We’re in West Virginia today to sample the all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee. Chrysler rep Lisa has promised a group of east coast journalists that a group of Cherokee Trailhawks won’t be getting stuck today on a course of mud bogs and steep slopes they have devised for us to drive on. Being a more civilized Virginia resident myself, where we prefer our roads paved, I am quite sure I’m going to get this diminutive crossover stuck. Right over there on that 20 foot muddy cliff that they’re going to make me drive up.
The small proportions of this new Cherokee are on one hand unnecessary and on the other hand utilitarian. In person, I’m digging it. I see something that the mountain rescue squad would drive in a high budget action movie. Cartoonish, unnecessary, but ultimately utilitarian and somewhat futuristic. There are tow hooks, brightly painted in red, on the Trailhawk I’ll be driving. The squinting LED running lights are unmistakable, and the main headlamps are below buried in plastic cladding like a second set of fog lamps. The Cherokee is no beautiful car, but it has purposefulness.
The interior is considerably more toned down. The design is rugged, masculine, and simple. The materials are many steps above older Jeeps, but around par for the segment. Yes, the aluminum-look trim is only aluminum colored plastic. However, the seats are soft, offer good support, and look the part. The controls and knobs have rubber and shiny plastic trim. The door handles are even real aluminum. There is plenty of good in this interior from a company that not long ago offered only cutting edge plastic, so cutting edge that if stranded in the woods, one wouldn’t need a knife. I wouldn’t put it past Jeep people calling that attribute of older Jeeps a feature.
That everything is well in the Cherokee’s interior could lead you to believe that the old Pentastar is looking past all those Jeep faithfuls at a fence with greener grass on the other side. Jim, Jeep’s director, says not so, and that even though the new Cherokee is better, the brand isn’t looking to alienate its faithfuls. That sound forced to me too. The Cherokee does show an ambitious approach to opening up some new pastures. For one, Jim says internationally Jeeps are selling big. There are budding Jeep markets in China, Russia, and Australia, and Jeep is hoping the Cherokee will be as much a hit over there as here.
Well almost as much; the USA does have quite an appetite for small, questionably useful, hopped up, midsize hatchbacks. Perennial favorites like the CRV sell over a hundred thousand copies a year. The Grand Cherokee has proven that Jeep can access those urban customers with the right product, so Chrysler is obviously wanting the same magic in the Cherokee as it’s bigger brother. There’s always the Wrangler for those Jeep die hards.
So with some big grains of salt in my pockets, I climb into my Trailhawk to go around the trail course. I’ll be driving the 2.4L inline four cylinder “tigershark” engine today. There’s also an optional 3.2L V6 but all of the cars on the trail today are equipped with the base engine. The tigershark makes 184 hp at 6,400 rpm and 171 lb/ft at 4,600 rpm and uses a unique solonoid-based variable intake valvetrain called MultiAir. Mitchell, the engineering executive present, says that MultiAir allows tigershark to do a good impression of variable displacement, giving it the ability to drink the same amount of gas and produce the same emissions as a smaller engine on the fly.
The engine is hooked up to a 9 speed transmission that’s standard across the Cherokee lineup. Mitchell says the 9 speed is manufactured by ZF in South Carolina but was developed jointly. Whatever the case, the 9 speed is a good transmission that is well tuned in the Cherokee. It cracks off nice shifts as we cruise to the trail.
As we pull up to the trail entrance, the trail staff directs us to fiddle with the round knob in front of the shifter. We must perform several steps to prepare for the trail. I soon discover that this knob is a very good knob. Firstly, we put the Selec-Terrain, controlled by the rim of the knob, in Sand/Mud mode, which authorizes the trick two-clutch AWD system to transfer full power to the front or rear axle if necessary. Next we press the 4-Low button, and with a whir, the front and rear differentials switch to a lower final gear. Then we press the Rear Differential Lock button and with another whir and clunk, lock the rear axle together. Finally, we press the Selec-Speed button to engage Jeep’s first-ever off-road cruise control. What a knob, but phew, what a procession to get ready and we haven’t even started yet. I could almost take a nap.
Good thing, because as we sit at the bottom of a dirt and rock hill, all I have to do is take my foot off the brake and the Trailhawk begins to scale the big mound at 1.8 mph automatically. I crest the hill, and continue to lounge as the small CUV carries itself down the hill at 1.8 mph by liberally applying the brake. The vehicle requires only steering input in this mode and it does a good job of scaling and descending at a set speed from 0.6 to 5 mph.
We continue in this mode for several minutes, going up rocky hills, through 12” muddy water, and through clay mud bogs. The trees pass by as I take this effortless guided safari tour of a West Virginia raspberry jungle. Suddenly I begin to expect a brontosaurus head will pop out of nowhere as I am reminded of the awesome Ford Explorers in Jurassic Park. I will make an educated guess that if Jurassic Park were remade, this is definitely the car that would be flipped by a T-Rex. Yes, consider the geek factor thoroughly checked.
However instead of a brontosaurus head, we pull up to the cliff I previously spied. A sloppy, clay-covered rocky thing perhaps 25 feet tall, and I’m sure it wasn’t my imagination that it was graded vertically. However, seeing the Cherokee have such grace going through some difficult situations automatically, I mentally downgraded this challenge from “impossible” to “improbable”.
Regardless of my confidence, the guide approached my window and gave me some instructions: when the guy on the top of the hill waves his hands around, gun it, but don’t gun it too much or else you’ll run the guy over. Okay, no pressure.
So it’s worth telling you at this point, fair reader, that I have never been “off roading” before. There’s a good chance I’m either going to flip this Cherokee or kill the poor guy who’s trying to help me on top of the hill. Either way, I approach the cliff. I didn’t know if the Cherokee could make it, but I remember thinking that there’s no way a CR-V or Equinox could.
I put some throttle in so as to carry some momentum into the climb. The man on the top of the hill urgently motions to steer so the wheels would align with the rock better. I jabbed at the steering wheel, still increasing speed as the base approached. Suddenly the hood goes flying upwards, and in a flurry the wheels bounced and crashed on rock and mud. All I could see was branches and sky as I went upwards at 15 mph. Sky, and an approaching outcropping of granite jutting out, ready to demolish my Cherokee.
The man on the top of the hill waved his arms madly as promised, and I didn’t wait a moment before mashing the throttle in. The engine made loud noises and the tires scrabbled for traction. Then a loud crash slammed the car and the left rear tire went off the ground. The back right tire scrabbled for traction as the Jeep slowed down. If the Jeep stopped, I wasn’t going to make it. To my amazement, the Cherokee soldiered on, slowly accelerating over the outcropping. It went a few more easy feet and crested the hill. I did not run over the guide.
Not just did this Cherokee make a hero out of offroading newbie, but as we went back to the staging area by following an asphalt road, I found the Cherokee handled much like a good compact car, true to the car’s underpinnings which are shared with the Dart. How they managed to make this car more than a Dart on stilts is magic. Well, there’s probably some good engineering and technology in there somewhere too.
There is quite a lot of talk online about this new Cherokee, about whether it measures up to its heritage. I am not a Jeep guy, sorry folks, but I can see something for what it is. The old Cherokee was the original off road utility vehicle; a tool in the toolbox of outdoorsmen. So is this car a Cherokee? Yes, I think it is. This is a modern Cherokee.