Jeep takes 2014 Cherokee down a whole new path

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee has serious off-road ability in some trims, but Jeep will also offer front-wheel-drive and four-cylinder Cherokees for less adventurous owners. (Jeep/MCT)

Oh, the grumbling and the tears when the popular Jeep Cherokee went away after 2001. And to be replaced by the Liberty, a very capable but cutesy, bug-eyed SUV adored by many of the fairer sex.

Well, the Cherokee nameplate is back for 2014. The Cherokee, after 13 years, has been reincarnated, but few will recognize it.

This time around, the Cherokee isn't the tough, basic, boxy and functional SUV ready for the trail. It's a crossover, for crying out loud, based on the Dodge Dart platform. It looks like no other Jeep, with slits for headlights and smooth, soft lines. It is tame and cooperative on the road, not the roughshod ride of yesteryear.

What's going on here?

Better get used to a whole new concept for Cherokee, but you just may get to like it if you give it a chance. It has a different, daring look. And it's far better behaved on the road, where most of us drive these things. And it's more comfortable and sophisticated inside, too, comparable to the Grand Cherokee.

With its smooth and aerodynamic profile and pinched-tight running lights, the Cherokee looks nothing like the last guy. And its reactions from Cherokee fans have ranged from "It's different, but I can live with it" to "I think I'm going to be sick."

It grew on me through the course of a week. Just have to think outside the box a bit. One woman on an auto forum said she wanted something with character and personality. "Cherokee's got it all," she said.

Its looks aren't the only thing that sets the new Cherokee apart from its kin. Performance is all new with a relaxed, comfortable well-behaved ride that no one in this class can top.

It's not so much a sporty ride, but a soft, well-balanced one.

Base power comes from a 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder engine that puts out 184 horses. No base engine in this segment is anything to brag about, but this one is a little noisy and rather sluggish, too, likely due to Cherokee's 3,375-pound curb weight.

Better to go with the optional 3.2-liter V-6. Based on the Pentastar V-6 found in the Grand Cherokee, it produces 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque, and it delivers power smoothly via an all-new 9-speed automatic transmission.

Mileage on the highway is near 28 mpg, with a combined figure around 23 mpg.

If it's a sporty ride you seek, you could do better in the segment, say, with the Mazda CX-5.

But the other guys can't do what the Cherokee can do off-road. Properly equipped, as in the Trailhawk version, the Cherokee owns the gravel and small boulders with one of two advanced 4WD systems. Jeep's SelecTerrain system also offers rock mode, a low range and rear locking differential.

Both front-wheel and AWD systems are available with either engine.

The Cherokee is a smallish, 5-passenger crossover, but interior passenger space is very accommodating. In fact, it doesn't feel much different than the Grand Cherokee. Adjustability is ample so you are likely to find your sweet spot when it comes to comfort.

And the back seat space is exceptional for this segment, with plenty of head- and legroom. The back seats also recline and offer forward and rear adjustments.

The tradeoff on all that passenger space is in the cargo area. Even with the rear seats reclined, Cherokee can't compete with cargo space among the competition. It accommodates 55 cubic feet of space, around 20 percent less than the other guys.

Still, it never felt too cramped with weekly groceries or the golf clubs. And there are lots of nooks and crannies for water bottles and cellphones.

Interior features are much like the Grand Cherokee, too, with a prominent center stack. An 8.4-inch entertainment/navigation touch screen comes with all Cherokees except the base. It's intuitive and easy to operate.

An optional tech package offers lane-departure, in which the steering wheel will nudge you back into your lane; blind-spot warning; and forward-collision avoidance systems. Heck, this thing even parks itself with an automated parallel parking system – a rarity in this crossover segment.

Among other safety features: ABS, stability and traction control, side curtain air bags and front knee bags, and rear-view camera.

Aside from the steel wheels, the base Sport trim is decently equipped with power accessories, 5-inch touch screen, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth and audio connectivity. And you can trade the steel wheels for optional alloys.

Three other trim levels are available, including the Latitude, which adds niceties like fog lights, LED interior lighting and leather-wrapped wheel. Plus, a broader range of options, including dual sunroofs and an 8.4-inch touch screen. A Convenience package adds 8-way power seats, auto headlights, remote start and power liftgate.

Off-roaders will want the Trailhawk, a 4WD-only vehicle with all-terrain tires, rear-locking diff and real skidplates. Options are packaged in the Convenience group or a Technology group, including the aforementioned tech-safety features plus automated parking.

The Limited omits the off-road gear but adds luxury to the Convenience package with premium leather upholstery and xenon headlights.

What is not available here is any of the old Cherokee DNA. Off-roaders will still migrate to the Wrangler. But former Cherokee lovers, if they're open-minded, will enjoy a capable, comfortable ride, room to spread out inside and some high-tech features they could only dream of in the 1990s.



–Base: $23,990

–As tested: $33,930

Prices include destination charges.


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