Moab, Utah, is exactly the kind of place you imagine driving a 2014 Jeep Cherokee. There are gorgeous red rock arches, buttes and pinnacles that rise up out of the high desert landscape, and the best way to see it all is to catch a ride on one of the local tours. Then again, if you have a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, you could just see it all on your own.
The Trailhawk is the off-road-themed version of the all-new Jeep Cherokee, which goes on sale in September. Although Jeep's latest SUV uses front-wheel-drive architecture, the 2014 Cherokee Trailhawk has both the off-road hardware and the ground clearance to climb these trails without getting ripped apart by the first boulder that stands in its path. And isn't that the whole point of owning a sport-utility vehicle?
An All-New Compact Jeep
The 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk summons a bit of its predecessor's toughness, but it's really not aimed at traditional Jeep buyers. Instead, it's Jeep's first earnest attempt to go after the much larger population of compact crossover SUV buyers.
Built on the same architecture as the 2013 Dodge Dart, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee represents a fresh start. It's almost 2 inches shorter from nose to tail than Dodge's sedan, and its wheelbase is basically the same (107 inches even on the Trailhawk, slightly less on other versions). Its track is significantly wider, though, and it's 10 inches taller overall. There are basic similarities in suspension design, but no components are shared, we're told.
Inside, there's noticeably more headroom and legroom than in the Dart. It's much easier to get comfortable in the Cherokee's driver seat (even though the steering wheel has a similarly limited range of height adjustment), and the high-mounted rear bench has fore-and-aft adjustment and supports our thighs without pushing our head into the rafters. This is one of the better backseats in the compact crossover class.
Comfort comes at the expense of cargo capacity, though. With its rear seats folded, the Jeep tops out at 54.9 cubic feet, which is 10-15 fewer cubic feet than most other compact crossovers. No doubt the full-size spare tire, packaged under the cargo floor in Trailhawks and all Cherokees with the Tow package, eats into some of the volume.
A Pleasing V6
So it won't haul as many packages of toilet paper, but the 2014 Jeep Cherokee has something most rivals don't: an optional V6.
This new, transversely mounted 3.2-liter engine is based on the likable 3.6-liter Pentastar engine but has slightly smaller cylinders. Compression is slightly higher, too, at 10.7:1 versus 10.2 on the 3.6-liter. It's rated for almost as much power as the larger-displacement V6, with 271 horsepower at 6,500 rpm. Torque drops off to 239 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm compared to 260 on most of the 3.6 applications.
Your other engine option on the 2014 Cherokee is a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder, which features variable intake-valve timing and lift (Fiat's MultiAir technology) and is rated at 184 hp at 6,400 rpm and 171 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm. Choosing the four-cylinder will save you $1,495. But even with the Cherokee's standard nine-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels (or all four wheels as on our test vehicle), acceleration on the roads around Moab (which is situated at 4,000 feet) never feels more than adequate, and the power delivery isn't especially smooth.
The V6 Cherokee is another story, though, as it gives the 2014 Jeep Cherokee a relaxed, refined demeanor not found in any SUV with a four-cylinder engine. There's plenty of power here, and the new nine-speed automatic provides smooth upshifts. We find ourselves choosing Sport mode on the Cherokee's SelecTerrain dial to get downshifts at our preferred pace, but Jeep officials say they're still working on the final calibration for this transmission. A manual mode is also part of the deal. With the tow package, the V6 Cherokee gets a shorter final drive (3.52 versus 3.25 ordinarily) and a 4,500-pound tow rating.
Official EPA fuel economy ratings have only been released for a couple versions of the 2014 Cherokee. Four-cylinder models with the light-duty Active Drive four-wheel-drive system are rated at 24 mpg combined and 21 city/28 highway, while V6 Cherokees with this 4WD system are rated 22/19/27. Ratings are still to come for the front-drive versions, as well as Cherokees with the more deluxe Active Drive II 4WD system.
Steady Over the Boulders
And by more deluxe, we mean that it has low-range gearing, though the setup is a little different than usual. Jeep's engineers wanted the Cherokee to be as capable as a rear-drive-based SUV in off-road situations (with the rear wheels getting as much torque as the front wheels), but on pavement they wanted to cut off power to the rear to maximize fuel efficiency. To make that work, our 2014 Cherokee has a low-range planetary gearset in both its power takeoff unit and its rear differential. This 4WD system is standard on the Trailhawk and optional on most other Cherokees.
We're also able to lock the rear differential on our Cherokee Trailhawk, and for most of the day we have the SelecTerrain dial in Rock mode, which is also exclusive to the Trailhawk (other 4WD Cherokees have only Auto, Sport, Snow and Mud/Sand) and only active in 4WD Low. Along with hill descent control, its main function is to keep you crawling along slowly enough that your Jeep will be able to make the drive home.
Ours does, but we still can't see anyone with serious off-road plans choosing it over the Wrangler Unlimited leading our caravan. A stock four-door Wrangler has 10 inches of clearance (versus the Cherokee's 8.7), better approach and departure angles, more wheel articulation and infinitely more leeway for driver error.
Plus, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee feels too nice for this abuse. Even the Trailhawk, which has the tallest ride height and a more off-road-oriented spring and damper calibration (along with wider wheels and tires), rides comfortably when we're going faster than we should on these trails. Back on the pavement, it offers about as cushy a ride as you'll get in this class.
The downside is that the Jeep feels heavy and soft around turns. The electric-assist power steering is precise, but the Cherokee isn't sporty like the Escape or Mazda CX-5. Then again, it's far more enjoyable to drive than the original Cherokee.
In past years, the gap in civility between the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee cabins was large, but for 2014, they're far more comparable. The materials in the 2014 Jeep Cherokees we're driving look and feel nicer than the stuff in the Dart, and honestly, we're hard-pressed to name another small crossover that beats it for style.
The equipment list is also beyond anything Jeep has ever offered in a compact SUV. There are Sport, Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk (4WD only) trim levels, and all but the Sport are available with an 8.4-inch touchscreen interface that governs audio and phone functions (a smaller 5-inch screen is standard on the Sport and Latitude). You can add factory navigation for an extra charge, while all Cherokees offer a rearview camera.
There's also a Technology package that bundles forward collision, blind-spot, rear cross-traffic and lane departure warning systems, automatic high-beam control, all-speed adaptive cruise control and an automated parallel- and perpendicular parking system. Indeed, the Cherokee is the first Jeep that will park itself. Meanwhile, a Luxury package for the Limited adds premium leather (regular leather is already standard in the Limited and optional in the Trailhawk), ventilated seats, a power liftgate and HID headlights.
Pricier Than the Original
Of course, if you add a few of these items and the V6 engine, you'll find yourself well past $30,000. We're driving a leather-lined Cherokee Trailhawk that costs $37,860. Fully loaded Escapes and turbocharged Subaru Foresters land in similar territory, but this is still big money for what amounts to a small crossover SUV.
On the other hand, most buyers won't be adding all this off-road equipment to their Cherokees. It's a really long drive to Moab, so better to just fly here and beat up on somebody else's Jeep on the trails.
Instead, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee is yet one more five-passenger crossover to consider for your daily commute. And when equipped with the 3.2-liter V6 (which Jeep expects 50 percent of customers to choose in 2014), it's more pleasant to drive than most of the four-cylinder SUVs in this price range.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.