2019 Jeep Cherokee first drive: more conventional, more power, still rugged

January 26, 2018

Jeep didn't get it right with the Cherokee when it revived the revered name in 2014.

The six-eyed styling bugged us—mainly, it looked like an insect. The base 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine was gutless, and the 3.2-liter V-6 was a neutered version of the strong 3.6-liter V-6 found elsewhere. Unfortunately, both engines were also mated to a ZF-sourced 9-speed automatic that proved to be problematic due to slushy shifts, a penchant for searching for gears, and rare use of the top gear.

Last year's Cherokee is like our middle-aged bodies while sprinting: not only is it ugly, it's also slow.

That's changing. For the 2019 model year, Jeep is refreshing the Cherokee and taking this opportunity to get it right…well, at least as much as possible. Not all of the miscues can be addressed, but those that can be are getting serious attention.

2019 Jeep Cherokee, Westlake Village, January 2018

2019 Jeep Cherokee, Westlake Village, January 2018

Engineering improvements
The biggest news is under the hood, where a new turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder becomes the top engine. This dual-overhead-cam, direct-injected turbo-4 is shared with Alfa Romeo and the new Wrangler, and it puts out 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque.

Jeep has too much invested in the other engines to change them out, so they carry over. The 3.2-liter V-6 soldiers on with 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque and the 2.4-liter continues with 180 hp and 171 lb-ft. The 2.4-liter is standard on Latitude, Latitude Plus, and front-drive Limited trim levels. Jeep charges $1,745 for the V-6 on those trim levels, but makes the V-6 standard on Limited four-wheel drive, Overland, and Trailhawk trims. Add another $500 for the turbo-4 if you want it. Your money buys you improved 0-60 mph times. The 2.4 takes a leisurely 10.5 seconds to hit the mark, the 3.2 does it in 7.5, and the 2.0 cuts the time to 7.0 seconds.

All engines add stop/start technology, and the 9-speed has been recalibrated. Rather than aiming for the best fuel economy, which resulted in long hunts for the right gears and slow reactions when more power was needed in last year's model, Jeep engineers have tuned the 9-speed this year for better drivability. That means holding gears a little longer and fewer shifts, and yet a Jeep spokesman said fuel economy will be improved thanks to weight loss and the addition of stop/start.

Jeep made some suspension changes, but it would take a pretty attuned backside to notice all of them. Engineers adjusted the springs, dampers, roll bars, and bushings slightly to improve on-road comfort.

Jeep’s drive event through the rolling hills outside of Westlake Village, California, was meant more for a sports car than a crossover. The suspension changes do nothing for handling, which is competent and controlled but far from sporty. However, these roads showed that the turbo-4 is clearly the best engine in the lineup and the changes made to the transmission are improvements. Still, the tight turns showed that the transmission isn't tuned for this type of driving—it doesn’t downshift quickly enough to power out of turns in short chutes.

One way to remedy this issue to to opt for four-wheel drive, which adds the Selec-Terrain system with Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud, and Rock modes. The Sport mode holds gears longer to tap into any of the engines' power more readily, and it tops out in 7th gear on the highway.

The transmission works better than it has, but it isn’t nearly as responsive as the new 9-speed that GM uses with its front-drive-based vehicles. (If ZF wanted to "get it right," this otherwise well-respected supplier would design a new transmission and help the various automakers that have used its 9-speed integrate it into their vehicles.)

2019 Jeep Cherokee, Westlake Village, January 2018

2019 Jeep Cherokee, Westlake Village, January 2018

2019 Jeep Cherokee, Westlake Village, January 2018

2019 Jeep Cherokee, Westlake Village, January 2018

2019 Jeep Cherokee, Westlake Village, January 2018

2019 Jeep Cherokee, Westlake Village, January 2018

Trail Rated
Jeep charges $1,500 for the base four-wheel-drive system, which is called Active Drive I. It’s a simple, automatic system with a new rear drive module that cuts 17 pounds. The next step is Active Drive II, which has a simulated low range that helps when towing and reduces the crawl ratio down to a sloth-like 52.1:1 with the turbo-4.

The Trailhawk gets the most advanced of Jeep’s three four-wheel-drive systems. It’s called Active Drive Lock, and it comes with a true two-speed transfer case, as well as an electronically activated mechanical rear differential lock. Also on the equipment list are for the Trailhawk are taller and knobbier tires, skid plates, and unique front and rear fascias that improve the approach and departure angles. All four-wheel-drive models get a 1-inch suspension lift, and the Trailhawk sits a bit higher due to those tires.

Jeep’s drive took us to Canyon Ranch Studio property where the sitcom "M*A*S*H" was filmed. There, I drove a Trailhawk on a pretty challenging off-road course. In addition to Selec-Terrain, the Trailhawk has a Selec-Speed system that incorporates hill-ascent and descent control and works like low-speed cruise control with nine settings that range between 0.6 and 9 mph. These systems, and the vehicle's Trail Rated engineering, allowed it to climb up and crawl down steep hills, scrabble over rocks, drive at extreme angles, and climb over a hill with a tough break-over angle. No other vehicle in the class could handle this kind of treatment, making the Cherokee Trailhawk a viable adventure vehicle.

Inside game
Jeep also improved the Cherokee’s inside game. Engineers carved out more space inside without changing the exterior dimensions, adding 3.2 cubic feet to the rear cargo area, upping the total to a maximum of 29.1 cubic feet with the rear seats up. Those seats slide, though, so that can shrink to 24.6 cubic feet with the seats moved back as far as they will go. Fold them down, and the total is a mediocre 54.9 cubic feet. That trails the best in the class by 15 cubic feet or more. However, Jeep has a useful rear cargo management system with a track that features eight tie-down loops.

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

Up front, the Cherokee offers the next generation of FCA’s Uconnect system with either a 7.0 or an 8.4-inch touchscreen, faster processors, and standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The 8.4-inch version of Uconnect remains one of the most user-friendly infotainment systems on the market, and this faster version only improves it.

A more conventional look
Buyers should like the fact that the bug-eyed look is gone. The front lighting comes together like it should. The daytime running lights are now part of the headlights (which are standard LEDs) like just about every other vehicle on the planet not named Nissan Juke. Standard fog lights sit below the headlights at the corners of the new front fascia in their proper place. The result is more than a passing resemblance to a baby Grand Cherokee, and that’s just fine with Jeep because the JGC is a handsome, strong selling SUV that forms the backbone of the lineup.

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

2019 Jeep Cherokee

Jeep made other changes, too. The whole front clip is new, and the hood is aluminum, saving 20 pounds. At the rear, the tailgate gets a new look, and it is now made of plastic composite materials, shaving 18 pounds. It is also available with a hands-free opening function enabled by a wave of a foot. All told, Jeep cut 150 pounds from the 2019 Cherokee, though additional equipment means the total weight savings is actually just 65 pounds.

The takeaway

The changes Jeep has made to the 2019 Cherokee bring it closer to the mainstream, which should be good for sales. The new turbo-4 engine is clearly the best choice, though the V-6 beats it for max towing 4,500 pounds to 4,000. Jeep would also do well to improve upon its base engine and switch to a better transmission, but those would require huge investments. All told, the 2019 update is a good one, and the Cherokee continues as a compact crossover that can haul the family and become an off-road adventure vehicle unmatched by the competition.

Jeep provided travel and lodging to Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this firsthand report.

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