The Jeep Cherokee, absent from the U.S. auto market since 2001, is back. But it is a more luxurious, fuel-efficient version of its former self. You can boo, or celebrate the changes.
If you are a devotee of the original Cherokee, introduced in 1974 as a sportier version of the truck-based Jeep Wagoneer, you might boo. That is especially true if you are comparing the subject of this week’s column — the Cherokee Limited 4×4 equipped with Chrysler/Fiat’s Active Drive I all-wheel-drive system and a base 2.4-liter, inline four-cylinder gasoline engine (184 horsepower, 171 pound-feet of torque).
Booing is in order. The thing is a slug, afflicted with egregious downshifting when instant acceleration, as when changing highway lanes, is demanded. That engine performs better with gradual acceleration. It even feels smooth and likable when treated gently. But such behavior is more wimp than Cherokee.
You give up power in return for fuel economy with the four-cylinder model, which, even with four-wheel drive, gives you a respectable (for a sport-utility vehicle) 21 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. Going with available front-wheel drive gives you more miles per gallon — 22 in the city and 30 on the highway.
But who buys an SUV, one with the rugged heritage of the Jeep Cherokee, with the primary objective of saving fuel? Most people buy that kind of vehicle for power and, at least, moderate off-road prowess. If you are in that group, you should order the Cherokee with the optional 3.2-liter gasoline V-6 engine (271 horsepower, 239 pound-feet of torque).
Both the V-6 and four-cylinder engines are linked to Chrysler/Fiat’s all-new nine-speed — that is correct, nine-speed — automatic transmission. But the V-6 works much better than its four-cylinder sibling with that arrangement.
An advisory: If you live in a moderate climate, one usually free of snow and “wintry mix,” and if you seldom venture off-road, it makes more sense to buy the front-wheel-drive version of any selected sport-utility brand. Front-wheel-drive models are usually less costly to buy and operate than those with all-wheel drive or dedicated four-wheel drive, which means you save money both on the purchase and at the pump.
But if you are looking for a compact luxury SUV with moderate off-road capability and good power, consider the new Cherokee Limited 4×4 — but with the V-6 engine and Chrysler/Fiat’s Trail Rated four-wheel-drive system, replete with a rock-climbing and hill-descent modes. The best of the four-wheel-drive arrangements offered for the new Cherokee, it is recommended here for folks who intend to explore beyond pavement.
Otherwise, the front-wheel-drive and Active Drive I systems — the latter especially useful in rain or snow on paved roads — are just fine.
Active Drive I easily moved me through the final tantrums of winter 2014 — that is, through what I hope are its last fits of wind, sleet and snow. The Cherokee handled with mind-calming confidence in that mess. I would have no complaints about it at all were it not for the disconcerting behavior of its four-cylinder engine in attempting highway acceleration and climbing uphill.
Instant-acceleration problems aside, the Cherokee Limited 4×4 was comfortable to be in and mostly pleasant to drive. The new interior, featuring premium leather-covered seats and faux-wood accents, all expertly put together, is attractive. There are multiple storage units — including a covered binnacle atop the instrument panel and hidden compartment for valuable items in an optionally equipped fold-flat front passenger seat.
But the crowning glory of the new Cherokee’s cabin is the 8.4-inch touch screen used to operate Chrysler/Fiat’s Uconnect infotainment system. I fell in love with this option — the common-sense design and usefulness of its onboard navigation system, the clarity of its rearview camera, its ability to facilitate the use of everything from cellphones to seat heat.
Ah, yes, this Cherokee also came with a bevy of advanced safety options — blind-side warning, lane-departure monitoring, rear parking proximity and forward crash-proximity warning — all of which I find increasingly useful the older I get.
I like this new Cherokee. It just makes better sense with a V-6.