Ever since the fifth-generation Jeep Cherokee went on sale in 2013, it's been a notable jack of all trades in the compact SUV class. You might get a Honda CR-V if you want more cargo space, or maybe you'd pick a Toyota RAV4 for its focus on fuel efficiency, but the Jeep Cherokee's never been bad at any of that stuff, either. A slew of updates for the 2019 model year help the Cherokee become even more well-rounded.
When the paved roads end, however, none of the competition can roughhouse off-road like the Jeep. With that in mind, I took a road trip out to Zion National Park to let the 2019 Cherokee flex its Trail Rated abilities while also seeing how it composes itself over long distances.
Although the Cherokee is a car-based crossover SUV, this Trailhawk model's off-road preparedness makes it feel more like a lumbering pickup truck along twisty sections of road -- not that anyone is buying a rugged Cherokee for sporty driving dynamics, of course. The Cherokee Trailhawk works just fine for A-to-B driving with nicely weighted steering and confident braking, but exaggerated body motions are par for the course in this Trailhawk trim.
The Cherokee is powered by a new-for-2019, 2.0-liter, turbocharged I4 engine, with 270 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque and a nine-speed automatic transmission. From a stop, this engine/transmission combo gets the 4,260-pound Trailhawk moving up to speed with reasonable alertness, but on the highway, the nine-speed is slow to respond when you put your foot to the floor. That makes for sluggish highway passing, but the transmission is otherwise fine while upshifting or driving around town.
With a lengthy Zion road trip under my belt, after 976 miles of mostly highway, I ended up averaging 26.5 miles per gallon. That's pretty good considering the Cherokee Trailhawk is EPA rated for 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway.
You can also equip the Trailhawk with a 3.2-liter V6 that produces 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque. Despite less twist, the V6 is rated to tow 4,500 pounds; 500 more than the four-cylinder model. Fuel economy takes a slight hit, with the V6 rated for 18/24 city/highway mpg, but the six-cylinder only requires mid-grade gasoline, while the 2.0T drinks premium. As a result, the EPA says your annual fuel cost could be $2,200 versus the four-cylinder Trailhawk's $2,250.
Non-Trailhawk Cherokees can be had with front-wheel-drive and a 2.4-liter, naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, with 180 horsepower, 170 pound-feet of torque and 22/31 city/highway mpg ratings. The base Cherokee starts at $24,545, but my nearly loaded Trailhawk Elite 4x4 comes in at $43,620 including $1,495 for destination.
Twenty minutes south of Zion National Park along the Smithsonian Butte Back Country Scenic Byway -- "Crybaby Hill," as the locals call it -- you'll find plenty of opportunities to test the Jeep Cherokee's off-road chops. Short of rock-crawling, I was able to experience the Trailhawk's confidence-inspiring hill-descent control, 56:1 crawl ratio and 8.7 inches of ground clearance. The Firecracker Red Trailhawk feels in its element kicking up dust amid Utah's remarkable vistas.
The Jeep's suspension makes easy work of Crybaby Hill's pockmarked paths while the steering gives me a slight sensation of what the dirt is telling the front wheels. Nail the throttle to unleash all the power the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine has to offer and the four-wheel drive simply hooks up and launches you to the next off-road challenge, but it's also super easy to modulate when you're crawling over rocks or negotiating tricky passes. Over washboard-like surfaces, body motions are kept in check, but a few rattles begin to emanate from behind the dash. As muffled as they are, though, the Cherokee still presents itself as a well-built, go-anywhere machine.
Chiseled outside, plush inside
The Trailhawk boasts more aggressive looks and a one-inch higher ride height than other Cherokees. Red tow hooks pop like a pair of cherries on the front fascia, and the butch visage works well with the 2019 Cherokee's refined design. I can appreciate how last year's model tried to set itself apart from other compact SUVs, but I never found it appealing. The 2019 model's more conventional-looking headlights lend themselves to a more handsome look.
There are fewer changes to the Cherokee's interior, but why mess with a good thing? The Jeep's cabin is plenty plush, never leaving me in pain after six-hour stints behind the wheel. My road trip is never boring, either, thanks to the Jeep's enveloping, full-bodied 506-watt Alpine.
With clear roads ahead welcoming me with open arms, I'm able to sink a little deeper into the Cherokee's warmed (and cooled) Nappa leather seats and enjoy the SUV's quiet cabin. Riding on a set of all-terrain tires, the most off-road-worthy Cherokee trim offers a muted cockpit complemented by a smooth ride.
Also ahead of me is an 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen infotainment interface I find easy to use whether via the native menus or through Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Other tech features on my Trailhawk include embedded navigation, plus HD and satellite radio. The Cherokee is also available with a healthy suite of driver-assistance features, including collision-mitigation braking, the aforementioned adaptive cruise control, automatic high-beams, rain-sensing wipers, lane-keep assist, automated parallel parking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and rear parking sensors with automatic braking.
How I'd spec it
If I were in the market for the one compact SUV that can really tussle off-road, then I'd make sure to option it with every performance enhancement while balancing that capability with every creature comfort.
My tester's black wheels, which help the red paint pop a little more, are $655 and worth it. The same goes for my example's $2,995 Elite package, which among other items, adds a heated steering wheel, auto-dimming mirror, foot-activated liftgate, power driver and passenger seats, leather upholstery and remote start. $1,095 is a small price to pay for the Cherokee's Technology Group that adds the driver-assistance features mentioned earlier.
In addition to all of my tester's optional extras, I'd stick with that spicy Firecracker Red paint, and I'd dish out another $115 for the engine block heater in case I wanted to road-trip to Alaska. I'd also shell out $795 for the towing package and $1,095 for rock rails, bringing my out-the-door total to $45,625.
Pay for the prowess
Make no mistake, $45,000 is a pretty penny for a SUV in this segment. You'll pay up to $10,000 less for similarly equipped competition. None of them, however, can dream of matching what the Cherokee can achieve off-road. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide if segment-leading off-road capability is worth the extra cash.
That caveat aside, the 2019 Cherokee is better than it's ever been, chock-full of the latest tech, a refined turbocharged engine and plenty of room inside for passengers and cargo. In its more grocery-getting trims, it worth a look if you're in the market for a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4, but when the going gets tough, it's Trailhawk or nothing.