The Jeep Cherokee blazes its own trail. When the Cherokee was redesigned as a 2014 model, it was both praised and criticized as different, daring, even. It signaled a break from tradition. Especially when viewed from the front, the Cherokee was unlike any other member of the Jeep family.
Not much has changed for the 2017 Jeep Cherokee, apart from newly standard high-intensity discharge headlights on all but the Sport model. Two new option groups (Heavy Duty Protection and Trailer Tow Prep) are available for the top-end Overland edition, which was launched during the 2016 model year.
Jeep calls the Cherokee a midsize, but we see it as more of a compact crossover SUV, along the lines of a Ford Escape or Honda CR-V.
The Cherokee nameplate is an old one, last used in 2001. The current models are fully modern, emphasizing capabilities in a variety of conditions. If equipped with four-wheel drive, the current version boasts a startling level of off-road expertise, especially the trail-rated Trailhawk model, continuing Jeep’s reputation for conquering wilderness trails.
Five trim levels are offered: Sport, Latitude, Limited, Overland, and Trailhawk. Offered only with four-wheel drive, the latter is the Trail Rated version of the Cherokee. Trio special editions also are available: Altitude, High Altitude, and 75th Anniversary.
Two engines are available. The standard four-cylinder, making 184 horsepower, is smooth and quiet. Strong, too, provided that it’s not overloaded with people and cargo. Generating 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque, the optional 3.2-liter V6 has plenty of torque and performs without fuss.
All V6 models get Stop/Start. With a towing package, a V6 model can tow up to 4,500 pounds. A 9-speed automatic transmission blends with both engines.
In addition to abundant ground clearance, the Cherokee offers a choice of three optional traction assistants, providing either all-wheel or four-wheel drive. Active Drive I is the basic setup, for four-cylinder models. Active Drive II adds a dual-range transfer case. Active Drive Lock, with a locking rear differential, is standard on the Trailhawk. Additional skid plates and red tow hooks go on the Trailhawk, which has unique front/rear fascias and is raised by an inch.
All 4WD Cherokees include Selec-Terrain, with distinct modes for Sport, Snow, Sand/Mud, and Rock. Low-range four-cylinder models boast a startling crawl ratio, of 56:1.
Crash-test scores disappoint. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave Cherokee four stars overall and for individual tests, except for side-impact, where it earned five stars.
A rearview camera is standard, except for the Sport model. Active-safety features are available on upper trim levels, including lane-departure and frontal-collision warnings, blind-sport monitoring, adaptive cruise control, and parking sensors.
The 2017 Jeep Cherokee Sport ($23,595) contains the standard four-cylinder engine, along with cloth seat upholstery, cruise control; keyless entry; Uconnect 5.0 with six-speaker audio, and 17-inch steel wheels. (All prices are MSRP. Prices shown are for front-drive; four-wheel drive adds $2,000, but is standard on Trailhawk.)
Cherokee Altitude ($23,595) is derived from the Sport, adding 18-inch wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and Gloss Black exterior treatment. Cherokee Latitude ($25,545) gets an upgraded infotainment system with an 8.4-inch touchscreen and smartphone app connectivity. Air conditioning and a rearview camera are included. Cherokee 75th Anniversary ($25,545) has 18-inch painted aluminum wheels and exterior elements.
Cherokee Trailhawk 4×4 ($31,195) has Active Drive Lock four-wheel drive, a Trail Rated badge, a tougher suspension with greater ground clearance, specific bumpers, transmission and oil coolers, skid plates, and 17-inch wheels. Also standard are heated/ventilated front seats, cloth/Nappa leather, a power liftgate, heated steering wheel, and power driver’s seat.
Cherokee Limited ($29,495) gets leather seat upholstery with Nappa inserts, heated power front seats, pushbutton start, dual-zone automatic climate control, Uconnect 8.4 radio, and 18-inch wheels. Cherokee High Altitude ($29,495) comes with Gloss Black exterior treatment and 18-inch black aluminum wheels. Cherokee Overland ($34,895) has a leather-wrapped instrument panel, power front seats with power lumbar, wood trim, Nappa leather, Alpine premium audio, and navigation. Cherokee Overland with available V6 engine comes packaged with four-wheel drive ($37,695).
Not many designs have been as polarizing as that of the Cherokee, which veers substantially away from Jeep tradition. Though the grille has seven bars, like the traditional form, the Cherokee’s version comes across as odd, at least to some eyes. Separating the headlights from LED running lights gives the front a tiered appearance, devoid of Jeeplike cues.
Even now, four years after its debut, the Cherokee still conveys an unexpected, if not unbalanced, appearance, in contrast to upright, down-to-earth Jeep tradition. In contrast, the rear end is quite ordinary, while bodysides suggest a conventional crossover SUV.
Nicely finished and well-organized, the handsome cabin is effectively composed and quite refined. On the sporty side, blending colorful elements with subtlety, it’s not trucklike at all. Controls, on the other hand, aren’t so easy to find.
Comparatively roomy for four adults, the Cherokee can fit a fifth passenger without argument, at least for a short trip. Front seats are comfortable, though occupant space is a bit unconventional. Larger drivers might rub against the door panels or console, and taller pilots could have trouble finding a suitable position. Headrests sit somewhat forward, forcing some drivers into a slouched, laid-back stance.
Passenger space is narrower than expected. Rear occupants might feel cramped, though the seat does slide a few inches forward/aft.
Interior noise is nicely subdued. Passengers get plenty of small-item storage space. Cargo space reaches 58.9 cubic feet when the front passenger seat is folded. With all seats up, it’s 24.6 cubic feet. The cargo floor is somewhat high.
Cherokees behave well enough on the pavement, though road manners are no better than average. For everyday commutes, several other crossover SUVs score higher, despite the Cherokee’s highly refined four-cylinder engine.
Where a Cherokee stands well above the pack is in off-road abilities. With an appropriate four-wheel-drive setup, the Cherokee’s backwoods prowess is practically shocking. Few would ever imagine that the running gear emanated from the humble Dodge Dart. Steering is accurate, and the ride is nicely damped.
With its taller ride height and off-road tires, at low speeds, the Trailhawk absorbs surface imperfections most readily. Off the pavement, Selec-Speed lets a Trailhawk conquer upgrades tenaciously, with hill-descent control doing likewise on the far side.
Unless the vehicle is fully loaded, the four-cylinder engine feels sufficiently powerful. Still, the optional V6 invariably feels quick and confident, as well as refined.
Although the 9-speed automatic has a broad range of ratios to enhance performance, some shifts grow balky. At times, the transmission remains indecisive for quite a long while, and upshifts may be subject to odd delays. As a rule, Sport mode (if included) provides the most prompt, decisive gearchanges.
Fuel economy matches Cherokee’s class rivals. With the four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, the Cherokee is EPA-rated at 21/30 mpg City/Highway, or 25 mpg Combined. All-wheel drive drops the estimate to 21/28 mpg City/Highway, or 23 mpg Combined. The V6 is EPA-rated at 21/29 mpg City/Highway for front-drive models, and 20/27 mpg for four-wheel drive. Trailhawk models with the four-cylinder are EPA-rated at 19/25 mpg City/Highway, versus 18/24 mpg with the V6.
Crash-test scores are troubling, and styling continues to be controversial. Anyone who isn’t insistent on a traditional Jeep look, though, can hardly do better than a four-wheel-drive Cherokee for exceptional off-road competence. Plenty of choices and options are available, too.
Driving impressions by Marty Padgett, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.