Reworked 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk rules its class off-road

The off-road capability of 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk resonates with people who have gotten stuck in mud or snow.

Let us put aside cultural and political polarization for a moment and concentrate on what’s really important: the polarizing effect of some automobile designs.

What I didn’t realize — until I attended a recent media introduction for the reworked 2019 Jeep Cherokee — is that this compact crossover’s predecessor engendered quite a love/hate relationship.

I liked the current Cherokee when it made its debut as a 2014 model. It was deliberately fresh, noted Scott Tallon, Jeep’s brand director, to attract customers to the first Cherokee since 2001. But, he readily admitted, the departure from the mainstream alienated some prospective customers. The chief offender, it seems, was the somewhat protuberant front end’s headlight layout.

The fix for the 2019 model, according to designer Brian Nielander, was “toning down the front end, making it more blunt, more mature.”

In the process, it became more mainstream, but not at its aesthetic expense. This new model is a particularly handsome crossover that dwells in the borderlands between midsize and compact.

Jeep expects those design changes to amp up sales. The 170,000 it sold in 2017 ain’t chopped radiator hoses, but it isn’t the 400,000 Toyota RAV4s and 400,000 Honda CR-Vs that moved out the door last year, either.

One thing the Cherokee has going for it, according to Tallon, is off-road capability, which resonates with “people who have got stuck in the mud or snow.” That interest in good traction, he suggested, dovetails with the fact that while 35 percent of the segment’s customers buy all-wheel-drivers, 50 percent of Cherokees sold are AWD.

Indeed, none of the vehicle’s rivals can begin to match the off-road prowess of the all-wheel-drive Cherokee Trailhawk, with its increased clearance, improved approach and departure angles, locking rear differential, and electronics that tailor engine mapping, shift points, and power distribution to specific driving situations. The vehicle’s off-road intentions are visually evident in the bumper tow hooks, the skid plates, and Jeep “Trail Rated” badging.

I drove the Trailhawk on an off-road course prepared for the introduction and was impressed with the way it dealt with ruts and muck. While it’s not a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon — but then, what is? — it is in the ballpark.

The 2019 model, which will be in the showrooms at the end of February, is somewhere between a mid-cycle refresh and a full-bore redesign. The body, fresh from the windshield front,  features a new, one-piece aluminum front end that combines the hood and grille. The derriere and interior also get a tweaking.

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The new interior of the 2019 Jeep Cherokee Limited.

The nine-speed automatic gearbox has been improved for 2019. Engine choices have been increased to three with the addition of a new 2-liter, 270-horsepower, turbocharged four. This optional engine joins two carryovers: a 3.2-liter, 271-horsepower V-6 and the base, 2.4-liter, 180-horse four banger.

This turbo, which also debuts in the new Wrangler, is a dual overhead cam version of the single overhead cam engine found in the new Alfa Romeo Stelvio crossover. Mike Downey, the Cherokee vehicle line executive, told me that the engine would be used in additional vehicles.

The turbo, whose 295 pounds/feet of torque outdoes the V-6, works well both on and off-road. I liked the guts it displayed in the Trailhawk I took in the woods, and in the leathery, top-of-the-line Overland I drove on the road. I also found the V-6 in the top-selling Limited model quite satisfactory.

The on-road rides in the Limited and Overland proved comfortable and fairly quiet. They were roadable enough, roomy, and handsomely appointed.

The Cherokee starts at $23,995 in base, front-drive form, and tops out with the $36,275 Overland. The V-6 is a $1,745 option, the turbo tacks an additional $500 on that.  All-wheel-drive is an extra $1,500.

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One fix for the 2019 model, according to designer Brian Nielander, was “toning down the front end, making it more blunt, more mature.”