Many folks shopping for a midsize crossover just want a vehicle with all-wheel drive that performs well in any kind of weather, like the Mazda CX-5 or Toyota RAV4. If, however, you want a vehicle that can cross a creek and drive through a rainstorm on an unmaintained dirt road to your secluded cabin in the woods, let me tell you about the 2016 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. Just be prepared for a few on-pavement concessions.
The Cherokee, around in some form or another since 1974, debuted as a full-sized SUV. Over five generations it morphed into its current midsize crossover platform, and it currently keeps pace in sales with both the popular Wrangler and Grand Cherokee.
The Cherokee is available with a four-cylinder engine, but at 4,000 pounds I was glad for the extra grunt of the 3.2-liter V6 power plant. It's an extra $1,745 but produces 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque. It's definitely the better choice and well worth the extra coin.
Power goes to the pavement through a nine-speed automatic transmission. Yes, nine speeds. I was surprised at the well-behaved gearbox. It never searches for a gear and it willingly steps down two gears, and often three or four, during passing.
I took the Trailhawk on a road trip from Roadshow HQ in San Francisco to Los Angeles and averaged a dismal 22.8 miles per gallon, all while driving 70 to 80 mph for six hours at a time, a bit less than the EPA highway rating of 24 mpg. However, that's much less than the EPA highway rating of the Subaru Crosstrek, at 33 mpg, and the Toyota RAV4 at 28 mpg.
The Cherokee is available in nine different trims, but only the Trailhawk goes through Jeep's rigorous off-road testing and wears the Trail Rated badge. I was hoping to get the thing on the dirt, but alas our busy schedule worked against us. We hope to revisit the Trailhawk, as it's got all kinds of off-road goodies that the adventurous will appreciate. At minimum you need two things to make a vehicle off-road-worthy: a locking rear differential and a low range. The Trailhawk has both, plus more features that make it the most dirt-worthy option in its class.
The Cherokee has 8.7 inches of ground clearance and is outfitted with skid plates on the underbody, fuel tank and front suspension. The Selec-Terrain system lets you pick from auto, snow, sport, sand/mud or rock driving modes. High approach, breakover and departure angles help get the Cherokee Trailhawk up and over obstacles and it can ford up to 20 inches of water. The cherry on top is the 56:1 low gear ratio, perfect for high-torque, slow-speed rock crawling. It's not a Wrangler, but it certainly is approaching one and on paper it kicks butt over other soft-roaders like the Subaru Forester or Crosstrek.
The interior of the Cherokee Trailhawk belies its go-anywhere capabilities. The seats are comfortable and there is plenty of leather, with the added bonus of the excellent Uconnect navigation head unit. The optional 8.4-inch screen may seem crammed with information, but it's all thoughtfully laid out and easy to navigate. Included with Uconnect are Siri Eyes Free compatibility, a new drag-and-drop menu bar and a Do Not Disturb function that sends phone calls straight to voicemail and can generate an automatic reply to text messages. It's not as good as having Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but it's a good start.
Although there is a cool little cubby in the Cherokee's dash for your phone and other small items, the front lacks a bit in storage space. And when it comes to overall cargo capacity, the Cherokee really suffers in comparison with others in the segment. It maxes out at just 55 cubic feet of space, much less than the Toyota RAV4 at 73 cubic feet or the 65 cubic feet of the Mazda CX-5.
On the pavement the Trailhawk is not necessarily a driver's crossover. It's a bit too heavy and ponderous in the turns for you to really throw it around, like you can with the Mazda CX-5. The suspension is tuned more for dirt than pavement, resulting in a bouncy ride.
Still, it doesn't disappoint for a daily commute or road trip. The Cherokee Trailhawk keeps its composure over even the worst broken pavement a city can dish out, it is Trail Rated after all, but the aggressive off-road tires make for more road noise than I would have liked.
My test model did not have adaptive cruise control, but it is available as part of the $1,495 Technology Group. You'll need to pony up the extra cash if you want automated parallel and perpendicular parking, lane departure warning, forward collision warning and automatic high-beam headlight control.
If all this off-road mumbo jumbo feels a bit much for you, the 2016 Jeep Cherokee is offered in other trims that place more emphasis on comfort than dirt capability. The top-of-the-line Overland offers luxury features like ventilated Nappa leather-trimmed seats and an Alpine audio system.
If you're not sold on the looks of the Cherokee, you may want to check out the Mazda CX-5 or Ford Escape. Both are a hoot to drive on the pavement and can be had with all-wheel drive. If you just want something reliable, look at the Toyota RAV4 or the latest Honda CR-V. Both are solid performers.
The Cherokee Trailhawk is tough and ready to take on whatever you can throw at it. Despite its grown-up look, it's still a Jeep. The 2016 Cherokee starts at $23,595, but my test model Trailhawk starts at $30,995 and with the optional packages, including a comfort and convenience group, leather and navigation, the grand total comes to $39,410.