2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4x4 review:

Jeep's smallest goes where few crossovers can

Starting at $30,100
  • Available Engine Gas
  • Body style SUV

Roadshow Editors' Rating

8.0 Overall
  • Performance 8
  • Features 9
  • Design 7
  • Media & Connectivity 8

The Good The 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk's upgraded suspension, Active Drive Lock 4x4 system, and Selec-Terrain system allow this car-based crossover to climb over some serious obstructions. Uconnect 8.4AN System with Navigation infotainment features a wide range of audio sources and Web-connected telematics.

The Bad The navigation system didn't inspire confidence with lots of awkward and needless rerouting. Trailhawk's off-road upgrades slightly degrade on-road performance.

The Bottom Line The 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4x4 brings off-road capability to a class dominated by soft-road wannabes, but its daily drivability suffers slightly for it.

The 2014 Ford Fiesta ST is a fantastic little performer. It corners, accelerates, and generates grins like nothing else in its class. It transcends that class, but when you really look at the ST, open and close its doors, and take in the cabin materials, you're never really fooled into thinking that you're driving more than an expertly upgraded economy car.

This 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4x4 is to the trail what the Ford Fiesta ST is to the road. Both are amazing examples of engineering. The Trailhawk's trail-rated performance and its Active Drive Lock 4x4 system will take you to some amazing places off the beaten path. The Jeep's true off-road capability transcends its class of city-bound small soft roaders, but when you really take the time to drive it to the grocery store, diddle its dashboard for a bit, and peek into the engine bay, you're never really fooled into thinking that you're driving more than an expertly upgraded car-based crossover.

But when you're slowly piloting the Jeep down an loose dirt embankment so steep that one of your rear wheels has lifted 18-inches into the air, the only thing that you'll care about is how cool and capable the Trailhawk is.

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The Jeep Cherokee is a small SUV that can actually go off-road. Imagine that! Antuan Goodwin/CNET

An unconventional power train

Don't misunderstand; the 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4x4 earns those Trail Rated badges that adorn its front fenders, but it does so with an unconventional load out.

Under the hood, you'll find the Fiat-Chrysler Group's 2.4L MultiAir Tigershark engine, outputting 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. That transversely-mounted engine is paired to a 9-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the front wheels or all four wheels. If that is sounding familiar, it's because it's the same running gear that you'll find under the sheet metal of the upcoming 2015 Chrysler 200 sedan , which the Jeep Cherokee and the Dodge Dart share their platform. Like most CUVs in this class, the Cherokee's roots trace back to sedans, not trucks.

Fuel economy is estimated at 21 city, 27 highway, and 23 combined miles per gallon thanks to the gearbox's absurd number of forward ratios, the engine's use of fuel-saving technologies including direct injection, and the Active Drive 4x4 system's ability to disengage the rear wheels in high traction situations (such as highway coasting or low-speed cruising) to reduce drivetrain drag. When slip detected, the Active Drive system can instantly re-engage the rear wheels to provide traction.

There are actually three versions of Jeep's Active Drive 4x4 system available on the Cherokee. Active Drive I behaves like a conventional, on-demand AWD system and features the rear axle disconnect. Active Drive II adds a low-range mode for increased torque and traction when off-roading at low-speeds and a neutral 4x4 mode for towing the Cherokee behind an RV.

However, our Trailhawk's Active Drive Lock system is what you'll want if you plan on taking your Cherokee off of the beaten path. This system drops the low-range mode even lower and adds a locking rear differential for better crawling and climbing control.

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The Active Drive controller is where you'll adjust the Selec-Terrain system and the 4x4 system. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

On top of its 4x4 system, the Trailhawk also features Selec-Speed control, which can automatically modulate the brakes when off-roading or when ascending or descending a severe slope to allow the driver to focus on steering and accelerating. The Trailhawk also gets the Selec-Terrain traction control system with settings for snow, sport, sand/mud, rock, and auto. Choosing one of these modes adjusts the performance of the engine and transmission, the brakes, electronic stability control, the 4x4 system, the rear differential lock, and Selec-Speed Control systems, automatically (in some cases) setting the vehicle up to best tackle the chosen terrain.

The Trailhawk's upgrades don't stop with the power and drive-trains. The crossover's front and rear bumpers feature a unique design when compared to other Cherokee trim levels that improve its approach and departure angles. The suspension has been beefed up, elevating the ride height by an inch. The chosen wheel and tire combo is better suited for dirt. The undercarriage gains standard skid plates to protect the more fragile bits from rocks and branches. The Trailhawk also features bright red powder-coated tow hooks (two up front and one in the rear), which can come in handy should you need to give or receive a tow on the trail.

Uconnect cabin tech

Yanking open the door, which automatically snapped unlocked thanks to the optional keyless entry and start system, the cabin reveals itself. On our Trailhawk model, that means optional Nappa Leather seats with red contrast stitching and Trailhawk logo embroidery. The driver's seat is power adjustable and both front buckets feature heated surfaces.

Take a moment to look around and you'll find all sorts of interesting little storage nooks and crannies and design easter eggs, such as the hidden storage compartment under the front passenger seat cushion or the small Willys Jeep graphic crawling along the base of the windshield.

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Look closely and you'll find Easter eggs hidden around the Cherokee's interior and exterior. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Direct your eye next to the dashboard and you'll be greeted with a large color LCD in the instrument cluster and a downright massive 8.4-inch screen that powers the Uconnect 8.4 infotainment system.

Uconnect 8.4 is available without navigation, but ours was fully-equipped. The navigation system appears to be a re-skin of Garmin's mapping and routing software, but is so well integrated into the rest of the infotainment system that you'd hardly notice without the telltale "Where to?" menu structure. I've had plenty of good experiences with the Uconnect navigation system, but my time in the Cherokee was wrought with frustration.

For starters, the system had me taking a lot of awkward routes, presumably in the name of avoiding traffic, and would occasionally recalculate my route for no apparent reason, suddenly sending me off on a different path. Once, it asked me to make a left turn at an intersection, drive a half mile and then make a U-turn to head 15 miles in the opposite direction. A simple right-hand turn would suffice, thanks. Once it asked me to hop off of the highway during a traffic jam, leading me through the city of Oakland on surface roads before depositing me later back on the same highway and into the same traffic jam. Time saved: presumably zero.

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I've had good experiences with the Uconnect navigation, but this example was extremely frustrating. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Additionally, the voice input system was slow to respond and process my inputs. It would ask me to input the street number, name, city, and state in one go, but it would ask me to do it twice -- every single time -- before taking an agonizingly long time to chew on the request I'd just given it.

The system did, ultimately, get me where I was going every time, but after a few days of its shenanigans, I'd pretty much lost my faith in the system's ability to efficiently route me around traffic. I was better off just slugging it through the jam. Perhaps there was some odd option that the previous driver had ticked that had put the navigation into this manic reroutes mode, but this behavior was uncharacteristic of my previous experiences with Uconnect and Garmin-based systems.

The rest of the Uconnect system behaved as expected. The large screen was responsive to my touch inputs and made it easy to target my taps when testing. The available list of audio sources was satisfactory, including HD Radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth audio streaming, USB/iPod, auxiliary, and SD card connectivity.

Bluetooth audio streaming is standard as is Bluetooth messaging, which pulls incoming text messages from a paired phone to be read aloud via text-to-speech software or displayed on the screen when parked. Drivers can then reply to messages with canned responses, such as, "I'm running late. Sent from my Jeep." Or, with the aid of Uconnect Access, they can use speech recognition to respond.

Uconnect Access is the Chrysler Group's telematics system which, with a paid subscription, empowers an in-vehicle 3G data connection for voice texting, online destination search via Yelp, emergency assist, remote services such as door lock/unlock, and stolen vehicle recovery. For an additional fee, you can enable an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot to connect passengers' devices to the web via the 3G connection.

Uconnect Access and Wi-Fi hotspot are tucked under a Uconnect Apps menu, but that's not where you'll find any actual app integration. For this, you'll need the Pandora, iHeartRadio, Aha by Harman, or Slacker apps installed on your paired smartphone.

Off- and on-road performance

On the road, the Cherokee Trailhawk was, well, an odd bird. For example, acceleration was good, but not great. Despite the fact that the nine-speed automatic transmission's pretty good standard program (which didn't short-shift nearly as much as I thought it would), the engine seemed to generate more noise than grunt in this incarnation.

The on-road ride was also weird. On fast, sweeping roads, the Cherokee's Selec-Terrain Sport program was great offering good grip and stability. However, on slower switchbacks and more technical roads, the Trailhawk never felt settled, approaching its handling limits more quickly and exhibiting what felt like considerably more body movement and roll despite the lower speed. I know, I was confused too, but I'd suppose that the Trailhawk's elevated ride height is to blame for this compromise in tossability.

I'd previously driven the 2014 Cherokee Limited with the optional, more powerful 3.2-liter V-6 engine, so I know that the Cherokee chassis can be a very good road holder, but our Trailhawk didn't really shine until we'd hit the dirt.

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Serious off-roaders will want a bit more articulation, but the Cherokee will roll on, even when lifting a wheel. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Off-road, the upgraded suspension can do its thing as it rolls over imperfections in the trail and clears large rocks in its path. More torque from the V-6 would be nice, but with a bit of patience and a lot of torque multiplication from the Active Drive Lock system's low-range mode, the 171 available pound-feet of torque goes a lot further than you'd think it does.

The Cherokee rides a bit rough and will toss its passengers around the cabin should you go crashing down the trail too quickly -- a relatively short wheelbase and a suspension tune that has to also be daily drivable will do that. An adaptive suspension would smooth that out, but such a luxury would likely increase the Cherokee Trailhawk right out of its class.

Serious off-roaders will find themselves wanting for just a bit more wheel articulation -- as is, it's easy to find the Cherokee Trailhawk with one wheel off of the ground on more advanced off-road courses -- but I found that the locking differential seemed to handle everything that I was comfortable throwing at a borrowed car and then some.

Available safety tech

Back on the road, our Trailhawk wasn't exactly loaded with safety tech. We had a rear camera with dynamic trajectory lines and that's about it. However more is available via optional packages, including blind spot monitoring, forward collision alert, and lane departure warning systems. Adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go is also available on the 2014 Cherokee.

Also not equipped on our example is the automated Parallel and Perpendicular Park Assist system, which will automatically scans the road for spaces that the Jeep will fit into. Once found, the system can then automatically take over the electronic power steering system to guide the Jeep into a parking spot while you, the driver, manage the brakes and accelerator.

In sum

For drivers who stick mainly to the road and are looking for a well-equipped little crossover, the Jeep Cherokee faces some stiff competition from the likes of the Ford Escape , the Kia Soul , and Mazda CX-5 , but handles the challenge well with its available safety and convenience tech and Uconnect infotainment. However for drivers looking for something to get a little dirty in, there's simply nothing like the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk this side of a Range Rover Evoque , which is in a completely different price bracket.

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Few vehicles in this class feel as capable as the Cherokee's Trailhawk trim level. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The Cherokee Trailhawk starts at $29,495 and includes all of the off-road upgrades that we've discussed above. We've also got a $1,895 Comfort/Convenience package that adds keyless start, a motorized rear liftgate, the rear camera, and more, as well as $1,295 for the leather seats and steering wheel (both heated). $795 get you the Uconnect navigation system and $150 adds a matte black decal to the hood. Factor in the $995 destination charge to come to our as-tested price of $34,625. Close to fully loaded, the Cherokee Trailhawk is thousands less than the Evoque and nowhere near as luxe around town, but I'd wager that the Jeep just as capable on the trail.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Jeep Cherokee
Trim Trailhawk 4x4
Powertrain 2.4-liter 4-cylinder Tigershark engine, 9-speed automatic transmission, Jeep Active Drive Lock 4x4 system
EPA fuel economy 21 city mpg, 27 highway mpg, 23 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy N/A
Navigation Uconnect 8.4AN - SD card based, Sirius NavTraffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard with MAP SMS reading
Digital audio sources USB/iPod, SD Card, Bluetooth audio streaming, HD Radio
Audio system Six-speakers, unbranded
Driver aids Rear camera with Dynamic guidelines
Base price $29,495
Price as tested $34,625

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