Make no mistake; the all-new Jeep Cherokee is definitely going to polarise. Some will love its daring, while some will loathe it for its unapologetic departure from the familiar Jeep design.
Either way, it’s certainly going to be turning heads – and that’s just what Cherokee’s chief designer, Greg Howell says he’s hoping for.
While the latest-generation Jeep Cherokee certainly heralds a bold new look for Jeep, Howell argues that all the ‘right’ Jeep DNA, including the trademark seven-slot grille, trapezoidal wheel-arches and short overhangs, have all been cleverly incorporated into the new design.
It’s still something of a gamble though, as the larger, more traditionally-styled Grand Cherokee has been a big success for Jeep, combining style and features with a good deal of cache at a reasonable price.
So can Jeep pull off the same trick with Grand Cherokee’s baby brother?
Unlike rival 2WD models in the mid-size SUV segment, such as the $33,620 Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport and $32,690 Toyota RAV4 GXL, which make do with 2.0-litre petrol engines, the entry-level $33,500 Cherokee Sport gets a 2.4-litre petrol engine.
However, on paper it’s still a shade behind the $32,790 Honda CR-V VTi model, which is also equipped with a 2.4-litre powertrain and trumps the Jeep’s 130kW output with its 140kW, as well as offering AWD.
This is unlikely to hold the Jeep Cherokee back as it has raised the bar when it comes to transmissions by equipping the entire model range with a first-in-segment nine-speed automatic as standard. The gearbox is designed by Jeep, but manufactured by well-known German specialist, ZF Friedricshafen AG.
The latest Cherokee is available in four grades; Sport, Longitude, Limited and Trailhawk, powered by one of three different engines including a 200kW/315Nm 3.2-litre V6 Pentastar and 125kW/350Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel, which will join the range later this year.
Only the base model Sport is available with a four-cylinder powertrain and 2WD, all other model variants get the V6 with a choice of three different 4WD systems.
Inside, Cherokee’s design revolution continues unabated, with a blend of quality, soft-touch materials and plenty of cool technology on the higher grades.
Jeep’s intention was to squeeze as much of the Grand Cherokee into this smaller package – and they’ve done a darn good job.
All the controls are clear and simple, centred on some tasty technology such as the 8.4-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation (on the Limited and Trailhawk) and one of the most user-friendly Bluetooth pairing systems we’ve seen.
That said, the entire Cherokee range is well-appointed with even the base Sport scoring a range of features including 17-inch alloy wheels, five-inch touchscreen with voice command, Bluetooth phone and music, LED daytime running lights, projector headlamps and rear-view camera.
Fortunately, this newcomer to the Jeep stable also ditches the foot park brake for a more convenient electric version.
The second-tier $39,000 Cherokee Longitude adds dual-zone climate control, auto headlights and wipers, power tailgate, rear-parking sensors with park assist, remote start and Jeep’s Selec-terrain with Jeep’s Active Drive 1 AWD system.
Highlights for the luxury-spec $44,000 Limited model include premium 18-inch polished alloy wheels, leather upholstery with heated front seats, seven-inch TFT instrument cluster, nine-speaker Alpine sound system and Bi-xenon headlamps.
The $47,500 Trailhawk is the hardcore off-road model in the range and the only Cherokee to wear the highly regarded ‘Trail Rated’ badge. Its off-road capability is further enhanced with Jeep Active Drive Lock, which adds a rear diff-lock and a ‘Rock’ setting to the vehicle’s Selec-terrain system.
It’s also the most aggressively styled variant in the range, boasting higher ground clearance, protective underbody skid plates, several external red tow hooks along with blackened grille and panel accents.
Inside, there’s a host of nooks and crannies for storing things around the cabin, but my personal favourite is the secret compartment under the passenger seat cushion (look hard enough and you’ll find a map of the Rubicon Trail).
While there’s no third-row seating, the second row does slide fore and aft, providing plenty of legroom when the seats are filled and extra boot space when they aren’t.
Where the Cherokee does fall short is in terms of cargo space. The boot isn’t especially large, only just able to swallow a couple of medium-size suitcases. However, the seats do fold flat, with all but the base model adding a lie-flat front passenger seat and a handy power tailgate.
Also missing from the higher-grade models is push-button start, but it’s part of the $900 Electronic Convenience option pack that also includes a first-in-segment wireless charging pad, proximity key and a 230V/50hz auxiliary power outlet.
While the Grand Cherokee can only manage a four-star ANCAP crash test rating, the 2014 Cherokee has earned the top five-star rating with a claimed 70 safety features including seven airbags as standard, as well as a full suite of active safety systems.
Opt for the $3000 ‘Technology Group’ package and you’ll get blind spot and cross path detection, forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning plus and parallel and perpendicular park assist with stop.
The first Cherokee we sampled was the base 2.4-litre Sport model, and truth be told, I wasn’t expecting it to set the world on fire. For starters, this all-new Cherokee is easily the heaviest vehicle in its class, tipping the scales at a hefty 1638kg – more than 200kg up on all its key mid-size rivals.
But perhaps surprisingly, there’s no lack of punch from the naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol – dubbed Tigershark Multiair2.
Jeep’s all-new ZF-sourced nine-speed auto easily addresses any power-to-weight deficit with an arsenal of perfectly-spaced gear ratios ready to react to the driver’s request.
Better still, not only is this ZF transmission quick to find the ideal ratio for any speed or throttle position, it’s also able to skip multiple gears seamlessly, under hard acceleration from lower revs.
What’s more, the power delivery is smooth and vibration free, and any unwanted noise at higher rpm is nicely muted for those inside the cabin.
The only issue we have with this 2.4-litre powertrain is the lack of throttle response at higher speeds, since seventh, eighth, and ninth gears (we didn’t see ninth throughout our test route) are all overdrive ratios designed to deliver better fuel efficiency.
Riding on smaller 17-inch wheels (higher grades get 18s) our Cherokee Sport delivers a nicely cushioned ride and feels planted on the road. Body control is excellent, with little roll in corners and nicely weighted steering that’s also quick to respond.
And just like its larger Grand Cherokee sibling, the structure feels solid with no evidence of creaks or groans, even on gravel roads.
The latest Cherokee is the only vehicle in its class with a petrol V6, the benefits of which are immediately noticeable. It’s an effortless cruiser on the open road, teaming with the nine-speed auto to offer smooth performance and a level of refinement and quietness well above the four-cylinder model.
The added grunt of the six also overcomes the extra 200 kilos it’s carrying over most of its rivals, and fuel consumption on test was only slightly higher than Jeep’s 10.0L per 100km claim, at 11.3L/100km.
We also got to sample the Trailhawk in South Australia’s Flinders Rangers, where it proved extraordinarily capable – able to climb steep, rocky tracks even without needing its rear diff-lock function.
Trust the Italians (Jeep is part of the Fiat/Chrysler Group) to inject some real style and flair into the rough and tumble world so familiar to the Jeep brand. Make no mistake though; this is also a seriously capable all-rounder that brings the same level of build quality, comfort and features we’ve appreciated in the Grand Cherokee to a smaller, more popular segment.
It may not win over the Jeep purists who count a 1942 Willy’s Jeep as their daily driver, but we think it’s guaranteed to find favour among a wider group of buyers than any Jeep model before it.
Check back shortly for a dedicated off-road review of the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.