WESTLAKE VILLAGE, CA – Since the last Cherokee rolled off the assembly line in 2001, Jeep hasn't had a real entry in the mid-size SUV category.
It has had the Liberty, Patriot and Compass, but they didn't really go head-to-head with the likes of the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Sante Fe or Chevrolet Equinox.
The Liberty never resonated with Canadian consumers and was discontinued in mid-2012. The Compass and Patriot are dated now and don't match up with the big sellers from Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and Kia.
But with the arrival of the 2014 Cherokee, Jeep addresses this shortcoming.
Chrysler on a roll
During the introduction of the new Cherokee here, Reid Bigland, president of Chrysler Canada and head of U.S. sales, said the company is on a roll north of the border.
But Bigland says that success is not enough and he sees the path to even greater market share in the 2014 Cherokee.
“Ford is currently selling about 50,000 Escapes a year in Canada and Chrysler has nothing in this segment," he said. "We are looking for a piece of this action.” He added, that the Cherokee will bring purely incremental sales because the company now has no entry in that big category.
In its favour, the Cherokee name resonates strongly with Jeep enthusiasts. It was a fixture in the market from the 1980s until production ceased in 2001, when it was unable to compete with the new breed of “soft roaders" sought by a growing number of buyers.
In fact, in some quarters it was credited with creating the mid-size SUV segment where the new version will compete. But its time had come and lacking the resources to develop a replacement at that time, it was dropped.
The 2014 Cherokee has been developed from the outset to match or better the current competition, retaining and building on the Jeep name while offering a whole new level of refinement and features for folks who have never considered a Jeep.
What makes it worthy of such praise is a combination of its degree of refinement, dual personality, level of equipment and aggressive pricing.
The new Cherokee is available in four trim levels, one of which will hold up the traditional Jeep banner and satisfy even the most hard core off-roader. The real surprise is the other three – sophisticated, quiet, and smooth, with stand-out styling and interiors worthy of a much higher price point.
Robb Burns, who headed the exterior design team, said his edict was to do something unique, something that would still look fresh five years down the road.” Jeep customers are not “me too” kind of people, he added.
The grille bends up and into the hood and is flanked by slit-like LED daytime running lights, where headlights are traditionally located. Those units rest behind smoked glass well below.
Controversial it may be, but dull it is not. The unique front end is part pure design and part a response to the need for reduced aerodynamic drag, with the attendant benefits of improved fuel economy and reduced fuel consumption. Another factor is consideration for pedestrian impact regulations.
The interior is another area where the new Cherokee excels. Arguably the best-in-class, it is modern, complete, well laid out and well-appointed – more Grand Cherokee than Liberty.
The seats are supportive and the second row units slide fore/aft through a 15-cm range. They also fold flat, along with the front passenger seat back, creating a flat floor from instrument panel to tailgate for transporting those occasional long items.
There are storage provisions everywhere including beneath the front passenger seat and on the top of the instrument panel.
Klaus Busse, who headed the interior design team, said that eliminating the CD player – yes they are now outdated – left more room within the instrument panel, so he asked the engineers to come up with a vertical HVAC system, making room for a very deep glove box and the storage bin up top.
While the cargo area doesn't appear to be as large as in the CR-V and RAV4 competitors provided for comparison, the Cherokee has a spacious and segmented provision below the cargo floor that makes up the difference.
Four trim levels
The 2014 Cherokee has been aggressively priced and equipped, costing hundreds to thousands of dollars less than the competition. It's available in Sport ($23,495), North ($26,495), Trailhawk ($30,695) and Limited ($29,995) trim levels.
A fourth trim level – Trailhawk – features standard four-wheel-drive, which is a $2,200 option on the others.
The “base” front-wheel-drive Sport comes with the nine-speed automatic, air conditioning, Uconnect infotainment system with colour touch screen, 10 air bags, power windows, locks and mirrors, cruise control and remote keyless entry with panic alarm.
Most of these standard features were not available at any price when the last Cherokee rolled off the assembly line.
Two engine choices
Power comes from one of two engines – the 2.4-litre “Tigershark” four-cylinder introduced in the Dodge Dart or a new 3.2-litre Pentastar V-6 that is a derivation of the award-winning 3.7-litre unit used throughout the Chrysler family.
No manual transmission is offered. Both engines are mated to the industry’s first nine-speed automatic, developed jointly with ZF Friedrichshafen. Built in Indiana, it packs nine gears into the same space required for a six speed, yet has a torque capacity of 350 lb-ft, ensuring we will see it elsewhere on future Chrysler vehicles.
It sits 2.5 cm further off the ground and has unique front and rear fascias and bumpers that allow vastly improved approach and departure angles. It also has skid plates, big red tow hooks and a truly innovative and immensely effective 4x4 system (see sidebar).
Also available on four-wheel-drive equipped vehicles is a Selec-Terrain system that lets the driver select one of five different modes of traction control to help navigate specific road conditions, including auto, snow, sand and mud, or sport, and on the Trailhawk, rocky-terrain settings.
Off- and on-road
With a Selec-Speed Control system (see sidebar) on the Trailhawk, I crawled through canyons, over boulders and powder-like silt and up and down steep hills never touching the throttle or brake pedals.
Even the “lesser”4X4 systems provide the expected Jeep off-road prowess, but it is the on-road ride and handling that impress even more.
On the road, the Cherokee's underlying Alfa Romeo genes are on display whether diving into a turn at speed or coping with rough surfaces – taut but not unpleasant. The electric power steering and meaty steering wheel combine to provide excellent feedback.
Models equipped with any of the 4x4 systems are even more impressive due to their ability to feed power to the rear wheels when exiting a turn.
Lives up to its legend
There is a version of the new Jeep Cherokee capable of satisfying the rock-climbing, stream-fording lifestyle of Jeep traditionalists. But more importantly, there are others worthy of consideration by those looking for a fuel-sipping, family-friendly and very well equipped and priced compact CUV.
The second coming of the Cherokee will not only impress hard-core enthusiasts, it should attract a while new breed of customers. It can compete on all fronts with any of the myriad of small SUVs on the market – and teach them all lessons off-road.
The 2014 Cherokee is one of the most enjoyable vehicles of its size on the market. As a whole, it more than lives up to its iconic name, in the process leap-frogging many of the competitors that have been eating the brand's lunch in its absence.