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by David Zatz in November 2014
The original 1984 “XJ” Jeep Cherokee was a major advance, combining light weight, decent on-road driving with high off-road capability, and a low height for easy loading. Customers bought it not just for its trail-and-farm abilities, but because it was an efficient wagon; and one still sees many 1984-2001 Cherokees on the road.
The current Cherokee is a different approach to the problem of making a Jeep that sells to the masses. There is a single model, the Trailhawk, that can tackle the Rubicon Trail (the real one as well as the 1980s version preserved at the Chrysler Proving Grounds.)
Any Cherokee can deal with the stresses of the trail, e.g., they can have the front right and left rear wheels lifted up without popping the doors out of their frames (as happened to one “tough” competitor's 4x4). Many will be front wheel drive, rather than AWD, and only Trailhawk gets the skid plates, 8.7-inch ground clearance, and offroad-ready approach and departure angles. Most people don't actually take their Jeeps to places where that will be a problem, but restricting the serious stuff to Trailhawk may hurt the Jeep brand in the long run.
Cherokee Trailhawk, like Wrangler Rubicon (but less so), was created with a specific goal in mind — to be able to traverse farms, construction sites, ranches, and other places where there aren't any roads, or where the roads are particularly bad. We did not test the Cherokee in its true element — though we hope to do so next summer — but many buyers are likely to choose it for its looks, not its capabilities (just as many purchase a Rubicon for its looks, then wonder why it rides so roughly and costs so much).
On-road, at least, the new Jeep Cherokee is a wonder, even in Trailhawk form.
The Cherokee is similar to its namesake in many ways, but even the Trailhawk can't approach the XJ Cherokee's approach or breakover angles, or its ground clearance (what's more, that clearance was constant, while Cherokee's can get lower due to suspension rebound).
The XJ Cherokee was a clean-sheet design, using Jeep engines; the new “KL” Cherokee started out with a set of dimensions that lets it be built alongside Darts and 200s, a corporate engine, and a Fiat/Alfa architecture. Yet, when off-roading magazine writers had a chance to test both, even one XJ owner said the new car could match his old one, on the same trail.
The end result is that the new 2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is in a different league from the 1990s Jeep Cherokee on-road, and, arguably, in roughly the same league off-road.
I tested the old Jeep Cherokee XJ near the end of its life — the 2000 model, to be precise, with the 4-liter I-6 and an automatic. This car was rated at 16 city, 20 highway, using the old, more generous system. I found it to be quiet and space-efficient, with a torquey engine and a smooth powertrain.
The fully optioned 2000 Cherokee test car was $27,350 ($37,806 in 2014 dollars), but the base price of the Classic was $23,000 ($31,793), including the six cylinder engine and automatic. The price, adjusted for inflation, is essentially the same now, though you get many more gadgets and features, slightly more passenger space, and much less cargo space. [Full comparison]
The transmission went from four speeds to nine speeds, the engine from 190 horsepower to 271, and from 225 lb-ft to 239 lb-ft. Meanwhile, gas mileage went up from 17/21 to 19/26 (at the worst). Compared with the '90s XJ, the new Cherokee's a porker, but tech and aero keep fuel economy under control. Lifting it to the old Cherokee's height (impossible, most likely, without destroying CV joints constantly) would probably drop the highway mileage even more than the Trailhawk package already does.
Another advantage of the original Cherokee is... amber turn signals. Absent in most cars sold in America now, including European imports that have them when sold in their home countries, amber turn signals have been proven to prevent crashes, but given how Americans use turn signals, maybe it's just as well.
The old Jeep Cherokee was not noisy when it was new, but times have changed, and cars are much quieter now. The cheapest Dodge is quieter than the most expensive Chrysler of, say, 2001. The Cherokee Trailhawk is much quieter than the XJ Cherokee, (dead-silent compared with the Wrangler), but it's not nearly as quiet inside as the Dart, 200, and such. Based on the origins of the noise, I'd say some of it is due to the Trailhawk's relatively high coefficient of drag (still far below the XJ), and some is due to non-acoustic window glass. I suspect the interior is still quieter than our top of the line 2000 300M was — but look for wind noise at highway speeds, and relatively weak sound insulation from the road (e.g. other cars, highway barriers, ambient city noise).
The ride itself is fairly stiff, as one would expect from the most off-road-ready Cherokee, though bumps and potholes did not get excessive, even on bad roads, and did not seem to interfere with traction. The Cherokee stuck to the road well in both dry and wet weather.
Cornering is one area where the new Cherokee truly outclasses the old Cherokee, and many cars as well. Even in Trailhawk form, with a higher center of gravity and sub-optimal tires, the Cherokee maintains an impressive grip on the road, whether launching from a stop, or just whipping around a turn. The gradual buildup of power from the 3.2 V6 helps in jackrabbit starts, admittedly, and you can still chirp two of the tires on launch (the standard AWD prefers a 60/40 front/rear wheel power split; sport mode reverses the ratio so you can chirp the rear tires instead). I suspect the lower models, with pure-street tires, would not do this at all. It doesn't interfere with control or bring in the traction control.
The feeling of confidence and stability in the Cherokee is seriously impressive, and unexpected. It truly shames the final Jeep Libertys, which were closer in architecture to the Cherokee but perhaps further in execution. One can easily see the Cherokee as a Dodge or Chrysler, and indeed some have made it clear they'd rather it be badged that way (and I can see arguments for that, with only Trailhawk or at least AWD models carrying the Jeep label).
The steering was tight and precise, particularly on the highway, when it got tighter to prevent accidental movement. Centering could be better but that's a mild quibble.
The Cherokee is an eminently drivable car which you can pretty much put into the back of your mind, rather than paying attention to its quirks and foibles or cursing at visibility problems or nursing the gas pedal or brakes, or manually overriding the transmission. The execution has clearly been improved by extra attention since its launch, and in the end it's a fine road car in tall-wagon form, which can, by the way, also drive through 20 inches of standing water on its way up to the top of a mud pile, by way of a rocky plain.
The 3.2 liter V6 was smoother than the old 4.0, and only a bit less instantly responsive; it's a more modern engine, and a smaller one, but what we lost in torque, we gained in a faster-reacting transmission. The 3.2 is smooth and capable; the Cherokee launched quickly, downshifted instantly when needed, and had enough power for every situation. It's not a torquer, but on the road, it gets the job done, working with the automatic.
Launches were smooth and predictable but still quite fast, with the all wheel drive working well. The slight FWD balance works well for everyday driving, while the sport mode provides a slight RWD balance for more fun around corners. Don't expect a jerk-back launch like you may get with a hard launch in the 3.6 Charger or Avenger, or a serious tire-squeal launch as in the minivans; the 3.2 does build power a bit slowly at first, but then comes through. Under 1,400 rpm, it's not too quick, but it also doesn't ever give the “over-geared, under-revved” rubber-band feel of some competitive engines.
The transmission tends to keep the 3.2 running at around 1,400 when coasting, except in sport mode, when it shoots up to a target of 2,200 rpm; the engine tends to be fairly tame until around 2,400. Torque steer was never a problem (with AWD, it shouldn't be), and 40-65, 65-75, and other “quick passing” runs were fast and easy enough, without the need to floor the pedal. It's no Hellcat, but it's no mouse, either. It's a shame there's no way to have the sport AWD setup without the gas-wasting and strange-feeling extra revs. (More on this later.)
You pay for the V6 in fuel economy, but then, you pay for the Trailhawk in fuel economy, too.
The Trailhawk's gas mileage is the lowest of any Cherokee; you pay for the higher ride height, the extra weight, more off-road-oriented tires, and ground clearance. Again, if you're not going to be crossing rock-strewn trails (or lack-of-trails), or crossing farms or such, save yourself some trouble and money and get a Trailhawk with Active Drive I or II. Trailhawk is not focused on on-road driving, and what you gain in looks is lost in fuel economy, cornering, and wind noise.
The nine-speed was harshly criticized when it first arrived, but the software was upgraded several times, including months when the factory pumped out Cherokees and then held them in massive parking lots until new firmware was ready. Then teams of workers went through, “flashed” the computers, tested the cars, and drove them onto carriers. There has been at least one more upgrade since. By now, in its second model year, the nine-speed seems to be just about flawless in “automatic” mode.
Some complained that the transmission did not go into ninth gear, and we have to back that up. We could pretend to put it there in manumatic mode, but the tachometer didn't move (the display did). Perhaps it does when you have the models without quite as much wind drag. In any case, eight speeds is all that 300C and Maserati buyers get, and two more than most competitors.
Using the manumatic (manual transmission override) was frustrating; it reacts slowly, both to going into the mode and then when shifting. There's no real reason for a system that can shift in fractions of a second to have that kind of lag, but it does. It's still useful for staying in a low gear as you go up or down hills, replacing the old “Low-1” and “Low-2” gears (or am I dating myself).
We tried using the car in three modes, automatic, sport, and sand/mud (for the latter, we found some mud); there are also snow and rock modes. In automatic, the transmission is just about perfect, and we had a single mildly poor shift during our full test period, which makes it as good as just about any other transmission we've experienced from 1970s TorqueFlite three-speeds on to other ZF nine-speeds. It seemed to always pick the correct gear, and downshifts were fast under just about any conditions; it chose downshift gears wisely and sometimes dropped multiple gears at once. We wished for a gear number display, which the 2015 Chrysler 200 has but the Cherokee does not, maybe so owners won't get freaked out that it doesn't go to nine. (My amp goes to 11.)
In mud/snow mode, traction was surprisingly good as we drove through ruts in mud and wood chips made by bulldozers, and climbed a steep wood-chip-on-mud mountain (presumably the mud was biodegraded wood chips, but it was definitely mud under there). The relatively light Cherokee left only a minor imprint compared with the bulldozers, and never hesitated or spun, whether we had it in automatic or sand/mud.
Sport mode keeps the engine near its power band, which starts around 2,400 rpm, which results in excess fuel consumption, noise, and an odd feel, especially when coasting. It's a bit of a pain at first to change modes, but a small amount of practice and you can get there by feel, the dash display showing the mode briefly after you get there (well, after it actually changes programs, by which time it's too late if you chose the wrong one).
It's pretty unrewarding and generally unnecessary, given the system's reaction times and programming; it goes to redline if you floor it, regardless. Paddle shifters would provide the same basic function, and I figure only impatient or competitive drivers will use Sport mode more than once. It does shift the power to the rear wheels (40/60 to 60/40) by default, which gives a slightly sportier feel, but whether that's worth the cost is a question.
For 2015, Jeep made numerous changes to make the V6 Cherokee more fuel-efficient, including a stop-start system. Gas mileage went up by around 1-2 mpg, an impressive gain, and some people will see much higher savings.
When you are in Drive (not Park), with your foot on the brake pedal, if all the conditions are met, the engine will shut off. As soon as you lift the brake pedal, the engine restarts, and by the time your foot reaches the gas, it's running and ready. If you're a “two foot driver,” — stop wearing out your brakes and use one foot, or shut off the system using the physical button on the dash.
There's a trip computer setting that usually tells you the status — things like whether it's off because the engine is too cold, or the battery is low, or the cabin temperature is too off (or whether it's active).
It doesn't tell you on the system (but it does in the manual) that you actually have to use the gas to get the system to reactivate after one stop, and that moving the steering wheel restarts the engine. It provides no feedback about being in “stop and go traffic mode,” in which case it keeps the engine on.
The engine started almost immediately when our foot left the brake pedal, and only once did we hit the gas before the engine was really ready, resulting in a slight chug but no other problems.
I never encountered a situation where stop-start got in the way.
I've always disliked wasting fuel at red lights. The lack of vibration and engine sound is distracting for some, but it's something you get used to in time. The systems have been upgraded to provide the same lifespan as a car without stop-start.
Interior space seemed good in both front and rear, though cargo space is relatively sparse. One can store items underneath the front passenger seat, or fold it flat (but not flush with the floor). The rear seats can be folded flat as well, to carry larger items. A small compartment on the top of the dashboard can hold keys or sunglasses or an EZ-Pass or whatever you may have that needs a small carrying compartment.
Cherokee is no minivan, nor is it as generous for cargo space as the original, but it is nicely sized, fitting easily into parking spaces yet providing good accommodations for four.
Our Trailhawk came with rubber floor mats, a fine choice for a Jeep (this comes from someone who took the lovely carpeted mats in his Chrysler 300C and replaced them with Mopar rubber mud mats). Those who really use the Trailhawk to its full potential will probably want mats that can trap more snow and mud.
The seats have nicer contours and more padding than those in the top of the line 2014 300C, but could still use more padding, which apparently is a rare commodity now. The Trailhawk had nicely textured plastic surfaces, and leather-wrapped this-and-that with contrasting deep-red stitching. The steering wheel was designed to make it easier to use the trip computer, cruise control, and voice activation system.
All controls were at hand and easy to use, though it takes a lot of getting used to the electric parking brake. The good thing about it is you can set it to automatic so the car will always apply the parking brake as soon as you shift into Park, for safety and to increase the drivetrain life; and since most people don't pull or push hard enough on the parking brake to actually engage it, an electric brake is the only one that will work consistently.
The downside is, well, it's an electric parking brake. I kept looking for the manual brake in the usual places, and never quite got used to it. I set it to automatic mainly because I got tired of thinking about whether up is on or off; in automatic mode, it goes on automatically, and you only have to think about how to turn it off (if you forget, it automatically releases when you use the gas pedal, but don't do it that way.)
The physical gauges are clear and simple, with white backlighting and red pointers that come to a point at the end; while the engine redlines at around 6,800 rpm, the tachometer goes to 8,000. The speedometer pointlessly goes up to 140 mph (I don't know the top speed but really, 140?)
The coolant and fuel gauges are both electronic, but not the cheap and nasty five-bar LEDs of 1990s imports; they are on the high-definition 7-inch trip computer screen, so they are actually quite precise. By default, you can see the odometer at call times, along with your choice of three items (e.g. outside temperature, compass, and average mileage).
Our video shows the various options for the display, and again, we just wish that (a) they would make the minimum type size larger so I don't have to wear bifocals in the car, not that I own any, and (b) would put more than one item onto the status pages (e.g. putting transmission, coolant, and oil temperature onto the same page, sacrificing some of the graphical show-offery.) That said, it is a clever system, easier to set up than BMW's and generally quite useful.
The standard Chrysler headlights-and-dimmers setup was present, with the usual usable off-parking-headlights-auto range on the large knob, press-for-fogs in the middle, and twin dimmers. The right one controlled the displays and interior lighting; the left one was for the gauges, but only when the headlights were on. Too bright during the day? Turn on the parking lights...
Interior lighting includes a split push-to-activate twin dome light, and button-operated front overhead reading lights next to a sunglass tray. Bright LED puddle lights adorned the outside mirrors. If there was one complaint, it was the same as on the 300: when you shut off the engine at night, the lights suddenly all go full, blinding brightness.
The glove compartment was relatively small but every door had map pockets, and the center console (perhaps a little too tall for comfort as an armrest and impossible to get out of the way) had two levels, a shallow top level and a deep bottom level with a remote USB port, DC power, and coin holder. Rubber linings prevented rattles in the cupholders and other storage areas.
Our test car did not have the clever parking system, but you can read about it in our 2015 Chrysler 200 review. Here's a video, anyway.
The navigation system has the new design, which looks much better and reacts faster, but relies on smaller type. The cartoon bubbles are a nice touch which allow more information to be shown more clearly; the choice of streets to be labeled seems to be a bit arbitrary, but I admit that I would not want to be the person to write the algorithm.
The traffic display is nicely integrated, and the move to a five year subscription avoids a lot of nuisance in dealing with SiriusXM. It includes a Detour button and an emergency feature which is duplicated in hard buttons on the mirror — one button for routine assistance (e.g. lockouts, out of gas), another to have an operator call 911.
The satellite radio is well integrated; ours had a long starter subscription to Sirius XM. If you let your subscription lapse, they usually cut the price to get you to come back. Or you can ignore it and use USB drives, because satellite radio is highly compressed, and you can tell. It is fine for voice so if you like NPR, Fox, or the BBC, go for it.
The UConnect system has won numerous awards for its ease of use, and we found it easy to pair and use an ancient Motorola flip-phone and an iPhone 5c; you can plug in a USB thumb drive with your music, too, which is cheaper and smarter than locking up an iPod in the car. The system treats both well, using the folder hierarchy and filling in any gaps with Gracenote. It catalogued the USB disk remarkably quickly given that it had 30 GB of music on it.
The voice system was able to correctly recognize commands like “Play artist Bachman and Turner” and “Dial [number]” the first time, without fail (though I could not get it to play Dave Dudley, no matter what I did). It also reacted well to navigation commands, and can show a list of commands on the screen when you talk and provide help prompts.
One oddity is that if you want to stay in the car with the accessories on to listen to the radio while waiting for someone, the gauge backlights also stay on. The backlights are no doubt low-power LEDs, not much of a drain on the battery.
You can pick from one of seven backgrounds for the 8.4 inch display, including both abstract designs and a dried-up dirt road (in amber or grayscale), with blue or amber highlighting.
The stereo had good sound fidelity, though not quite up to our (pricier) 300; I had to alter the settings from the defaults to get the best sound. There was more ambient noise than in some of the other Mopar cars I've driven lately, which may have been a part of the issue. That said, the sound is still far better than just about any Mopar from before Fiat, and is, again, still quite good. Three speed-sensitive loudness settings were provided, and using a higher one (the default seems to be “none”) helped.
UConnect 2 lets you can use your cell phone data plan to play music from Pandora and such, or use Chrysler's “Wi-Fi Hotspot” feature, which provides data access on the road. This can be slower than dedicated cell data setups, but it's inexpensive and was designed to work well when the car is moving at highway speeds. An Assist app seems to do nothing but connect you to one of Chrysler's call centers. There is an app that lets you control your car from an iPhone or Android, for an annual fee.
The basic Jeep Cherokee is a bit of a bargain, starting at around $23,690 including destination, in front wheel drive, with a four-cylinder engine, but keeping the nine-speed automatic. We tested the Trailhawk model, re-jiggered for more serious off-roading, and therefore less suitable for the street — and pricier. This model starts at $30,890 (including destination), minus a rebate currently set at $1,500.
Safety gear includes the backup camera, side curtain airbags for front and rear, seat-mounted front airbags, extra rear side airbags, knee airbags for driver and passenger, roll mitigation, all-speed traction control, hill descent control and start assist, trailer sway damping, and tire pressure monitors for each tire.
Off-road gear, aside from the skid plates, higher ground clearance, and better approach, departure, and breakover angles, include active drive lock, a specially tuned suspension, crawl control, the Selec-Terrain system, LED daytime running lights and tail-lights, and the aforementioned hill descent control, not to mention P245/65 all-terrain tires on 17 x 7.5 inch wheels.
For luxury, we have the UConnect 8.4-inch touch-screen stereo — usually top rated by reviewers and surveys — with UConnect Access to play your own music, create hot-spots, let you control the vehicle remotely (at extra cost), etc. There's an audio jack if you still need one, an SD card slot to play your own music, and two USB drive slots for the same reason. The price sheet mentions LED interior lighting, but our car didn't have it; it did have LED “puddle spotter” lamps under the mirrors. You also get steering-wheel mounted audio controls, a tilt/telescope steering column, leather-wrapped shifter and wheel, 7-inch trip computer, power front express windows, and cargo management system.
Our test car came out at a whopping $37,614, roughly the price of a Chrysler 300C. Huh? Well, let's look at the options. For $995, they added in the SafetyTec group, which provides rear parking assistance that can actually stop the car before you ram the wall; blind spot and rear cross path protection, which is well worth it; and power mirrors that manually fold and have built in turn signals. One crash prevented in the ten years you are likely to own this Jeep will pay for the whole system and then some.
The comfort and convenience group is less compelling, at $1,595: it includes a power liftgate, remote start, keyless entry and single-button start (keep your keys in your pocket), automatic dual-zone temperature control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror (which I'd pay to have replaced by the manual type), power eight-way driver's seat with four-way lumbar adjustment (passengers have a manual height adjustment), alarm, and garage door opener.
$1,395 bought heated leather front seats, a heated steering wheel, and leather rear seats. $1,695 bought the V6 engine and dual bright exhausts. The black hood decal was $200, and the HD stereo with satellite radio, five years of satellite traffic/TravelLink information, and GPS was $845.
The Cherokee comes with a 3 year, 36,000 mile basic warranty, and 5 year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty with roadside assistance. The Cherokee has a four-star safety rating, with four stars for driver and passenger in a frontal crash, four stars for a rollover, and five stars for front and rear in a side crash. 71% of the Cherokee comes from the US and Canada (almost all of it from the US), with Mexico accounting for 16% of the parts. It is built in Toledo, and our car had an engine and transmission made in the United States (all four cylinders are made in the US, and most or all of the V6 engines).
2014-15 Jeep Cherokee main page, specifications and comparisons to the XJ Jeep Cherokee, comparisons to competitors' SUVs, and Jeep Cherokee forums.
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