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Review: You can call the Jeep Cherokee a crossover, but don’t call it a soft-roader

road test

Off road, on point

You can call Jeep's mid-range a crossover. Just don't call it a soft-roader

Jeep has refashioned the previously polarizing face of its Cherokee.

It's like déjà vu all over again. Same off-road course, same kind of Jeep, same steep, boulder-strewn gully to strike terror into anyone driving a conventional "soft-road" crossover.

Last time we were here, we were driving the then-new 2014 Cherokee, which only seemed to fit the standard soft-roader formula of car-based front-drive architecture and optional automatic all-wheel drive.

This time, we're driving the freshened 2019 model, and Jeep hasn't messed with the best of the 2014-18 models. There's still a Trailhawk version dedicated to hardcore go-anywhere stunts that seem insane to anyone but dedicated off-road hobbyists.

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Once again, we contemplate the challenge before us and think, "Jeep actually wants me to drive their vehicle over that? No way!" Then we do as we're told and the Trailhawk gits 'er done.

One thing that is different on the Trailhawk for 2019 is that the previously optional 3.2-litre V-6 is now standard. That makes sense: Historically, in Canada the Trailhawk garnered a remarkable 36 per cent of Cherokee sales, versus Jeep's original prediction of 7 per cent to 8 per cent; and 80 per cent of all Cherokeers chose the V-6.

Also still on the menu are the two less-hardcore AWD systems, even the tamer of which (Active Drive I) is more sophisticated than almost any rival's; the middle-choice Active Drive II adds a unique-in-segment dual-range transfer case with centre lock in Low.

So, what has changed?

Well, the design team refashioned the previously polarizing (by Jeep's own admission) face. The seven-slot grille is better defined, the snout is a little less pointy and the hood is raised to accommodate deeper headlamps (with LEDs now standard).

Below the skin, the engineers retuned the suspension and steering (some customers complained parking-speed steering effort was too high) and trimmed 68 kilograms of mass – in part through an aluminum hood, composite tailgate, and a rear-drive module lighter by 7.7 kilograms – to improve fuel economy. They also further refined the nine-speed transmission, early versions of which were largely responsible for Consumer Reports ranking the 2014 Cherokee's reliability dead last among 29 SUVs and CUVs.

The 2014's other big bugaboo was in-car electronics, but CR data shows both that and the transmission were much improved by 2017 – as was its overall reliability ranking. For 2019, the latest version of Uconnect adds Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Improved and revised trim materials and an enlarged trunk are also part of the inside story.

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Under the hood, the Cherokee has been an outlier in offering a big V-6 as the move-up engine where most class-mates fielded a turbo four-cylinder as the high-potency option – or none at all.

For 2019, the Cherokee offers both: a 2.0 turbo, loosely related to the one in the Alfa Stelvio, is now an option on most trims. It asks $2,590 as an alternative to the base 2.4-litre four (North trims, and Limited 4x2), or $995 where the V-6 is standard (Limited 4x4, Trailhawk and Overland). FCA expects 65 per cent of customers to choose the V-6 and 15 per cent the 2.0T.

I'm guessing the 2.0T will do better than that. Its power output of 270 hp is almost identical to the V-6's, while maximum torque of 295 lb.-ft. is 23 per cent higher – and the 2.0T achieves both peaks at much lower engine speeds.

Its fuel consumption is sure to be better, too, but here's the kicker: the 2.0T is – at least based on the ones I drove – more refined than the V-6. The expected four-cylinder toe-board tingle is almost entirely absent, and its four-cylinder rasp is well muted. Turbo launch-lag is minimal, too; and the 2.0T's greater torque seems to need less-frequent transmission downshifts. Over all, incidentally, the transmission behaved just fine.

Even in 2014, the Cherokee was good to drive in pavement, uniquely capable off pavement and comfortable and roomy for passengers, with sub-par cargo volume as the only serious demerit. Initially, it sold quite well, until its reliability rap sheet went public.

Now, with the quality issues apparently behind it, its weaknesses alleviated and its strengths maintained or enhanced, the Jeep Cherokee is well worth a second look.

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Tech specs

  • $29,995 (base)
  • Engines: 2.4-litre four-cylinder, 2.0-litre four-cylinder Turbo, 3.2-litre V-6
  • Transmission/drive: Nine-speed automatic/front- or all-wheel-drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): TBA
  • Alternatives: Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, VW Tiguan

Looks

The original Cherokee had a nicely sculpted bod spoiled by a weak chin. The new "face" fixes the chin and tones the bod even more. LED headlamps are standard and wheel sizes go up to 19 inches.

The Trailhawk’s previously optional 3.2-litre V-6 is now standard.

Interior

There's a good range of at-the-wheel adjustability (eight-way power on all except the base trim) and decent visibility, though the speedometer is hard to read; and while the centre-armrest storage may be bigger, stash space on the centre console remains negligible. Last year's up-level seven-inch screen is now standard, with an 8.4-inch available. The rear cabin is adult-friendly, combining a lay-back comfortable seat with near-best-in-class legroom and generous foot room.

There’s a good range of at-the-wheel adjustability, but while the centre-armrest storage may be bigger, stash space on the centre console remains negligible.

Performance

The new 2.0 turbo feels even better than its sibling in the Alfa Romeos. Aside from a little more tow capacity, we see little advantage in the V-6, the added weight of which also slightly dulls the Cherokee's otherwise deft and composed handling. As best as we could tell on California pavement, ride quality now counts as an asset in the Cherokee's dynamic portfolio.

The new 2.0 turbo feels even better than its sibling in the Alfa Romeos.

Technology

The 2014 Cherokee was an early adopter of driver-assist tech, and remains competitive, with adaptive cruise, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and hands-free parking still on the menu, plus now a backup camera. The connectivity/infotainment side is well covered too, now with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay on all but the base trim, and SiriusXM Guardian/Traffic/Travelink standard on the top trim.

The Cherokee’s driver-assist technology remains competitive, with adaptive cruise, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and hands-free parking still on the menu, plus now a backup camera.

Cargo

Jeep claims to have scooped out an extra 79 litres of trunk volume, but the new 781-litre space is still below par for the segment; even pushing the seat forward (yes, it slides) leaves it well short of many rivals. But there is some shallow hidden space below the floor.

Verdict

7.8

All the cachet of a Jeep, with competitive on-road manners and unrivalled ability to leave the road far behind.


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