Think of the Cherokee as a staid, grown-up version of the Wrangler. The interior is very similar, with an identical instrument panel, glove compartment, seats, even the same engine and about the same gas mileage.
Take a Wrangler, get rid of the just-for-fun stuff like removable doors and top, and add space for cargo, sound insulation, and shock absorbers, and you have a Cherokee. Like the Wrangler, it has very good pickup (with the vintage four-liter six), and best-of-class off-road prowess. Unlike the Wrangler, it is comfortable on bumpy roads, has very little wind noise, and does not constantly send you audible reminders that you are using an engine and transmission. The (optional CD and cassette) stereo is excellent, a far cry from the Wrangler.
We strongly recommend the full time four wheel drive system; it made the vehicle sure-footed, and unlike the part-time system (also included for off-roaders), only intruded with a slight increase in noise and a heavier feel to the steering wheel. In brief, steering was not impaired, as it would be on a part time system. (Warning: four wheel drive does not affect the brakes! We found the Cherokee skids as easily on ice as any other vehicle, such as that Toyota Land Cruiser in the bushes on the side of Route 287).
Generally, the Cherokee is not pretentious, but it is well designed. It has a unique look and character, a refreshing change from all those four wheel drive vehicles that will break their suspensions the first time they meet a hole between the rocks. It manages to shield the driver from discomfort without reducing the tactile pleasure of getting in and driving. The transmission carries that theme; it shifts smoothly but firmly, not unlike the old TorqueFlites, and downshifts when wanted, but not every time you hit the gas. The six cylinder engine, which pulls immediately from idle and keeps on going to redline, is also a pleasure.
The windshield wipers were very effective, and their short size implies a longer than usual lifespan. We were surprised by how quickly the heat came on; much faster than the previous champion, the Dodge Neon. The engine did not seem to notice when we put the air conditioning on, a testament to its torque.
The Cherokee is inexpensive by SUV standards; ours, fully optioned, was $27,350, but the base price of the Classic was $23,000, including the six cylinder engine and automatic transmission (both options). Gas mileage is not as bad as with competing vehicles, the engine is responsive, and the spare tire is kept inside, where it is easily accessible.
Despite its squarish appearance, the Cherokee is rather ergonomic, more so than many of its softer, larger competitors. The overhead console is a triumph in utility; it has a trip / gas mileage computer with compass and thermometer, a place for sunglasses, and a place for a garage door opener, along with two lights. The cup-holders are rudimentary but they work, though we must admit we used them mainly as coin-holders for lack of a better place. There is good cargo space, and it is nice and square in shape, as it should be. Squareness does not hurt the Cherokee at all, if wind noise and sales are any indication.
Though you drive up high, the Cherokee provides good visibility on all sides, and effective windshield wipers keep the windows free and clear. The defoggers are very carefully designed, with built-in side demisters.
The Cherokee was supposed to be put out of production this year, but its popularity and some potential concerns over its replacement have given it a reprieve until 2001.
Given the effectiveness and character of the Cherokee, we can see how a completely new model may not be appreciated by the hard core Jeep fans. That's a high compliment to a reasonably priced, reasonably designed utility vehicle that can handle paved and unpaved roads with equal facility.
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