The downside of owning a global brand is the awful possibility of screwing it up.
Ford holds its collective breath whenever it has to roll out a new F-150 pickup. Early reactions to the Cayenne crossover must have had Porsche managers back-dating their résumés.
And at Jeep, straying too far from the original mil-spec formula is guaranteed to set the Timberland-and-Carharrts brigade to howling.
Which is just what they did when they first saw this new soft-shouldered, squinty-eyed Cherokee with—Lord help us—front-wheel drive.
Then again, this Cherokee’s immediate forebear, the Jeep Liberty, was loved only by rental-car companies, and the big-brother Grand Cherokee has become an outlet-store Range Rover, the value standard for on- and off-road prowess. So Jeep had room to innovate—plus considerable incentive to do so; the market for smaller crossover utes (launched, more or less, by the original 1984-96 Cherokee) has exploded.
If there’s one non-negotiable clause in Jeep’s contract, it’s all-wheel drive, yet this new Cherokee can be had with FWD only. (Don’t tell anyone, but the new Jeep shares a platform with the also-new Dodge Dart, which borrowed it from Alfa Romeo—whose owner, Fiat, also controls Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep.)
Most Cherokees, however, will be ordered with AWD; that is, FWD with automatic power transfer to the rear wheels as needed.
Among four flavors of Cherokee—Sport, Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk—Jeep offers three 4×4 systems. The most capable is Active Drive Lock, as on our sample Trailhawk. Along with up to 100 percent rearward power transfer, it includes high and low gear ranges, auto-locking front and rear axles, and another inch of ground clearance (8.7 inches in all). The Trailhawk also comes with skid plates, fender flares, a transmission radiator and beefed-up engine cooling.
All three Jeep AWD systems have Selec-Speed and Selec-Terrain, which take over hill climbing and descending, and let the driver choose Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud or Rock settings. Or we can just leave it in Auto mode and let the computer and its busy family of algorithms and sensors decide how to manage things, and even when to disengage the rear axle entirely for less friction.
With all this hard- and software plus a blunt nose and tail, the Cherokee Trailhawk can clamber over, through and down obstacles most of us couldn’t manage in hiking boots. Great bragging rights, for sure, but 99 percent of Cherokees will spend 99 percent of their days on pavement, and there the new Jeep needs, oh, nine percent more tweaking.
Steering, braking and handling, while not sports-car sharp, are perfectly fine for such a vehicle. And with 271 horsepower, the Cherokee’s optional 3.2-liter V-6 is very nearly the small-SUV class leader in stonk. (The Six costs $1,495. A 184HP Four is standard.) No, the weak link seems to be Jeep’s new 9-speed automatic transmission.
Shifts can be abrupt and oddly timed. Clicking the lever to manual and shifting by hand may not help because the gear indicated isn’t necessarily the one that’s actually engaged—the computer knows better, thanks all the same.
Dialing the Selec-Terrain knob to “Sport” just amplifies the transmission’s sporadic awkwardness. (It also makes the Cherokee feel bouncy instead of more planted.)
And finally, that unique 9th gear seems to get called up only rarely. How else to explain the surprisingly mediocre 21 highway MPG?
We have no other quibbles. The leather bucket seats are unusually plush, those squinty little headlamps are bright, and the ride is notably quiet. For its sticker price of $36,120, our Trailhawk had plenty of off-road, trailering and comfort options—from heavy-duty tow hooks up front to a power liftgate in back, and from remote start to a matte-black hood decal and an SD Card slot.
If your Cherokee will be a family vehicle, you’ll want Jeep’s accident-avoidance systems, including collision and lane-departure alerts, emergency braking assistance, blind-spot and rear-crossing monitors and adaptive, stop-start cruise control, not to mention Parallel/Perpendicular Park Assist.
The new Cherokee is a far, far cry from the beloved old workhorse, yet it’s exactly what the market demands now.
The Jeep brand remains safe, even with front-wheel drive and more than a few strands of Italian DNA.