Let's not mince words: the 2014 Jeep Cherokee is a weird-looking little crossover. However, after taking a spin behind the wheel of a Cherokee Limited and then a Cherokee Trailhawk and then giving the little SUV a scrutinizing walk-around, I'm happy to report that not only does it look better in person than it does in photos, but it also delivers performance and tech that exceeded my admittedly moderate expectations.
Two engine options
Two engine choices are available for the 2014 Cherokee, the first and standard option being Chrysler's 2.4L Tigershark MultiAir four-cylinder engine. This is the same mill that you can find under the hood of the 2013 Dodge Dart GT, should you be inclined to look, and is good for 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque while returning 22 city mpg and 31 highway mpg over the EPA's test cycle. That's an adequate amount of power. Though my three passengers and I weren't exactly blown away by the crossover's acceleration, the Jeep wasn't left wanting or wheezing during my short drive through the hills of San Francisco's Presidio. For drivers who prefer to take it easy, this is the configuration to choose.
Drivers who want a bit more power also have the choice to option a 3.2L Pentastar V-6 engine. This is actually a downsized version of the Chrysler Group's 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 that has served the brand for years. At this displacement, it outputs 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque. Dropping a few ccs of displacement has allowed the Pentastar-equipped Cherokee to reach an estimated 19 city and 27 highway mpg on the EPA's test cycle.
In this configuration, the Cherokee is much more responsive to throttle inputs with, obviously, much better acceleration when asked. I'll gladly take the 3-mpg highway hit for the additional get-up-and-go and the additional towing capability that the torque-ier V-6 affords.
Either engine is mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission that features sport and manual shifting programs. Having nine forward speeds means that the Jeep does a lot of shifting when tooling around town, but you get used to the smooth gear transitions.
Four drivetrain options
At the lower trim levels, the Cherokee can be had with front-wheel drive, but the models present during my testing were both 4x4 models. Jeep actually offers three different versions of its Active Drive all-wheel-drive system.
Active Drive I is the simplest setup, which uses brake-based traction control to optimize its grip for different terrain types. It also features a rear-axle disconnect, which allows the system to free-wheel its rear wheel under most conditions -- effectively giving it the efficiency of a front-wheel-drive system -- then instantly re-engage rear drive when front-wheel slip is detected.
Active Drive II builds on the first system with the addition of a low-range drive ratio and a neutral mode that totally disengages all four wheels for flat towing.
Finally, there's the Active Drive Lock system, which is standard on the Trailhawk. This system also features a 4-Low drive ratio for high torque at low speed when, for example, rock crawling. Also added to the mix at this level is a rear locker, which can lock the rear wheels, which usually spin independently, into a fixed axle, increasing grip for off-road activities.
The Active Drive system features optimizations for a variety of surfaces, which the system can automatically detect or the user can specify using the Selec-Terrain traction controller knob on the center console. There are settings for auto, snow, and sand and mud. There's also a sport setting that optimizes vehicle performance and the transmission's program for more responsive on-road driving. For Active Drive Lock models, there's also a setting for rocks and it has buttons that engage the 4-Low drive ratio, rear locker, and descent speed control.
The Trailhawk trim level also features a number of other off-road optimizations to go along with its Active Drive Lock system. The suspension has been raised an inch over the stock ride height to increase its break-over angle and water-fording depth (now up to 20 inches). The front and rear bumpers are unique, increasing its approach and departure angles. Bright-red tow hooks have been affixed to the chassis at the front and rear ends and skid plates have been affixed to the undercarriage to protect the suspension from branches and rocks.
I wasn't able to really test Jeep's claims about the Cherokee Trailhawk's off-road chops, but was assured that the crossover had earned its Trail Rated badge during testing in the Mojave and on the Rubicon trail.
Our testing took place on public roads, so it should come as no surprise that I preferred my drive in the Limited model. Without the off-road optimizations, the standard suspension setup gave the crossover a much better seat-of-the-pants feel with much more responsive steering and a firmer ride. That the Limited was equipped with the larger engine option helped.
Uconnect dashboard tech
The 2014 Cherokee is available at all trim levels with the Chrysler Group's Uconnect infotainment system. We've seen this system before in a variety of Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep vehicles and really like it.
The giant 8.4-inch touch screen is easy to see and gives plenty of room for large virtual buttons that can be quickly tapped from the driver's seat. Navigation with traffic is available, optional, and powered by Garmin's excellent mapping and routing software. And the list of available digital-audio sources is satisfying in its inclusiveness. Whether you connect via Bluetooth, USB, or aux-in, or carry your music around on an SD card, you'll find the connection that you're looking for in the Cherokee's dashboard.
I also like the connectivity and telematics features that have been added to this latest generation of Uconnect Access, which includes app integration with Yelp, Pandora, Slacker, Aha Radio, and others, as well as an optional WiFi Hotspot functionality that allows passengers to connect to the Web via the Cherokee's 3G data connection.
Around the cabin you'll also find a variety of standard and optional convenience features such as a powered lift gate, a wireless charging pad for smartphones, and an optional dual-pane sunroof. Non-tech features such as a reclining rear bench and a hidden storage bin in the front passenger seat cushion are also nice touches.
Safety technology and automatic parking
Getting off the beaten path is cool, but most Jeep Cherokees will probably live most of their lives on public roads, in traffic with other drivers. So Jeep has made available an impressive array of safety and convenience features for a vehicle in this class.
In addition to the rear camera, the Cherokee can be had with front and rear proximity sensors with ParkSense braking assistance, which can grab the brakes automatically if, for example, a dog or toddler darts behind the vehicle while it's reversing. Also available are blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert and an optional lane departure warning system that can notify an inattentive driver when that the vehicle is drifting out of its lane.
Optional adaptive cruise control boasts a feature called Stop and Go, which can bring the vehicle all the way down to a complete stop when traffic slows down and then resume forward motion as traffic creeps ahead. The forward sensor for the adaptive cruise also feeds a forward collision warning system that can notify the driver when a crash is imminent and automatically apply the brakes.
Finally, the Cherokee can be had with Active ParkSense, which is an automatic parking system similar to the one that Ford offers for many of its latest vehicles. This sonar-based system is a one-button affair that can automatically search for available roadside parking on the passenger side of the vehicle, notify the driver when a sufficiently sized space has been found, and then automatically steer the Cherokee into the space. This is the first implementation of this technology for the Chrysler group and one of the first vehicles that I've tested that offers the driver the choice between parallel parking and perpendicular parking.
You may not be a fan of the Cherokee's looks, but there's a lot to like beneath the sheet metal and in the cabin. The 4x4 drive train mated with the optional 3.2-liter engine makes for engaging, yet still relatively efficient performance. Meanwhile the level of available safety and convenience tech is impressive. The Cherokee's cabin is crammed with sophisticated features that I think would make this crossover easy to live with on a day-to-day basis, whether tackling dirt trails or urban canyons.