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The Jeep Cherokee is a capable small crossover, able to ford creeks, scamper over boulders and take you places more urbane competitors likely can't. Favorable approach and departure angles, plus a trio of available four-wheel-drive systems help provide those mountain-goat talents. It's just a shame this vehicle's off-road abilities come at the expense of some refinement and everyday livability.
Fresh off a not-insignificant midcycle update for the previous model year, not much has changed with this Jeep for 2020. Designers added a couple new exterior colors and wheel designs. The Advanced Safety Group, which includes things like lane-departure and forward-collision warning as well as rain-sensing wipers is also offered on more trim levels. Additionally, Alexa skill technology is available on models fitted with an 8.4-inch infotainment screen. But really, that's about it.
To recap, for 2019 the Cherokee received a number of improvements, perhaps most significantly a redesigned front end, which is much more conventional looking. Gone are the stacked frontal lighting elements including those weird-looking, slit-like lamps. Equally significant: A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine joined the powertrain lineup, plus engineers retuned the suspension for a smoother ride and figured out how to add four more cubic feet of cargo space in the rear. Naturally, these enhancements and more carry through for 2020.
This Cherokee Limited tester sits at the upper-middle end of the overall lineup. Appropriately, it's fitted with four-wheel drive, though if you don't plan on going off-road or you live in a region with mild weather, you could save a little money up front, and at each fill up, by opting for front-wheel drive instead.
The standard engine in Limited models is a 3.2-liter bent-six, a downsized version of the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 used to great effect throughout FCA's product portfolio. With slightly reduced lung capacity, it's rated at 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque.
Nestled behind that iconic, seven-slat grille, my test Cherokee features the optional 2.0-liter turbo-four, a $500 upcharge over the V6. A smooth-running though somewhat coarse-sounding unit, it delivers 270 hp and 295 lb-ft, which is available between 3,000 and 4,500 rpm, rather high up the rev range and in a narrow band for a boosted engine. This curiosity is reflected in its real-world performance. The engine has a lack of immediate, low-end giddy-up. Go for broke from a standstill and it takes a few beats before it really wakes up. Fortunately, once it's spinning it pulls as you'd expect for a powerplant of this type, which is to say quite well.
But wait, there's more! The Cherokee's base engine is a 2.4-liter, naturally aspirated four-banger. It motivates more affordable versions of this Jeep with a relatively modest 180 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of twist.
Unfortunately, no matter which engine you choose, just one transmission is offered: a nine-speed automatic. Ostensibly efficient and easy to fit in smaller vehicles, this gearbox has never really been praised for its smoothness or responsive performance, and in this application it's particularly grim. When taking off from a stop, upshifts in lower gears can be downright harsh, the transmission jerking into the next ratio. Fortunately, once the vehicle is moving, the shifts smooth out considerably, it's just those low gears that are a challenge.
When it's time to boogie, downshifts can take a second or two to manifest as the transmission determines what it wants to do. It's kind of like me at an ice cream parlor, agonizing over which flavors I want (though ultimately I always end up with chocolate and vanilla). Perhaps it gets confused since there are so many gears to choose from? Whatever the case, plan your overtaking and other acceleration-related maneuvers accordingly, and don't be afraid to bury the pedal to speed the process along.
Matching the Cherokee's engine offerings one-for-one, a trio of four-wheel-drive systems is available in this crossover. Jeep Active Drive I can be had on Latitude, Latitude Plus, Limited and Overland models. Claims to fame include being light in weight and having dramatically reduced internal friction for enhanced fuel economy. It's also fully automatic and requires no driver intervention.
Stepping up from there, Latitude Plus, Limited and Overland versions of the Cherokee can be fitted with Jeep Active Drive II, something my tester has. Significantly more capable, this system includes a two-speed power-transfer unit and low-range gearing for greatly improved off-road capability. A one-inch elevated ride height and a neutral mode for flat towing is also included.
Finally, there's Jeep Active Drive Lock, which is standard fare on the off-road-focused Trailhawk model. On top of all the goodies offered with the Active Drive II system, it throws a locking rear differential into the mix for extra capability in the dirt.
If towing is a top priority, the Cherokee is rated to drag up to 4,500 pounds, a best-in-segment figure, at least according to Jeep. That score is provided by models fitted with the V6 engine and optional, $795 trailer-tow package. As equipped, my test model is only rated to tow 2,000 pounds.
According to the US EPA, this Jeep should return 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 27 on highway trips. In mixed driving, expect a claimed 23 mpg.
Attention was paid to the chassis to deliver better ride quality, and this is a place where engineers succeeded. The Cherokee Limited is quite smooth in most on-road driving situations, plus it feels more refined than you might expect for a vehicle in this segment. Even while traversing war-torn pavement, little harshness invades the cabin. About the only thing I can gripe about regarding the suspension is that traversing a successive series of frost heaves can induce a slight head bobbing in the driver and passengers, but this is a minor complaint. This vehicle's interior is also unexpectedly quiet, even at highway speeds. Roaring wind and tire thrum are scarcely heard.
In keeping with its silence and smoothness, the Cherokee is also mostly comfortable. The front bucket seats are almost like thrones, soft yet supportive and all-day usable. Unfortunately, the backseat is a bit tight on head- and legroom, at least for six-footers. The second row is certainly livable, but a little more space to sprawl might be nice.
Behind that rear seat is a generously sized hold that offers up nearly 28 cubic feet of volume when the movable cargo floor is locked in its lower position. All in, with the second-row backrest folded down, there's just shy of 55 cubes in the Cherokee. For comparison, the 2020 Ford Escape offers up to 65.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity. The Honda CR-V is even more capacious, providing nearly 76.
As for the rest of this Jeep's interior, it's completely fine, if a bit bland, especially when rendered in black. There is a lack of open storage on the center console, which is annoying, but somewhat making up for this there's additional room underneath the center armrest. Beyond that, there's also a handy covered bin on top of the dashboard
The Cherokee's cabin features plenty of soft plastics, at least up front. Its steering wheel is chunkier to grip than a summer sausage and is fitted with a phalanx of secondary buttons, which are large and easy to use. FCA's Uconnect infotainment offering is a good as ever, responsive and easy to navigate. What more could you want in a multimedia system?
This Jeep occupies a unique place in the market. It provides more off-road capability than probably any of its primary rivals, yet it's still decent to drive on pavement, mostly comfortable and has a reasonably sized cargo hold. Despite its benefits, the Cherokee, unfortunately, just isn't one of those vehicles that excites me in any palpable way. To be clear, I'm no car snob -- quite the contrary. Still, in the pantheon of mainstream models, the Cherokee is tough to recommend, especially when pricing is considered.
Before any applicable discounts, an option-free, front-drive, entry-level Latitude model stickers for around $27,235 including delivery fees. The Limited model seen here goes for $42,075. That price includes a few options like special paint, the technology package, that turbocharged engine, a ginormous sunroof, navigation and, of course, $1,495 in destination charges.
If you love nothing more than venturing off the beaten path, Cherokee could be the ideal small crossover for you, however, if you're more of the childcare or Costco sort, you'd likely be better served by one of this Jeep's innumerable rivals.