial and engaged the rear locker.
Our first impression off-road with the vehicle was that the brake-assisted traction control was overly aggressive, and a bit annoying. If you didn’t have the rear locker engaged, the annoyance was doubled. Switching the rig into Sand/Mud mode offers a little more wheelspin, which helps settle the traction nannies. A crawl ratio of 56:1 in the inline-four Trail Hawk and a 47.8:1 in the 3.2-liter is not bad considering a standard Jeep Wrangler fitted with a manual is 38.9:1. While the crawl ratio was effective at getting us up the sticky red-rock trails, we would have liked more compression braking for the steep descents (note: using the optional Hill Descent control button is very effective, we simply didn’t want the Jeep to drive for us).
Suspension travel was another item that we would like to see increased, as lifting a tire was a common occurrence. Important parameters such as visibility and maneuverability were on point, and the approach and departure angles were excellent for the midsize SUV. Rock sliders would have made crawling a little less worrisome, but we managed to keep the body dent-free on our wheeling day. The electronically-controlled selectable rear locker is similar to the one found in the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, and was relatively easy to turn on or off in the high-traction wheeling conditions.
We’ll be the first to admit that we were not immediately drawn to the exterior styling, but after spending some time around and behind the wheel of the Cherokee, it quickly began to grow on us. Pitted against the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Ford Escape (all of which have the wheeling potential and ground clearance of a go-cart), the Cherokee is the proverbial off-road big gun in its class. We’re still not sure that off-road performance will translate to sells in a market that is saturated by soccer moms and hipsters, but at least Jeep didn’t skimp out with another Compass-like vehicle.
The Cherokee is flat-out enjoyable to drive on-road, and surprisingly capable off-road. Jeep is aware of the Cherokee namesake pedestal and has done a great job with the Trail Hawk edition to offer a wheeler-centric version of an otherwise citified platform. When the small XJ Cherokee was launched in 1984, it was extremely innovative for its time. Although, we often look back at those early XJ models as the less desirable ones, the Cherokee has made a lasting imprint in the world of off-road capable SUVs. Ultimately, as a brand, Jeep has to continue to diversify and grow. That’s the only way the classic seven-slot grill makers will be able to continue to satisfy the hardcore enthusiasts and bean counters alike. Will the Cherokee replace your Wrangler? Heck no, but it certainly has a place in the Jeep fold.
Hot: Looks, selectable rear locker, nine-speed transmission, powerful V-6, ultra-comfy and modern interior
Not: Looks, limited wheeltravel, brake-actuated traction control
Our Take: An innovative 4x4, with a side of controversy
PhotosView Photo Gallery
Vehicle/model: ’14 Jeep Cherokee
Base price: $29,495 (Trailhawk)
Engine(s): 2.4-liter Tigershark I-4, 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6
Rated hp/torque (lb-ft): 184/171 (2.4-liter), 271/239 (3.2-liter)
Transmission: ZF 948TE 9-spd
Transfer case: N/A
4WD system(s): Full-time w/active on-demand clutch, selectable rear locker w/Active Drive Lock
Low-range ratio: 2.92:1
Frame type: Steel uniframe
Suspension, f/r: McPherson strut, long-travel coil springs, one-piece aluminum subframe, aluminum lower control arms, stabilizer bar/Four-link w/trailing arm, aluminum lateral links, isolated steel cradle, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Axles, f/r: 10.4-in, two-spd PTU/9.7-in two-spd RDM w/selectable electronic locker
Axle ratio(s): 4.083:1 (2.4-liter), 3.517:1 (3.2-liter w/trailer tow)
Max crawl ratio(s): 56:1 (2.4-liter), 47.8:1 (3.2-liter)
Steering: Electric-power, rack-and-pinion
Brakes, f/r: 13x1.1-in vented disc, twin-piston floating caliper/12.6x0.47-in solid disc, single-piston floating caliper disc
Wheels (in): 17x7.5
Tires: P245/65R17 Firestone Destination A/T
Wheelbase (in): 107
Length (in): 182
Height (in): 67.8
Base curb weight (lb): 4,106
Approach/departure angles (deg): 29.9/22.9
Minimum ground clearance (in): 8.7
Payload (lb): 1,000
Interior cargo volume (cu ft): 49.47
Max towing capacity (lb): 4,500
Fuel capacity (gal): 15.9
Fuel economy (mpg): TBD
*3.2-liter-equipped Trailhawk model w/Active Drive Lock