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The USA is getting used to the return of the Jeep Cherokee name; all markets are adjusting to a dramatic new look for the company’s mid-sized SUV.
Jeep’s latest version of the smaller sibling to its hugely popular Grand Cherokee, know as Liberty in the States in recent times, has been a talking point since images were first released earlier in 2013.
The Jeep Cherokee styling controversy centres on the bent version of Jeep’s trademark seven-slot grille that’s flanked by ultra-narrow running lights.
Now we’ve seen it in the metal, we can tell you it looks… well, um, still different.
Jeep says it’s happy for the Cherokee to divide opinion, setting out to design a vehicle that would appeal to a more youthful audience than customers of the Grand version.
That shark-like snout, though, also serves a functional purpose – contributing to an aerodynamic shape designed to make the Cherokee cut through air with less effort. That helps achieve better fuel consumption numbers Jeep acknowledges customers have pushed for.
And the new model certainly needs to perform better in the sales charts of the mid-sized SUV segment – the most popular section of the soft-roader market.
CarAdvice headed to California for the international launch to find out if the new Jeep Cherokee has the credentials to tackle quality bitumen-focused rivals that include the Mazda CX-5, Honda CR-V and Ford Kuga.
In another sign of a move towards paved roads, the new Cherokee is based on a front-drive platform borrowed from Fiat and found under the Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatchback and US market Dodge Dart compact sedan.
So there’s not a live axle, body-on-frame chassis or transfer case in sight.
A front-wheel-drive-only variant features in the line-up, continuing Jeep’s move to cater for SUV buyers who don’t need heavier, thirstier off-road hardware, though even the four-wheel-drive models are front-drive in regular driving.
A Jeep Cherokee Sport will adopt that 4x2 set-up to become the entry-level model in Australia when the new range goes on sale in the second quarter of 2014.
Expect a price just under $30,000 to combat the likes of the $27,990 Kuga 2WD, $27,490 CR-V 2WD and $27,880 CX-5 2WD.
The remainder of the Cherokee quartet employ a 4WD system that’s front-wheel drive when cruising around to help fuel use but can engage a propshaft to send up to 100 per cent torque to the rear wheels where needed.
Australian Jeep Cherokee Longitude and Limited 4x4 models will get Active Drive 2, which brings a lower gear ratio for better crawling ability over the all-wheel-drive-style Active Drive 1 also available in other markets.
The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is the off-road specialist of the pack, gaining a rear differential lock, reprofiled overhangs and higher ride height among other things.
The launch route covered freeways and winding valley roads, and everywhere the new Cherokee provided a pleasantly cushioned ride regardless of model or tyre size/profile.
Jeep has stiffened the Cherokee’s body by 36 per cent over its predecessor, and that contributes to a quiet cabin as much as the smooth drive.
The Jeep Cherokee makes similar progress to its bigger brother when it comes to tackling corners, though handling is predictable rather than sporty and a Ford Kuga and Mazda CX-5 are more enjoyable and nimble.
Tyre grip varies from the all-season tyres. It's more limited on the base Sport we tested, where the 17-inch Firestones squealed and the Cherokee understeered constantly when the pace was pushed up, with better hanging-on performance coming from the 18-inch Continentals on the Longitude and Limited models also tested.
We also like the steering, which is light to turn and offers ample accuracy for this type of vehicle.
Two of the three engines that will be available in Australia were available to test, with the Fiat 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel absent (perhaps not surprising given the launch country).
Of the two petrols that comprise a 2.4-litre four-cylinder and 3.2-litre V6, we tried the smaller-capacity engine in both 2WD and 4WD form.
A slight weight advantage of the 2WD seemed to allow for a slightly more lively response from the engine, though in both acceleration is more on the sluggish rather than eager side of the performance spectrum.
It doesn't help that the Cherokee can weigh more than 200kg more than key rivals, such as the CX-5.
To be fair, though, the mid-sized SUV 2WD segment isn’t bursting with inspiring engines, and even the excellent CX-5 is let down to some degree in front-drive form with its underpowered 2.0-litre.
The V6 has more power and torque – 199kW/316Nm versus 137kW/234Nm – though while it revs out smoothly and provides more agreeable acceleration, you still wouldn’t call it effortless on winding roads and up hills.
Both are linked to a new nine-speed automatic designed by German gearbox specialists ZF and built under licence in the US. It’s brought in for the front-drive configuration of the Cherokee, where the bigger, rear-/all-wheel-drive Grand Cherokee employs ZF’s now-popular eight-speed auto.
The nine-speeder has a nice spread of ratios and multiple overdrive gears, but it's not entirely convincing.
Shifts are not particularly quick and the auto always seems to be over-eager to get into its higher ratios for the sake of fuel consumption – with engines that both have a shortage of low-down torque. Paddleshift levers are also desperately missing because even the auto will over-rule driver selections via the gear lever's tip shift function.
The 2.0-litre turbo diesel may prove to be the pick of the engines, though Jeep likes to charge a higher-than-average premium for its diesels.
Jeep’s V6 has enough grunt for off-road work, though - which is thankful as this is the only engine that will be offered with Australian-spec Trailhawks.
While a course Jeep set up for the launch wasn’t the most challenging we’ve driven, and was also aided by bone-dry conditions, the V6-powered Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk navigated narrow, rocky passages and steep sandy ascents and descents – the latter with the occasionally nasty drop-off that would swipe off the front bumper of the typical mid-sized SUV.
Other Cherokees might have suffered a similar fate as the Trailhawk gets a sharper-rising front and rear overhang to give it superior approach and departure angles. Its ride height is also an inch higher, there’s that locking rear diff, and it sits on tyres more specifically designed for dirt rather than bitumen.
Its Selec-Terrain system dial also features buttons to engage descent control or the Selec-Speed that enables the driver to adjust the Cherokee’s (ultra low) speed up or down hills.
Where speed adjustments are made in the Grand Cherokee via paddleshift levers, you use the tipshift function of the auto gearlever in the smaller Cherokee.
And just in case you need to help pull another 4WD out of a bogged situation – or get stuck yourself – the Trailhawk incorporates tow hooks.
It’s the only Jeep Cherokee to get the company’s ‘Trail Rated’ badge of honour.
Jeep interiors are getting as much attention these days as the off-road engineering, and the latest model follows the quality step-up of the Grand Cherokee.
Hard plastics at the mid and lower level of the cabin are norm for the class, and Jeep just needs to work on the look and texture more. There’s still plenty of nice-to-touch plastic in important places.
Wavy dash and door trim curves are inspired by the raised wings of an American Eagle, says Jeep, and do add a nice touch to the interior design.
The base Sport gets a more basic centre stack with mini touchscreen, so it’s worth considering higher trim grades just to get Chrysler’s brilliant 8.4-inch colour infotainment touchscreen that looks modern and is simple to use.
Technology such as blind spot and lane departure warning systems are also available.
The company has been conscious about practicality. Storage options include a large console bin with separate tray section, good-size door pockets, sizeable glovebox and a hidden compartment under the front passenger seat.
Seat comfort is excellent front and rear, whether you have the cloth of lower-spec levels or the leather of upper-spec models.
The rear seat bench has sculpted cushions on the outer pews and ample depth to avoid knees-up or splayed-legs positions. Headroom and footspace are roomy, though legroom becomes tight if a tall passenger is sitting behind a tall driver.
Bigger boots are to be found in the segment, though it’s still a decent size and the rear seats fold to create a flat cargo area.
The previous Cherokee was a bit forgettable. And I can’t tell you why because I can’t remember.
We’ll have to wait for Australian roads, pricing and specifications, as well as relevant fuel consumption figures, before determining the new model’s placing in the scheme of mid-sized SUV things.
However, a cushy ride, comfortable cabin, excellent infotainment system, clever storage and low-range gearing for genuine off-road capers are already positives that will make the new Jeep Cherokee worth a look in this highly popular segment.