This is the 2014 Jeep Cherokee. By now, you’ve probably even seen it out on the road. For sure, you’ve seen it in pictures and likely reacted viscerally.
If running the King of the Hammers is on your “to do” list, your Jeep is the Wrangler. While it’s available in four-door Unlimited form, it makes a preposterous family car. The Liberty, which the new Cherokee replaces, did better with families but was still happier on unimproved roads than filling the back with boxes full of “New and Improved!”
Even the beloved XJ Cherokee, a family vehicle thanks to fashion-conscious families with money to blow, was not roomy or frugal. The 2014 Cherokee is the best family-car Jeep in more than a generation. That’s because the Cherokee actually is a family car. The Compact US-Wide platform, the stuff of cars like the Dodge Dart and the upcoming 2015 Chrysler 200, forms the basis of the 2014 Cherokee.
Is it weird that Jeep, the quintessential American nameplate, is basing its latest entry on passenger cars from Europe? It’s a talking point, but it probably doesn’t matter. Besides, the XJ had a whole bunch of French stuff in it, courtesy of Renault. All you really need to know is this: because it’s car based, the Cherokee is the best mid-range Jeep in…forever.
The 2014 Cherokee fits in right above the Compass/Patriot and just below the Grand Cherokee. Enthusiasm for the new Cherokee has followed a similar pattern. While the Grand Cherokee gets all the gushes and accolades, the Compass and Patriot are universally derided. Response to the Cherokee is an average of both extremes. After early drives in the Cherokee, TTAC’s own Derek Kreindler voiced significant reservations. Derek makes plenty of valid points, but my outlook for the Cherokee is rosier.
I drove a 2014 Cherokee Latitude and came away terribly impressed. First, the styling moves all of Jeep beyond seven slats, round lights, and blocky shapes. The looks are polarizing, but the Cherokee stands out on the road, and that means that there’s more people asking “what’s that?” I do think it looks better in person than in pictures. In fact, I think the Cherokee looks fantastic, and it’s still got some visual toughness while breaking new ground. Styling is hard, and getting everyone talking is sometimes the best you can hope for. Generating interest is going to help Jeep grab the brass ring of 1 million vehicles sold.
Lately, Jeep is on a roll, selling 731,000 vehicles in 2013. The Cherokee didn’t have a whole lot to do with that. Barely on dealer lots in 2013 after delays related to the 9-speed automatic transmission, there have only been four months of Cherokee sales figures reported so far. The best month was December 2013, with 15,038 Cherokees sold in the US, but that number dropped back to 10,505 units sold during January 2014. If the Cherokee naturally settles in around 11,000 per month, that represents 132,000 per year, putting it in third behind the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee (and mid-pack in the small CUV segment). Maybe that’s something to celebrate, but it’s a sales position the Liberty also occupied, so fool me once, won’t get fooled again. Third place in the Jeep lineup only means you managed to not be outdone by the ancient Patriot and Compass. The Liberty held those two off by moving just over 75,000 examples. So while the Cherokee is doing better than that in monthly numbers, let’s let it play out for a whole year before declaring the Cherokee as some kind of revolution.
Your impression of the Cherokee is going to hinge on what you expect out of it. Do you want it to be the Jeep of mainstream crossovers, or do you want it to be everything to everyone shopping in the segment? If you want to cover all of the on-road bases, there’s a multitude of choices, from the Honda CR-V to the Kia Sorento, Toyota RAV-4, and the Ford Escape. They all take their best whack at satisfying new parents and downsizing boomers alike. Jeep has wisely gone the other way. The Cherokee is hefty, it’s got actual off-road chops and a lockable center differential. It drives like it was taught by the Grand Cherokee. If that’s not enough, there’s the more hardcore Trailhawk that will get you even further into the woods before you run out of talent.
Taken as the Jeep in the segment, it’s brilliant. That said, because it’s the Jeep, you pay more and get less. Many are willing to make that tradeoff, but objectively, you get less cargo space, less fuel economy, and less car-like behavior. I came at the Cherokee expecting that it would be a significant improvement over the Liberty while also delivering an experience that wouldn’t alienate a Grand Cherokee intender. What I found was a vehicle that basically succeeds at that mission.
The Cherokee is luxuriously quiet inside, and the clear controls and easy ergonomics are welcome in this class dominated by buttony center stacks. The seats in the Latitude-trim Cherokee I tried were comfortable, though the bottom cushion is short, reducing thigh support, important for long stints behind the wheel. The passenger seat has a storage compartment under the cushion, a nice trick the Cherokee learned from several veteran Chrysler products. Those controversial low-mounted headlamps are only adequate, at best, and my average fuel economy of 22.2 mpg is what you’d expect out of a significantly larger vehicle.
Manufacturers often send out the most loaded-up examples for the media to drive, so it was refreshing to get a mid-spec vehicle. Standard for the Latitude 4X4 trim I tried is the 2.4 liter four cylinder, cloth upholstery, UConnect 5.0 with 5” screen, manually-adjusting front seats, 17” alloy wheels, instrument cluster with 3.5” TFT display, and a $26,495 starting point. My Cherokee was powered by the smooth, punchy 3.2 liter Pentastar. Instead of the four cylinder Tigershark’s 184 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque, I was treated to 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque. When you’re tipping the scales at 4,044 lbs unladen, it makes a difference. The V6 no doubt added to the air of refinement, and even with the excellent sound insulation, I’m sure a four cylinder Cherokee would feel less premium to me.
As it is, the cloth seats feel out of place in a vehicle carrying a $32,970 bottom line. For $33K, you’re in Grand Cherokee Laredo territory, and a Limited-trim 4X2 Grand Cherokee isn’t that far away at $37,000. What’s four grand when you’re financing? With the V6, UConnect 8.4 (but no nav, only “nav-ready”), Active Drive II, Trailer Tow Group and Customer Preferred Package 27J, the Cherokee I drove was well-equipped, the equivalent of a $40,000-plus Grand Cherokee 4X4. If you’re looking for those kinds of features and capabilities, the Cherokee is your huckleberry.
On the family measures, the Cherokee is banking on Jeep’s name to carry the day. With just 24.8 cubic feet, cargo room is noticeably tighter than the major players. Folding the second row will net you 54.9 cubic feet, but you’ll get 70.9 cubic feet in the CR-V, and 72.5 cubic feet in the value-by-the-pound Kia Sorento. Even the Ford Escape, which has drawn space efficiency flak, has more cargo space. All of the competition offers four- or all-wheel drive that may lose to the Cherokee in the woods, but proves more than adequate on paved roads and, most importantly, the showroom floor. While there’s more rear legroom in the Cherokee than others, it’s narrower, and headroom is on the low side in the rear, too. There are spacious storage cubbies in the doors, adequate storage areas in the dash and center armrest – helpful when hauling the kids, but that small rear cargo area is a real Achilles’ heel.
The ride and handling of the Cherokee may be off-putting to some, too. It feels substantial and solid, because it is. But it’s not as light on its feet as the non-Jeeps, and while it feels like a smaller Grand Cherokee, that’s not what everyone is looking for. The nine-speed transmission was a question on everyone’s lips during my time with the Cherokee. I didn’t find it to be an issue, a bump here and a slow response there, perhaps, but it’s easy to find evidence of Extra-Terrestrials if that’s what you’re searching for. There are lower-tech issues with the Cherokee that bite way before the transmission ever will. The SUV-grade ride and handling – this thing is no Mazda CX-5 – and higher ground clearance leads to higher entry and load height.
If you like Jeeps, you’ll like the Cherokee. If you’re looking for the best value in the segment, this is not it. The Cherokee is a waypoint for the future of Jeep, however. It’s going to influence the styling of models to come. It’s also not likely to outsell the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee, but I’ll take a more optimistic view than Derek and suggest that it will come in as a solid #3 in the lineup by doubling the just-barely-third performance of the Liberty. Call it tempered optimism.