The mid-size crossover makes a lot of sense, but it also represents a collection of compromises. It can't be too big or too small. It has to be fuel-efficient, but it has to deliver spirited performance. Put the Jeep name on it, and is has an additional set of demands. It has to be extremely capable off-road -- but it still has to be comfortable and easy-to-drive on a day-to-day basis. Jeep's outgoing Liberty was a good seller, but truth be told, it wasn't a very good vehicle, at least not when measured against the current competition. With the acclaim of the new Grand Cherokee ringing in its ears, Jeep now takes a deep breath and reveals the 2014 Jeep Cherokee, an all-new mid-size crossover that replaces the Liberty in the Jeep lineup. The 2014 Jeep Cherokee will carry base prices from $22,995 to $29,495 across four trim levels (Sport, Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk). Cherokees come with a 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty, a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty and EPA estimates from 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway (4x4 V6) to 22 city/31 highway (4x2 I4). Let's drive.
If Jeep's lineup represents a spectrum of automotive design, Wrangler would be at one end and Grand Cherokee would be at the other, with the rest of the lineup sitting somewhere along that spectrum, either leaning closer to the boxy, utilitarian Wrangler aesthetic or closer to the rippling, contemporary Grand Cherokee look. Liberty definitely shared more design cues with the Wrangler end of the spectrum. Cherokee quite consciously shifts the mid-sized crossover into Grand Cherokee territory (even in name, which is no subtle attempt to link the two vehicles in consumer consciousness).
Cherokee shares a few Jeep commonalities, including a seven-slot grille and trapezoidal wheel arches. Cherokee's grille is integrated into the hood, wrapping the bend from the top to the front with a sharp crease in the middle. Cherokee's lighting package is a bit overworked, with the daytime running lights and signal lights contained in a pod that wraps around the edge of the fender, the headlamps in a separate lower in the upper bumper, and the fog lamps in the lower fascia. At first glance, the DRL/signal light pod seems like it must be the headlamp -- in which case the position seems odd. What's really going on here is that the Cherokee denies the anthropomorphic face that helps define a vehicle as "cute," and therefore instantly relatable. Once I realized this, and once I shed expectations based on photographs, I was able to see the merits in Cherokee's design. It is a visually aerodynamic design (actual aerodynamics are given as 0.332 coefficient of drag), and distinguishes itself with details that are unique in its class.
Continuing on beyond the front fascia, the body in profile is windswept and modern, with concave body panels beneath a sharp belt line. Black plastic rocker panels, wheel arches and bumper lowers surround the vehicle, adding to the illusion of a tall stance and separation from the ground (actual minimum ground clearance is 8.7"). Around back, things get a little bulbous, as aerodynamic designs sometimes do. The liftgate is kind of plain, with a big expanse of flat metal that calls out for a handle or some other feature.
Overall, Cherokee fits in well with the Jeep lineup, and fits well into the landscape of mid-size crossover vehicle exterior design.
In the Driver's Seat
Jeep's interior designs have taken great leaps and bounds this generation. Some might argue that Wrangler has gone a bit too far toward the comfortable, but that's another story for another time (and another, less comfort-oriented writer than myself). Cherokee continues the trend toward more comfort, more technology and real world inspiration for color palettes and shapes within the cabin. The measureable stuff includes a new 7" TFT (thin film transistor) screen in the instrument panel, an 8.4" touchscreen at the top of the center stack, soft-touch materials throughout the cabin, and newly supportive seats. The emotional (immeasurable) stuff includes calming color combinations, good looks and a solid feel.
There's plenty of smart storage within the Cherokee, including a useful covered stash on the top of the dash, door pockets, center console and armrest storage and a nicely-shaped glove box. An array of connections, including multiple USB and power ports, are smartly arranged in the dash, and an SD-card slot allows for high tech inputs. Chrysler's latest generation Uconnect system comes standard, and once you pair a cellphone and/or audio player, things work seamlessly -- at least they did with my iPhone 4S.
On the Road (and Off)
Cherokee gets fitted with one of two engine choices: a 2.4-liter Tigershark inline four-cylinder (I4) that produces 184 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque, and a new 3.2-liter version of the Pentastar V6 that cranks out 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque. The Tigershark can be bolted into the Sport, Latitude and Limited models, while the Pentastar gets stuffed into the Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk. Both engines get hooked up to a new 9-speed automatic transmission, the only choice offered. I preferred the V6, and would accept that fuel economy penalty (and higher associated price tag) in exchange for the more relaxed driving feel. The Tigershark I4 mated to the 9-speed automatic transmission seems to hunt around for the right gear to keep the engine in its powerband, leading to a bit of droning on the highway. The V6's interaction with the transmission is quieter and more transparent, which is exactly what I look for in an automatic. Direct access to gears is provided via the autostick function - click the gearshift lever to the left, then pull back to upshift, push forward to downshift.
If you're considering a Cherokee, you probably spend most of your time driving on pavement or at least on well-maintained dirt or gravel. Jeep takes their off-road reputation very seriously, though, so there's a new trim level, Trailhawk, that's designed to maximize Cherokee's trail chops. Trailhawk (available only as a 4x4) includes unique front and rear bumper lowers that have been designed for improved approach and departure angles, along with some other goodies like tow hooks and more rugged wheel arch cladding.
4x2 Cherokees are front-wheel drive. There are three levels of 4x4 available: Jeep Active Drive I; Jeep Active Drive II; and Jeep Active Drive Lock. Active Drive I is an automatic all-wheel drive system. Active Drive II includes a low range, and gets Jeep's Selec-Terrain system, a knob that accesses a variety of programs that work with the electronic stability control (ESC) system to send torque where it's needed in various road conditions. Active Drive Lock adds a locking rear differential for rock crawling and extreme off-road situations, along with hill descent control and crawl control functions.
The bottom line is that the Trailhawk model of Cherokee is extremely capable off-road. At the launch event for Cherokee, I was able to drive it over trails that Jeep had designed in the hills above Westlake, California. Cherokee more than acquitted itself, impressing with its agility, stability and ease of use. For anyone who was worried, you can relax: Cherokee is a real Jeep.
Cherokee turns out to be an excellent replacement for the Liberty, which had far outlived its welcome. It remains to be seen what Jeep will do with the rest of the lineup -- Compass and Patriot are both aged designs at this point, and could use some love and re-imagination, too.
The challenge for Cherokee isn't within the Jeep lineup, however. The challenge is the competition, which includes some very capable and freshly designed vehicles, including the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport and Ford Escape. Chevy's Equinox/GMC's Terrain also flirt with the mid-size crowd, and Nissan has just announced an all-new Rogue for 2014. At a higher price point, the Land Rover LR2 matches or exceeds the Cherokee's off-road ability; but the only competitively-priced mid-size crossover with off-road pretensions is the Subaru Forester.
Even if you never plan to drive off-road, I encourage you to include the Cherokee in your consideration when you start shopping for a new mid-size crossover. It's right up there with the best on the market, part of a resurgent Jeep lineup that just keeps getting better and better.