Jeep Cherokee offers rugged, old style in a small SUV

2018 Jeep® Cherokee Overland-15032018-0001
The 2018 model year will be the last year for the squinty-eyed headlights introduced on the Jeep Cherokee a few seasons back.

2018 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk L Plus: A rugged little SUV?

Price: $45,830 as tested. The base price for the trim level was $31,195, so options added up quickly — $1,155 for blind-spot and cross-path detection; $1,645 for the safety features of the Technology Group: $795 for the Trailer Tow Group; $1,755 for the Panoramic Sunroof. (More options discussed below.)

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes the “solid ride and handling, legitimate off-road capability, Jeep badge adds cred” but not the “poor fuel economy, limited cargo space, subpar value.”

Marketer’s pitch: “The 2017 Jeep Cherokee was named the Compact Sport Utility Vehicle of Texas by the Texas Auto Writers Association.”

Reality: But will Texas look nearly so tough if it turns blue in the fall?

What’s new: Not a whole lot. A redesigned, less squinty-fronted Cherokee is coming for 2019.

What’s not new: The love-it-or-hate-it front grille. I’m in the second category; younger folks seem to love it. FiatChrysler seems to be on my side, so neener neener.

Up to speed: The 3.2-liter V-6 engine ($1,745) creates 271 horsepower. Acceleration was stellar, with 60 mph coming in just 7.5 seconds, according to Car and Driver.

On the road: The Jeep Cherokee handles competently if not superbly. A sport mode tightens up the handling and makes turns a bit more fun. But truck is the order of the day here.

Shifty: The sport mode also tightens up the transmission, and that’s not really a great thing.

The 9-speed transmission functions more admirably than I’ve experienced in some other recent Jeep and Fiat tests, but there’s still plenty of indecision. Hard downshifts could be smoother than gentle rolling hills, where only a slightly lower gear or two is needed to climb.

The shifter doesn’t allow for any real shift control but acts more as a limiter. The gearshift itself is a large knob for big Jeep-owner man-paws to handle.

In snow mode, I found the transmission still performed well. But in sport, the shifts held for so long that I really wanted to see it upshift for a long while before it would.

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The layout of the controls in the 2018 Jeep Cherokee is logical, and the look is attractive. But the seats leave a bit to be desired.

Driver’s Seat: The Jeep Cherokee feels quite like the Jeep Compass I tested earlier this year. The power leather seats have the typical FCA feel to them, where they’re not snug — one sits on them rather than in them. (They’re part of the $4,000 Customer Preferred Package 27L, which added heated and ventilated front seats, power liftgate, and more.)

The seats also have a cute cushion frame around the edges, but this also adds discomfort by overpadding just under my knees and behind my shoulder blades.

The speedometer is actually hard to view when I sit comfortably.

Friends and stuff: This being a Cherokee and not a Grand Cherokee, space was at more of a premium, but passengers did not suffer.

A crossover, the Cherokee has awesome headroom in the rear. Leg and foot room are all excellent as well. The middle seat suffered from a large hump and short seat bottom.

The rear seat does move, which is a nice touch.

Cargo space is 54.9 cubic feet behind the front seat and 24.6 in the rear.

Play some tunes: The Cherokee receives the standard FCA infotainment treatment, which I’ve grown fond of. The touchscreen controls much of the action, although large volume and tuning knobs add efficiency to those maneuvers.

Sound quality was very good, probably a B+ or A-.

Night shift: The overhead light was too bright and diffuse for real usefulness while driving. The aforementioned squinty eyes cast themselves a bit too far downward as well, so nighttime driving was not pleasant. Take that, light-strip lovers!

Fuel economy: I averaged a dismal 19 mpg in the usual Mr. Driver’s Seat on-road course, although a bit of snow came in the middle of the test.

Where it’s built: Belvidere, Ill.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts the reliability to be a 3 out of 5. It’s gotten a 3, 4, and 1 over the previous years.

In the end: If you need an off-road, capable, small SUV that’s easier to live with than the Wrangler, this is your choice. But if your idea of an adventure is a trip to Starbucks and Trader Joe’s, maybe you’d prefer a few more creature comforts.