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BY Bob Gritzinger | Contributor | @bobgritzinger
With the 2014 Cherokee, Jeep (and by extension, parent Chrysler) finally has a competitive entry in the market’s hottest segment, small crossover vehicles.
Jeep’s all-new Cherokee hits the sweet spot between the brand’s rough-and-ready military-grade hardware like the Wrangler (and the cute but overbuilt Liberty), and the underwhelming front-wheel-drive-based Compass/Patriot pair. Cherokee competitors include the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain, Mazda CX-5 and Hyundai Tucson/Kia Sportage, among others. The new Cherokee should not be confused with the larger Grand Cherokee model line that shares its rear-drive-based 4×4 chassis with the Dodge Durango.
Though the soft-roader Cherokee is a front-drive-based vehicle that shares its architecture with the Italian-engineered Dodge Dart sedan from Chrysler’s Fiat partner, in 4×4 trim it performs ably in real-world conditions. How well does it perform? We can’t speak to severe “Trail-Rated” off-roading—we generally stayed on the beaten path on our summer expeditions—but we did put a fully equipped Cherokee Limited 4×4 to the test with back-to-back outdoor camping excursions and the vehicle proved ready to tackle the tough stuff.
The first trip was fairly mild, a solo tent-camping outing to join a larger group on a canoe trip. With just a light load of gear and a single passenger, the Cherokee’s 3.2-liter V6 engine was barely stressed. Fuel economy matched the EPA’s numbers of 19 city/27 highway/22 combined. We recorded 23 and 26 mpg in two fill ups. We did get a chance to enjoy some deep woods two tracking out to a favorite spot along the river, and the Cherokee’s all-wheel-drive system readily powered the two-ton vehicle through a few sand traps along the route.
The work picked up on the following trip, when we hitched up a 2,500-pound pop-up camper loaded with gear and kayaks (pushing upwards of 3,500 pounds), along with a capacity stack of onboard gear and three passengers. The V6 Cherokee lists a 4,500-pound towing capacity—Jeep says it is best-in-class among V6 competitors—but as we’ve learned over the years, towing maximums are just that—maximums. If you plan to tow much more than 3,500 pounds regularly, you’d be advised to step up to a more robust towing machine. The Cherokee’s V6 with 271-hp and 239-lb-ft of torque pulled the loaded trailer reasonably if not smartly off the line and its Trailer Sway Control kept everything in line at speed. But the vehicle’s fuel-saving nine-speed automatic transmission seemed overmatched at times trying to find the sweet spot for towing a load. We noted regular downshifts, upshifts and some hesitation on the part of the transmission as it tried to keep up with the demands of inclines, passing lanes and throttle prods. On the upside, even with the big load, the Cherokee recorded a reasonable 19 mpg overall in mixed driving.
Bottom line: If you don’t tow often or have too heavy of loads, you’ll be just fine; if you tow a lot, you might find the Cherokee’s powertrain a tad tiring. The V6 is a $1,495 upgrade over the base 2.4-liter I4; a trailering package with heavy-duty engine cooling, four- and seven-pin wiring, a Class III receiver and a full-sized spare tire adds $495.
We like the aggressive, angular exterior styling of the new Jeep that maintains plenty of Jeep heritage without reflexively hewing to the box-on-box utilitarian dullness of Cherokees past. Inside, all manner of creature comforts can be had, from a huge 8.4-inch touchscreen navigation and media center to a reconfigurable instrument cluster, heated seats and steering wheel, satellite radio and every imaginable way to connect your phone and music player to the vehicle.
Our test V6 Limited 4×4 stickered at just $37,525 with all that towing capability and nearly every option. Given that a well-equipped four-cylinder Cherokee Trailhawk 4×4 can push $37,000, and not gain considerably on the fuel-economy scale (though a claimed 31 mpg highway would be nice), we’d recommend going with the V6 unless your travels take you on nothing but wide-open freeways.