Controversy quickly surrounded the Jeep Cherokee when it replaced the wheezy old Liberty for 2014. Jeep-ophiles bemoaned the base Cherokee’s transverse-drivetrain architecture rather than the longitudinal rear-drive layout used in the Liberty and the Cherokee’s namesake predecessors sold between 1974 and 2001. Aesthetes were weirded out by the Cherokee’s upside-down-face headlight/turn-signal arrangement and blubbery rear end. And those with particular political sensitivities even questioned the use of the Cherokee name itself. Now, nearly five years later, widespread market acceptance of the Cherokee plus the Trailhawk variant’s remarkable off-road capability have proved most naysayers wrong.
Except for that weird front end. There’s still not much love for the original’s squinty daytime running lights/turn signals perched above darkened headlamps hidden in the bumper, which could be why a facial correction leads the Cherokee’s 2019 mid-cycle enhancements. Also new for ’19 are a lighter composite liftgate with hands-free power operation, redesigned LED taillamps, an aluminum hood, restyled bumpers, capless fuel filling, five new wheel choices, dressier dash and door-panel materials, improved infotainment systems, a three-inch-wider cargo floor, retuned suspension and steering systems, and a new, range-topping 2.0-liter inline-four featuring a twin-scroll turbocharger and making 270 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. What’s more, Jeep claims that rigorous lightweighting efforts shaved about 150 pounds from the body and chassis, although much of that weight was reintroduced by adding more standard features.
The facelift was apparent when the 2019 Cherokee debuted at the 2018 Detroit auto show, but we had to wait until this introductory drive to explore the effects of the new turbo four-banger, weight-saving measures, and chassis tweaks.
Lights, Lights, Lights—Yeah!
First, though, a moment for the new look. While the Cherokee’s nose job is technically a simple restyling, it’s the kind of change that rights a wrong, accompanied by a sense of relief to finally see it corrected. The Cherokee’s new LED headlamps are standard, and while the grille’s seven slots are still chamfered, they’re blunter and stronger-looking. New front bumpers are noticeably different on all but the Trailhawk models, which still brandish their signature red tow hooks, smile-shaped graphic treatment, and serious approach angle—now 29.9 degrees—only now the foglights occupy real estate formerly assigned to the headlamps.
There were fewer wrongs to right inside Jeep’s mid-sizer, but sharper bezels surrounding various dash and door components, along with the new fourth-generation Uconnect infotainment system’s more sophisticated graphics, help to up the Cherokee’s game in a side-by-side comparison with a Ford Escape or a Chevrolet Equinox. Which is to say you won’t mistake it for a luxury model. The Latitude Plus trim, for instance, brings “leather/cloth/vinyl” upholstery to a cabin color scheme said to be inspired by Iceland; it’s pleasant enough to the eye in black with light blue-gray stitching, but the leather is indistinguishable from the vinyl—and not because the vinyl is so upscale.
We didn’t test Jeep’s claim that two golf bags now lay comfortably on the floor in the widened cargo area, but we find it entirely believable. When the available ParkSense parallel and perpendicular parking-assist system is activated, it depicts a 1941 Willys graphic on either side of the open space. Jeep customers eat that stuff up.
New Turbo 2.0-liter Engine: No Character, Elusive Advantages
We drove two Cherokees, both in the popular Latitude Plus trim level, one with the proven 3.2-liter V-6—a rarity in this segment—and the other with the new twin-scroll turbocharged 2.0-liter four. (The carryover base engine is a SOHC 2.4-liter that makes 180 horsepower and 170 lb-ft.) Both vehicles were equipped with Jeep’s Active Drive I all-wheel-drive system and 17-inch wheels and tires. The turbo 2.0-liter trails the V-6 by one horsepower (270 hp at 5250 rpm, versus 271 hp at 6500) but out-torques the bigger naturally aspirated six by 56 lb-ft (295 versus 239). Official EPA fuel-economy estimates are pending, but Jeep claims that the turbo 2.0-liter (a $500 option above the V-6, available in all but the base Latitude models) consumes less fuel. As it turns out, Jeep says 2.0-liter-equipped Trailhawk models weigh 10 pounds more than V-6-powered Trailhawks, which in turn weigh 100 pounds less than last year’s version.
Jeep claims that the 2.0-liter performs better than the V-6—a claim that its huge torque advantage and shorter final-drive ratio tend to support—but we can’t confirm that until we get one to our test track. Based on its internal testing, Jeep asserts that the turbo four will hold an 0.5-second advantage over the six from zero to 60 mph; the best time we’ve recorded was 6.9 seconds in a V-6 Cherokee Limited 4×4. The turbo engine’s general lack of character, occasionally laggy response, and slight towing disadvantage (4000 pounds versus 4500 for the V-6) mean that whatever performance and fuel-economy advantages the turbo four has over the six had better be considerable.
The nine-speed automatic transmission has been reworked to match the performance characteristics of the 2.0-liter, which we hoped would translate into quicker shifts to compensate for the innate lag of all such turbo engines, yet we found that it still errs on the side of comfort with its mellow shifts and general unwillingness to kick down, even in sprightly driving. Paired with the V-6, it’s still no better a dance partner, especially since all U.S.-spec Cherokees lack paddle shifters.
Most Cherokee shoppers will probably pay less heed to shift quickness than to their engine’s sense of authority, but even there our subjective sense is that the V-6’s responsiveness and surprisingly muscular sound are more alluring, despite Jeep’s claim that the turbo four’s mid-throttle behavior is the “more confident and responsive” of the two options. Final judgment awaits a full test, by which time we also should know where the fuel-economy numbers fall.
Still Pleasant On-Road, Awesome Off-Road
Revised dampers, bushings, and anti-roll bars yield a smooth ride, at least in the Latitude Plus 4×4 models we drove with their 17-inch wheels and 225/65R-17 Firestone Destination LE2 tires. We can’t speak for Limited and Overland models with the 18- and 19-inch rolling stock and lower-profile tires, but with its new, lighter-weight electrically assisted steering hardware, the new Cherokee seems to have lost none of the precision we’ve noted in previous tests. We wouldn’t mind more steering feel, but few crossovers and SUVs provide much of that. Apparently all the feel was saved for the brake pedal, which is wonderfully progressive, making chauffeur-smooth stops possible every single time.
On an off-road course in the Santa Monica Mountains, though, we were reminded of the Cherokee Trailhawk’s ability. With its 1.0-inch factory suspension lift, all-terrain tires, and Active Drive Lock all-wheel-drive system with a locking rear differential, the V-6–equipped Trailhawk made easy work of exceedingly challenging obstacles. Particularly impressive is the Selec-Speed crawl-control system, which keeps the vehicle moving steadily forward at speeds as low as 0.6 mph, even up steep, craggy, rocky inclines and even when a wheel or two isn’t in contact with anything.
The starting price for a front-wheel-drive 2019 Cherokee Latitude is $25,190, $400 lower than before, with Latitude Plus models starting at $27,690 and Limited models at $31,570. Jeep’s Active Drive I 4×4 system is a $1500 upgrade on all trim levels, and on the Limited it brings the 3.2-liter V-6 as well. The V-6 also is standard on the Overland, which starts at $37,440. Active Drive II and Selec-Speed Control is available on all but the base Latitude for a $1205 jump over the Active Drive I system. The Trailhawk, with its model-specific Active Drive Lock system (and the V-6 engine), starts at $34,515.
Since 2014, the Cherokee has offered true off-road ability and Jeep bona fides in one of the most contested segments in the business. While the Mazda CX-5, Honda CR-V, and Hyundai Tucson are strong contenders, the Cherokee’s numerous improvements, available V-6 and new turbo four engines, and extensive styling correction should make it a tougher competitor than ever. For off-roading enthusiasts, it may be the only choice.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front- or all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback
BASE PRICES: Latitude, $25,190;
Latitude 4×4, $26,690;
Latitude Plus, $27,690;
Latitude Plus 4×4, $29,190;
Limited 4×4, $33,070;
Overland 4×4, $38,970
ENGINE TYPES: SOHC 16-valve 2.4-liter inline-4, 180 hp, 171 lb-ft; turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter inline-4, 270 hp, 295 lb-ft; DOHC 24-valve 3.2-liter V-6, 271 hp, 239 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 9-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 106.5–107.1 in
Length: 182.9–183.1 in
Width: 73.2–74.9 in Height: 65.7–67.8 in
Curb weight (C/D est): 3750–4200 lb
PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 6.6–8.9 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 19.0–21.8 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.0–16.7 sec
Top speed: 120 mph
EPA FUEL ECONOMY (C/D EST):
Combined/city/highway: 21–25/18–21/24–30 mpg
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