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The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk: why did it win Four Wheeler’s 2015 Four Wheeler of the Year Award?

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on February 1, 2016
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We knew we were in for a serious beating from our loyal followers as soon as we tallied the votes. How could we let the car-based and polarizingly shaped Cherokee beat the old-school Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro for Four Wheeler of the Year honors? Impossible! Blasphemy! Unfollow! Cancel my subscription! All of us who participated in the week-long testing process knew why it was so well deserved. The Toyota drives and feels like a 10-year-old truck. The Cherokee feels like tomorrow’s SUV. It’s stylish, smooth, quiet, sporty, and efficient. The interior is modern, comfortable, and smacks of quality materials and assembly. Most important of all, it’s extremely capable and fun to drive in the dirt, and if you’re one of the many doubters of its off-road chops, you should really experience one on the trail before you pass judgment.

Jeep should be awarded just for making the investment in this highly unique drivetrain. Low range is achieved without a transfer case by putting the gear reduction in the axles, and the combination of a very good crawl ratio and a selectable rear locker in a compact crossover works way better than you’d expect. Yes, there’s very little suspension articulation, but that doesn’t impede progress. The result is the occasional tire being lifted in the air with no delay in forward movement. Further testing since our long-term Cherokee arrived has revealed that this chassis is also quite a performer on twisty blacktop, feeling much sportier that we remember from Four Wheeler of the Year testing, which is mostly focused on dirt roads. The only drawback on the street is the Firestone A/T tires, which lose grip in the corners way before the chassis wants to give up. The ability to cruise at highway speeds quietly and comfortably, carve up paved mountain roads at high speeds, and then be able to hit the trail is very unique and gives the Cherokee a dual sporting personality. One more interesting point is that this is the first time a transverse-engine vehicle has won our award.

Most of the criticism we’ve seen about the Cherokee so far has stemmed from its ZF-sourced nine-speed transmission, but it appears the one we’ve received for long-term evaluation has the latest software and so far has acted very well. Ninth gear is so tall (0.48:1) that it’s rarely selected, even in steady speed cruising on freeways, and seems to be reserved for downhill or downwind stretches only.

So far one of our only serious complaints is about lack of range caused by the low fuel capacity (15.9 gallons), with the typical distance between fill ups being just shy of 300 miles. That’s acceptable, but we like rigs that can outlast one’s bladder on long distance road trips. All other misgivings are regarding some of the electronic systems, and we’ve just learned that Cherokees in particular are susceptible to hacking via its Uconnect system, with a viral video showing hackers able to change climate control, radio settings, and even shutting down the car. A free software refresh is available to prevent that from happening.

Other technologies that so far appear to be well intentioned, but not quite ready, are the adaptive cruise control and lane-departure assist. The cruise control works well at relatively steady speeds, where traffic is ranging between 50 and 75 mph, but stop-and-go traffic throws it into fits, constantly triggering the crash mitigation system while chiming and flashing a message on the info screen to brake immediately or leaving much too large a gap in front of the car when speeds recover. The problem is that it can’t anticipate slowing and accelerating traffic several cars ahead, so it tends to overcorrect in both directions. The lane departure assist system occasionally mistakes grooves and other lines in the road for lane markers and tries to follow them. We’re still not accustomed to the car trying to steer itself, but we’ll leave this feature on until it either becomes a welcome addition or relegated to being just another annoying nanny. The crash mitigation system is fantastic, and it’s hard to imagine what it would take to actually crash into something while it’s activated. Not only does it give you a visual and audible warning, but it applies the brakes as well, completely stopping if necessary. The price to be paid is the system occasionally mistaking a car turning into a parking lot that’s actually clear of your path as a hazard, automatically slamming on the brakes and pleading that you to apply the brakes as well.

The baby 3.2L Pentastar V-6 is very smooth and makes strong midrange power, but it runs out of breath on the top end. Overall the experience is of adequate, but not fast, acceleration (8-second 0-60) and better-than-expected efficiency. We’re curious just how much efficiency is gained by removing only 400 cc of displacement from the larger and ubiquitous version.

So far we’ve explored our local Wildomar OHV Park, the backcountry around Big Bear Lake, and a road trip to California’s Central Coast. Next on the agenda is to head back to the hill near Convict Lake, California, that sent our previous tester back to the shop. As usual, we’ll be keeping track of the overall experience for a year and will report everything, good and bad.

Options as tested:
SafetyTec Group – Blind Spot and Cross Path Detection, Power Multi-Function Mirrors with Manual Fold-Away ($1,045), Technology Group – Full Speed Collision Warning with Crash Mitigation, Parallel and Perpendicular Park Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop and Go, Advanced Brake Assist, Rain Sensitive Windshield Wipers, Exterior Mirrors with Turn Signals, Automatic High Beam Headlamp Control, LaneSense Lane Departure Warning ($1,495), Comfort / Convenience Group – Power Liftgate, Remote Start System, Keyless Enter-N-Go / Passive Entry, A/C Auto Temperature Control with Dual Zone Control, Auto-Dimming Rearview Mirror w/Microphone, Power Eight-Way Driver Seat, Power Four-Way Driver Lumbar Adjust, Security Alarm, Universal Garage Door Opener ($1,645), Leather Interior Group – Leather Trimmed Bucket Seats, Heated Front Seats, Heated Steering Wheel ($1,495), 3.2-Liter V6 24-Valve VVT Engine with Stop/Start – Stop / Start System, Dual Bright Exhaust Outlets ($1,745), Black Hood Decal ($199), Uconnect 8.4AN AM/FM/SXM/HD/BT/NAV – GPS Navigation, HD Radio, SiriusXM Travel Link / 5-Year Subscription, SiriusXM Traffic / 5-Year Service ($845)

Report: 1 of 4
Previous reports: None
Base price: $30,395
Price as tested: $39,895
Four-Wheel-Drive system: Full-time, electronically controlled, two-speed

Long Term Numbers:
Miles to date: 3,791
Miles since last report: n/a
Average mpg (this report): 19.5
Test best tank (mpg): 23.5 (Highway between 70-75 mph)
Test worst tank (mpg): 17.1 (Mostly city)

Maintenance:
This period: None
Problem areas: Hackers (if you believe the internet)

What’s hot, what’s not:
Hot: Fun, stylish, sporty
Not: Range, tires, finicky electronics.

Logbook quotes:
“The chassis writes a check that the tires can’t cash”
“Speed bumps confuse traction-control software”
“Way more fun on paved twisty mountain roads than you’d expect”

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