Jeep hopes Cherokee will carve a new niche

TOLEDO, Ohio — Driving the Jeep Cherokee of today is nothing like driving the Jeep Cherokee of old.

Riding on the same Fiat-designed platform as the Dodge Dart, there’s little to no body roll as the Cherokee digs in and tracks well through sweeping corners. The steering is tight and direct, and despite the Cherokee still weighing a somewhat portly 3,800 pounds, it feels light and eager.

In a word, the Cherokee is carlike.

That may anger hardcore Jeepers, who feel as if the brand has turned its back on its heritage. But Jeep executives know that those people, vocal as they are, represent a tiny slice of the market. And Chrysler needs this Jeep to have broad appeal to compete with the likes of the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4.

We drove a front-wheel drive Latitude model with a base price of $24,495. Our Jeep was equipped with two options — the 8.4-inch Uconnect infotainment system, and the 3.2-liter V-6 engine. That pushed the total sticker price to $27,680.

All Jeep Cherokees are built in Toledo.

Inside, the Cherokee benefits from Chrysler’s campaign to rid the world of hard, ugly plastics. Most surfaces are soft, and the interior borrows heavily from the Cherokee’s big brother, the brand’s flagship Grand Cherokee. That gives it a bit of an upscale feel. Cloth seats are supportive — a little too firm, but comfortable.

Buyers can option up all sorts of safety and technology features, including rear-view camera, blind-spot warning systems, adaptive cruise control and self-parking.

Though our Cherokee didn’t have those features, it still had plenty of ways to plug in. The Uconnect will interface with a smartphone, and there are places to plug in a USB cable, auxiliary cable and SD memory card in the center console.

However, without the optional $2,000 comfort and convenience package, the Cherokee’s climate control resets each time the vehicle is turned off. While the temperature can be set via the touch screen or buttons below it, it’s a pain to have to reset it every time you hop back into the car.

The Jeep feels roomy. We stuck a 6-foot, 6-inch guy in the driver’s seat. He fit, but visibility wasn’t ideal. Still, he guessed someone a couple inches shorter wouldn’t have the same trouble. The back seats are not quite as comfortable as the front, but two adults fit nicely.

The back seats split 60-40, and fold flat for extra cargo space. The Cherokee has less cargo space than some of its rivals, such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

Since the beginning, Jeep has promised good fuel economy out of the Cherokee. On a 45-mile all-highway trip, the Cherokee returned 29.9 miles per gallon, according to its on-board computer. Over our entire drive, we averaged 23.5 miles per gallon. We’d be interested to see what the four-cylinder gets, but if the six can return mileage that good while giving a lot more power, the extra $1,500 seems well spent.

Now, about that transmission. The Cherokee is the first Chrysler Group vehicle to get a new nine-speed transmission, but we never did see ninth gear, even on flat, smooth highways at speeds in excess of 75 mph.

Mark Champine, Chrysler’s director of transmission and driveline platforms, said everything from speed to grade to wind conditions to road friction factor into what gear the transmission chooses. He also said Chrysler doesn’t want the transmission endlessly switching between eighth and ninth trying to find the right gear.

“We’ve calibrated it such that you’re only going to be in ninth gear when you can hold that gear,” Mr. Champine said.

Still, if the Cherokee doesn’t find top gear cutting across Ohio’s flat farmlands, it makes you wonder if it ever will.

The Cherokee runs smooth and quiet, and with the 271-horsepower V-6, it has no shortage of passing power on the highway.

No doubt, the exterior styling — the front end in particular — is divisive. Part of it may be just getting over the shock of seeing something so different from a brand that has had such a clear styling direction.

Besides that, the most questionable choice may be the back end. It looks as if there should be something else — a badge, a lift handle, the license plate, something — between the rear window and the bumper.

For those looking for more luxury or more off-road capabilities, Jeep is happy to oblige. The Cherokee also comes in a Limited trim and in Trailhawk trim, which sets it up for life beyond the pavement. (A fully loaded Trailhawk will top out at more than $41,000.)

In the Cherokee, Jeep hasn’t just revived a name from its past with for a new sport utility vehicle, it has redefined the line. The company set out to build a vehicle that would have broad appeal and compete in the heart of the market, and it seems to have hit the mark.

Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Tyrel Linkhorn is a reporter for The Blade.