The 2014 Jeep Cherokee drives with the even-handed aplomb of a Santa Fe Sport, sometimes stuffed with a Trail Rated off-roader. That makes it a crossover-SUV in the truest sense.
We've driven all the drivetrain combinations offered with the new Cherokee, and admire the performance range that can be dialed into its lunar-rover body with the right ticks on the options box. With a four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, it's a tall, economical hatchback; with the six-cylinder and Active Lock off-road system, it's a nimble rock climber.
The choice of engines doesn't have to be a vexing one: for a change at this end of the Chrysler lineup, they're both pretty good. The standard engine is a 2.4-liter in-line four rated at 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. It's reasonably powerful, with a 0-60 mph time of about eight seconds in base trim. It's also, easily, the best-sounding Chrysler four-cylinder in a long time. The energetic nudge it gives to front-drive Cherokees isn't accompanied by the usual rasp and noise, just some mild exhaust drone. It's eerily vibration-free. It's also capable of a 31-mpg EPA highway rating, though 25 mpg combined sounds a lot more reasonable in everyday use.Most of the crossovers in the compact class have gone four-cylinder-only; the 2014 Jeep Cherokee still offers a big six, a downsized version of the Chrysler six that's also in the Grand Cherokee. The 3.2-liter V-6 here makes a very strong 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque. We'd peg the front-drive V-6 Cherokee at a 0-60 mph time of about 6.5 seconds--it's a fairly heavy vehicle, somewhere between 3,700 and 4,100 pounds--and we'd gauge the V-6's responses as quick and unobjectionable, in the engine-noise department.
All Cherokees, four- or six-cylinder, come with a new ZF nine-speed automatic transmission, with a very low take-off gear and a few very tall overdrive gears for fuel-economy concerns. It's a gearbox that really wants paddle actuation, though we'd settle simply for more direct control over some shifts. Chrysler says there are more than 40 shift programs to be chosen--but the Cherokee lacks the most important one, the one we pick. Choose "D" and the nine-speed rifles through the launch gear and a handful of usable driving gears before it races for those gas-mileage ratios--and once it's there, it's loathe to go back. There's no true manual-shift mode: you can change gears with the lever, and it will display a number for your selection, but the nine-speed's shift logic is the decider. It will pick a gear based on fuel economy and yaw state and throttle position, even though it still will display the gear you actually want.
By the way, you'll want to be in the Sport mode when it's available on the Cherokee you're driving-- all the time, just to get the quickest shifts. That likely will negate the fuel-economy gains the nine-speed brings.
The Cherokee's ride and handling are a pleasant surprise. We were prepared to feel underwhelmed, based on the relative lack of rebound control on the Dart sedan's suspension bits, but the Cherokee has much better composure. That starts with its flavor of electric power steering: it has a dual-pinion rack that delivers no feedback and somewhat heavy weighting, but good accuracy despite its off-road intentions and all-season tires. The Cherokee rides very well in most versions, with smooth damping over most urban streets and even into some unpaved ruts where it could rightfully balk. The Trailhawk deflects less road rash, thanks to off-road tires and an inch higher ride height; it's clearly labeled to avoid misconsumption.
All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive: Active Drive I, II, and Active Lock
Before landing in the Trailhawk aerie, the Cherokee ambles through less adventurous territory, starting with the basic front-drive models. There are two traction systems between it and the Trailhawk, the first of which is Active Drive I, a light-duty setup with a wet-clutch design and variable torque distribution between the front and rear wheels. It's handled automatically by the sensors that also govern the Cherokee's throttle and transmission and stability control, and without a low range, makes it all-wheel drive. It's offered on the four-cylinder, but the added weight could tap the Cherokee's eagerness at higher altitudes; we didn't think its improved cornering responsiveness took too much away from the power on tap.
Active Drive II gets a low range with a sky-high (low?) crawl ratio of 56:1 with the four-cylinder, which Jeep says is 90 percent better than that of the Liberty. All Cherokees with four-wheel drive have Selec-Terrain, which lets drivers choose the best mode from Sport, Snow, Sand/Mud, and Rock. Sport splits torque front-to-back at 40:60 ratio; Snow reverses that ratio and starts the Cherokee in second gear for less slip; the sand and rock modes allow a rear split of up to 100 percent, and are combined with off-road braking modes. The Cherokee's rear axle will declutch when not in use, which saves some fuel.
Jeep's Trail-Rated badge applying to the Trailhawk, which gets a one-inch suspension lift, slimmer front and rear fascias, a locking rear differential, skid plates, and red tow hooks. It also gets Selec-Speed control, which lets Cherokee climb hills with the same tenacity as it lowers itself with hill-descent control, creeping up from 1 mph to 5 mph in increments selected with the shift lever. Approach and departure angles are good for off-road work, at 30 and 32 degrees--and with ground clearance of 8.7 inches, the Cherokee really has very few rivals in its highly developed off-road niche. We're not even sure we'd want to take a high-riding Subaru Forester down some of the trails we dusted in the Cherokee, or if we'd want to pull as much as the 4,500 pounds the Cherokee is rated to tow. It may be the only Swiss Army knife in the crossover-SUV drawer.