The Jeep Cherokee continues as the US 4WD brand's entry into the medium-SUV segment.
Although Jeep is famous for its all-wheel-drive vehicles, the Cherokee range starts with 2WD model added in 2012 and priced from $28,000. That Sport model is joined by a $31,000 Limited model.
Three AWD Jeep Cherokee models start at $30,000 and are powered by the same 3.7-litre V6 petrol engine.
The only diesel variant is the $37,000 Limited model.
I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the old Jeep – when I say old, I mean a left-hand drive 1942 World War 2 version, made under licence by the Ford Motor Company. The connection? I learned to drive in one of these things, as it was the only vehicle my old man would allow us to drive, given that it was virtually indestructible. It was also cheap to buy and cheap to run. The only problem was the rain, so we carried plenty of industrial-grade wet-weather gear in the rear storage bins on the way to school. Those were the days.
While the Jeep Wrangler, specifically the ‘Rubicon’ variant, is the modern day equivalent of the battle-tough, go-anywhere, WW2 version, the Jeep Cherokee Sport is a mid-size SUV with all the benefits of room and luggage capacity but with a solid dose of that off-road DNA that’s so intrinsically ‘Jeep’.
I count around 19 different vehicles in the medium SUV segment in Australia, but ask yourself, which one stands out in the crowd? It would have to be the Jeep Cherokee, with that instantly recognisable seven-slot Jeep grille. The styling is more masculine than previous models with heavy-duty wheel arches, and a brick-like stance that implies more off-road capability.
It’s interesting how the designers have used the pronounced front bumper assembly to mirror the look of the original steel bumper bar that was part of the classic look of the WW2 Jeeps, only they were hardly what you would describe as pedestrian friendly, as is the current design.
There’s some sensible plastic cladding under the doorsills, as well as a door protector strip. The oversize door handles look unbreakable, although I found the odd push-button design more of a nuisance than a pull-type mechanism.
Inside, it’s functional, with the switchgear in all the right places, but the problem is there’s a lot of budget-looking grey plastic in the cabin, and none of it is soft-touch. The hard plastic around the ignition barrel feels particularly low-grade and clumsy.
That said it all works well enough and there are no rattles, even over the potholes that litter Sydney’s suburban road network, which is as good a proving ground as any when testing how well a vehicle is screwed together.
Materials aside, there’s a sense of robustness inside this cabin, that it could take some serious punishment from kids.
You sit quite tall in the Cherokee. All round vision is very good - the beltline is relatively high, but there’s plenty of depth in the windows. This makes it quite easy to place the vehicle in corners or when parking, not to mention the rear parking sensors, although there’s no rear camera option.
You won’t want for storage inside the Cherokee either; there are all sorts of nooks and crannies for phones, wallets, coins, as well as one of the largest centre storage bins I’ve seen in a passenger vehicle.
It’s even better in the rear load area, which can be accessed either by popping up the rear glass window if you just need to throw something in quickly, or by opening the entire rear tailgate for larger loads. The actual load height is higher than most SUVs, which is good news for your back when loading large boxes such as televisions and computer equipment. There’s also a neat wet storage compartment under the rear floor for wetsuits and costumes, etc.
The rear seats fold dead flat, which means a reasonably large and practical cargo capacity of 1404 litres. That said, there isn’t a whole lot of depth to the load space, and with the seats up that capacity is reduced to just 419 litres.
While the Cherokee Sport misses out on leather trim, the hard-wearing cloth upholstery is comfortable and incredibly durable (if not childproof) and the front seats are well bolstered and provide good support even when punting along through corners.
While rear legroom is fine for those of us who aren’t giants, I found the driver’s side footwell tight on space, and accentuated by the lack of a footrest. That’s a bit of an issue on a long drive, even with the mandatory rest stops every two hours.
All the usual creature comforts are there though, such as a good quality sound system, auto headlamps, heated power folding mirrors (which automatically fold out if you forget, as you move forward), cruise control with steering-wheel mounted controls, manual climate control with air filtration and power windows with driver and passenger one-touch up and down function.
Under the bonnet sits a fairly unsophisticated 3.7-litre SOHC 12-valve V6 petrol engine, which for its sizeable displacement, puts out a very average 151kW and 314Nm of torque. On the road, it’s a little better than the figures suggest with plenty of grunt on tap. You need to have a heavy right foot for punchy acceleration, but it’s there if you need it.
If you don’t hammer it, then its smooth revving and quiet inside the cabin (you can barely hear the engine at idle), but under load, things get considerably noisier. That’s more a result of the inadequate four-speed automatic, and the less said about that the better. While the ratios are relatively well spaced, the moment you need to apply a good old dollop of throttle to climb a hill or overtake, it’s a fairly harsh kickdown to second or third gear for enough rpm to get the job done.
While there’s a minor update with the 2011 model Cherokee, sadly it doesn’t include the latest Chrysler Pentastar dual overhead cam 24-valve V6 powertrain, which we experienced in the recently released Jeep Grand Cherokee.
From a dynamics perspective, the Cherokee Sport is a lot better than I expected. Gone are the days of the rather boat like handling and suspension that the early Cherokees suffered from, which has been replaced by what is a stiffer chassis for improved handling when cornering. There’s not a lot of body roll, even when carrying a bit of speed through the bends and it’s actually quite nimble. The trade off is a ride that is less compliant than other vehicles in this segment.
That said the Cherokee is surprisingly responsive for a vehicle that weighs in at 1935kg, and apart from some slight play in the steering from dead centre, it responds accurately and quickly to driver input.
For off-road travel, all Cherokees in Australia are fitted with the highly capable Select-Tru II full-time four-wheel-drive system that is essentially a torque on demand system, with the ability to switch between three different drive modes on the fly.
For general suburban duties in clear weather, there’s no reason to switch from 2WD in the interest of reducing fuel consumption. If the wether gets bad, and there’s a lot of water on the road, or you need to access a fire trail, then the 4WD Auto mode will provide the right amount traction for all such duties.
You can also use this mode for full-time driving. The only time you would need to engage 4WD Low is if you were negotiating steep slopes (off road) or perhaps towing a large boat-ladened trailer from a sandy bottom.
While we didn’t get a chance to put the Cherokee to the test on the hard-core tracks near Lithgow, we did get into some sand and trail driving, where the Jeep performed effortlessly without the need to engage low range.
Thankfully, Cherokee Sport comes standard with Hill Start Assist and Hill Decent Control, as well as a full suite of active and passive safety features including six airbags, ABS with Rough Road Detection, All-speed Traction Control, Brake Assist, Electronic Roll Mitigation, Electronic Stability Control, Tyre Pressure Monitoring System and security alarm.
For added safety in the event of a serious accident, where airbags are deployed, the Enhance Accident Response System will switch on the interior and hazard lights, unlocks doors and shuts off fuel flow.
The Jeep Cherokee is an affordable way into the 4WD brand, though it's a long way short of the interior quality and driving improvements seen from the company on the bigger brother - the Grand Cherokee.