Not to be confused with the larger Jeep Grand Cherokee, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee is a small crossover that fills the void left by the departure of the lackluster Jeep Liberty. In its Trailhawk trim, the automaker is also claiming a level of off-road capability that is atypical of this class of vehicle.
Let's first address the elephant in the room: the 2014 Cherokee has been criticized from the moment that the first photos were revealed of its odd-looking fascia. Count them and you'll find three separate pairs of light clusters. There are parking and LED DRLs up top, driving projectors where the bumper meets the grille, and fog lamps tucked low in the bumper.
In its Trailhawk trim, the black front bumper goes a long way toward hiding the headlamps and fog lights, which feature black housings. This simplifies the visual first impression of the Cherokee's face. The Cherokee Trailhawk's unique front bumper also tucks its chin to increase the crossover's approach angle while off-roading and features tusklike tow hooks that are highlighted with red coatings.
The Trailhawk also features a 1-inch suspension lift when compared with other Cherokee models, which helps this trim level to ford water up to a claimed depth of 20 inches. Not visible here are suspension skid plates that protect the undercarriage.
The front fascia of the Cherokee gets a lot of flak, but I actually think the rear is the weird end when viewed in person. Between the taillamps that sit high on the rear lift gate and the black plastic of the rear bumper is a sparse expanse of concave sheet metal that gives the rear end an awkward appearance when viewed from certain angles.
The Cherokee Trailhawk features the most sophisticated of the three Active Drive 4x4 all-wheel drive systems available for the Cherokee -- there's also a front-wheel-drive version available at lower trim levels. Commanded via the Selec-Terrain control knob, the Active Drive Lock 4x4 system has custom programs for a variety of driving surfaces, a rear axle locker, ascent and descent speed control, and a 4WD LOW drive ratio that increases the torque multiplication at low speeds for rock-climbing activities.
Off-road optimization may have led to slight compromises in the Trailhawk's on-road handling, but not so much that the crossover was uncomfortable to drive. Passengers praised the quiet, smooth ride and comfortable rear seats even as I was wishing for a bit more feel from the steering and power from the 2.4-liter Tigershark engine.
If better driving feel and power were what I wanted, they were what I got from the second Jeep Cherokee model that I drove that day: a 2014 Limited model equipped with the 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6 engine. Without the Trailhawk's 1-inch lift and dirt-optimized suspension, the standard setup of this top-tier model felt much more responsive over pavement. The ride was also firmer, giving me a better seat-of-the-pants feel, but only just so.
The Limited model was equipped with Active Drive I, the simplest of the three available all-wheel-drive systems. This system uses brake-based traction control to optimize its grip for different terrain types. It also features a rear-axle disconnect, which allows the system to free-wheel the rear wheel under most conditions -- effectively giving it the efficiency of a front-wheel-drive system -- then instantly re-engage rear drive when front-wheel slip is detected.
Under the hood, we found Jeep's new 3.2-liter V-6 engine. This is a downsized version of the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 that has served the Chrysler group for many years now that offers a bump up in efficiency. The EPA's stated number is 22 combined mpg, which breaks down to 19 city and 27 highway mpg. Step down to the smaller 2.4-liter to get an estimated 22 city and 31 highway mpg.
Output from the 3.2-liter is stated at 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque. The smaller engine offers a still-respectable 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. You can guess which engine I enjoyed more. Both mills mate with the rest of the drive train via a nine-speed automatic transmission.
Cherokee models are available with a number of safety features that were once limited only to luxury models, including parking sensors, rear cameras, adaptive cruise control with collision prevention tech, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, and -- most impressively -- active parking assistance.
Active ParkSense is what Jeep is calling the Cherokee's automatic parking system. Using the sonar sensors that power the blind-spot monitoring system, the Cherokee can search for available parking along the passenger side of the vehicle and automatically guide the vehicle into the space. This is the first Chrysler-group vehicle to boast this feature and the first self-parking vehicle that I've driven that offers the choice between parallel and perpendicular parking.
When reversing, the available proximity sensors augment the rear camera to give the driver audible notifications when approaching an obstruction. The Cherokee's sensors also connect to a feature called Rear Braking Assist, which can automatically activate the brakes if the system detects that you're going to run into something while parking.
The available Adaptive Cruise Control system boasts a feature called Stop and Go, which allows it to bring the vehicle to a complete stop when the car ahead does and then resume moving forward when the road ahead clears.
In the center of the dashboard is the massive 8.4-inch color touch screen. Here drivers and passengers can interact with the latest version of the Uconnect infotainment system and see a gigantic view of the area behind the vehicle as supplied by the rear camera when reversing.
Navigation is optional and powered by Garmin. For this generation of Uconnect, however, the maps-and-navigation interface has been reskinned to match and integrate better with the rest of the infotainment system.
This generation of Uconnect also offers the ability to download and install apps. Users can also transform their dashboard into a wireless access point, providing Wi-Fi Web connectivity to passengers via a built-in data connection.
Uconnect supports most of the digital audio sources that we like to see in modern vehicles, including Bluetooth for audio streaming and hands-free calling, USB and iPod connectivity, app integration, a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input, and an SD card slot.
The newest Jeep's looks have grown on me, but for many they're still a point of contention. Styling is subjective like that. Love the look or not, there's much to like about what's happening beneath the Cherokee's sheet metal and within its cabin. I'm looking forward to a much longer drive soon.