Tastes change and evolve, no doubt, but just when it might seem that after this crisis some customers might change their way of thinking and become buyers of more logical and sensible products, the SUV craze exploded. In the United States this obsession with buying SUVs has been around for a long time, dating back to the early 1990s, but since the beginning of the current decade it has been growing even stronger.
As SUVs have become less of a problem on the road at the expense of off-road capability, their popularity has increased. Add to this the fact that in Europe the Qashqai swept all before it when it hit the market, proving to manufacturers that the Old Continent could also be obsessed with anything that looked muscular, big and country.
So, if the first generations of the Cherokee had sought its clientele in buyers looking for off-road capability, now FCA was clear that had to reinvent the recipe, and create a product more suitable for road within the D segment, without losing the typical capabilities of any Jeep, ie, "go better in the bush than its direct rivals".
The Cherokee's media breakthrough was unconventional. Some photos leaked before the account raised thousands of critics for its strange aesthetics, but time has shown that, regardless of what they say the commentators of blogs, forums and editors of motor publications, the car likes. It likes it a lot, in fact. In its first full commercial year it has accounted for more than 175,000 sales, and the thing is still increasing, especially with the planned Chinese offensive, where it will begin to be manufactured this year.
The Cherokee is part of the D-SUV segment, where the X3, Q5 and GLC are in the premium range, and in the generalist range products like the CX-5, the CR-V, the X-Trail or the Hyundai iX35. Below the Cherokee there will still be room and space for another best-seller to be born, located halfway in price between the Renegade and our protagonist of today.
Things as they are: I am one of those critics of the Cherokee's design. When I saw the first leaked images, I thought it looked ugly. Then, with the catalog of official photos I found it "less ugly", and now, two years later, I will say that in TrailHawk version, I even find it "cool", although I still consider it ugly.
Jeep played hard here. It wanted a car away from the solid and square look of its more "country" offer, and was looking for a car more aligned with the prevailing trends in asphalt SUVs, with more curves, with concave and convex surfaces playing with each other, with a less "old school" front, and with some optical groups to the last, playing with the idea of separating functions in different projectors (Multipla, C4 Picasso, 500 ...).
When you stand in front of it, it is still a car that does not seem to have a specific design line and complete from end to end. For me that's one of its main problems. The other is the lack of brand identity, something that comes from going outside the canons set for a traditional Jeep.
Up front, the grille with vertical openings is "typically Jeep". The main projectors, with their painted black interior that eliminated the chrome from the original leaked design, look "even good", as do the "eyebrows" that serve for LED daytime running lights and turn signals. The bonnet is quite flat and very long and straight, before giving way to a tall, flat-roofed cabin.
The side is dominated by the muscular square wheel arches "Jeep style" (here there is a certain aftertaste to the DNA of the brand), while the side sheet metal flees from the typical solidity without ornaments to integrate a concave sheet metal at the bottom of the doors that unloads visual weight playing with the contrast of brightness and shadows, and that plays supported by all the black plastic strip that protects the entire perimeter of the vehicle.
The shape of the cut of the line of the windows is also peculiar, with an organic waistline that is shaped like a curve, descending first to ascend past half the front door to reach the C-pillar. The C-pillar shows enough inclination to prevent the car visually weighs too much back, although the game of lateral volumes is not, in my view, not quite well resolved, by the amount of "nose" and front overhang with respect to the cabin.
The rear is much less elaborate than the front, with lights located very high, saved from impacts in off-road and urban driving, and with a boot lid that plays from concave to convex, as is already the case in the side view.
All in all, as I say, is a car that ends up working better live, and over time, than at first glance in photos. I will no longer say that I find it ugly or unpleasant to look at, because it is no longer so. However, the fact that this has stopped happening to me doesn't mean that it's a "designer" car to be appreciated for its great aesthetic achievements. Neither so much nor so bald. Let's just say that it's a combination of personality (no one will mistake it for a model from another brand) with traditional Jeep touches (grille, wheel arches) and enough surfaces to prevent the car from becoming a metallic monolith with so much exposed sheet metal.
If Chrysler did something wrong for years, it was its cockpits. For the memory, there are still some disastrous works like the interior of the Caliber or the Cherokee of the last generation.
They learned from their mistakes, but when they wanted to remedy them, the crisis and bankruptcy led almost to disaster the plans to fix them. From Fiat, thank God, they applied that hard learning, and all the products that have come out since then are no longer "horrible on the inside" in quality of finishes and materials.
The Cherokee was the first project entirely made under FCA's mandate, and it had to demonstrate what it learned on this front, and it shows. Opening the door gives you access to an interior whose soft plastic dashboard is finished with good feel and fit. It has a curious white stitched finish to the plastic that gives it a touch of colour and good workmanship.
The design is not to shoot rockets for the innovative, but it is well resolved. Everything is dominated by a huge screen UConnect infotainment system, with 8.4 inches (in this version is optional, as standard is only five), being tactile and dominating from it almost all functions of the vehicle.
Further down there is a collection of roulettes and buttons to control the climate control and audio volume, as shortcuts to functions that would not work well on the screen. The steering wheel, which is larger than usual (Jeep stuff, I guess), has a bunch of buttons visible at the front and not visible at the back to operate the on-board computer, cruise control and audio system, as well as the voice command systems and hands-free phone.
The instrument cluster is not innovative either. Its two dials are widely separated to make room for a small, monochrome digital display to show the speed in this version, although it can be a larger, colour display in the more equipped versions.
There are spaces everywhere to leave things in the front, and the seats are large, comfortable and with a lot of adjustment range. Of course, they are wide, for "USA size" bodies, and I, with my 1.73 and my scarce 70 kilos danced in the curves without being gripped convincingly by its side petals.
The fabric upholstery is warm, but the climate control is powerful to try to take care of the temperature of the car, something that also helps the use of laminated glass in the front doors (optional with surcharge). The rear seats are also spacious, although the bench is movable, and you can choose whether you prefer more or less luggage space. In the most forward position of the bench seat, you can't fit a human being with legs sitting on it...
But if you don't go to extremes, you'll find a second row of generous size, where you can spend long days of travel with maximum comfort, similar to that of a minivan, and with its own air conditioning outlets.
The trunk is not to throw rockets in its category, as there are larger. In any case, with 412 liters in its most annoying configuration (70 more if you dispense with the spare wheel, something that is not recommended in my opinion), it is more than enough for any family's holiday trips. By the way, the automatic tailgate comes in handy, and although it's not lightning fast either, it takes a lot of work off your hands when you have to open it or especially close it, and you're not "especially tall". At this point in my life, I'm starting to feel like a Richard Hammond...
The new Cherokee moves away from the beam and crossmember chassis to use the FCW (Compact Wide) modular platform, first used in the Dart, also used by the Chrysler 200, and derived from the Giulietta.
Don't be fooled by its origins. Although it shares some things with the Dart (wiring and little else), the basic idea is that of a modular platform in the style of VAG's MQB, where very different cars of very different sizes can be built with certain elements in common to reduce development costs.
The Cherokee thus receives a monocoque whose platform is very reinforced with respect to the Chrysler 200, thinking that this car had to be a car with marked off-road capabilities, which in turn demanded high torsional and bending rigidity, and resistance to harsh treatment.
That explains why the Cherokee has an official weight of 1,920 kilos, which in the real world is two tons (look at how far it is in that sense from the Giulietta, and you will understand that although they are distant cousins they have little to do).
On that chassis is articulated a mechanical offer that goes through three types of traction and three suspension configurations. The front-wheel drive models are closer to the tarmac. Those with all-wheel drive but four-cylinder engine (like the one we are talking about) carry a type of all-wheel drive and a somewhat higher suspension. Those with the Active Drive II system (automatics with a nine-speed automatic transmission) have a reduction gearbox and even more ground clearance. And the TrailHawk, which is only sold with the V6 petrol engine, already has everything: higher suspension, better off-road angles, more fording capacity and lockable differentials at will.
Although the average in the B-SUV segment is that 10% of the units sold are 4×4, in the case of Jeep are always something more (one in three, more or less), and that's why we wanted to test this version that concerns us, complementing the test we had already done the 4×2.
The engine is the well-known two-litre Multijet II diesel from FCA, with 140 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, variable geometry turbocharger and a generous 350 Nm of maximum torque at 1,750 rpm. It is mated to a conventional six-speed manual gearbox (the same used in other FCA products), which in turn offers torque output to both axles. The engine is front transverse, and not longitudinal, as it had been in the Cherokee, and torque distribution in this version (Active Drive I) is executed by an intelligent center differential with an electronically piloted clutch. It has several operating modes, selectable from a rotary control located next to the gear lever, which allows you to let it work automatically or opt for a programming to your liking.
But if the aesthetic, technical and cabin change is huge compared to past generations, the driving is even more marked. It's not a BMW 3 Series or a Porsche Macan, you're not going to sit down and want to start cornering, but as soon as you enter the cabin and start the engine you understand that things have changed a lot.
The sound of the engine is so muffled that it's barely audible in the cabin. You come out of a standstill as you would with any conventional car, and the brakes respond without delay, and without you being scared to run over the car in front of you (believe me, that happened to you riding in the Cherokee not long ago, coming from a traditional sedan).
Everything is smooth and quiet. The sound isolation is amazing, really. I don't remember anything as quiet in its segment, and it's even quieter than traditional sedans of its size. The 350 Nm of torque are noticeable and move with ease the almost two tons of weight when it comes to street driving, while the suspension isolates you from speed bumps, potholes and urban bounces.
Consumption is surprising in this area: You can make eight liters or less to 100 in the city, something unseemly in a Jeep not long ago, less with all-wheel drive.
Outward visibility is decent, and although it's a big, bulky car, there are no awkward blind spots, and it's even easy to park (and if you hit something or someone, the plastic bumpers will keep you from marking the paint with your dear mother-in-law's lipstick).
The worst thing in town is by far the Start&Stop system, which is clumsy and slow, which together with the need to slip the clutch more than you want to get out of a standstill can leave you out of the game at some junctions or traffic lights until you get the hang of it.
If you go out on the open road, on a highway, freeway or open national highway, with few curves, the Cherokee "flows" like never before. The big ball of tyres, the comfortable suspension, the isolated steering, the acoustic comfort and an engine with a powerful torque curve, make covering long distances in full comfort while the sound system entertains you a child's play. It's as comfortable as an MPV. In this environment you can average around 6.5 litres per 100 kilometres.
If the country road starts to twist and the bends come, the Cherokee starts to tell you where its comfort zone is and where it doesn't want to go. The body, when you get into a hard corner, sways considerably. The steering, due to its leaking and tire ballooning, is imprecise, and the car isn't a "slingshot" that feels like it's wearing scalpels instead of wheels. It pitches and sways, and while it doesn't break trajectory despite going over bumps in support, it's not a car you want to go fast.
Plus, the 140-horsepower engine runs out of power quickly. Although the torque curve is nice and strong, it lacks more power at the top of the rev counter if you want to make quick overtakes or give forceful blows of gas for whatever reason.
In any case, what it lacks in agility it has in nobility. Even if you play with it like I did, changing the support and playing with the inertias (not recommended with a car of this size and weight, that's for sure), the Cherokee won't bite you, and it will end up asking you for a truce due to the accumulation of work. The ESP and brakes are always there to try and help, and the tyres grip as hard as they can.
It's clear, in that sense, that it's a car tuned with comfort in mind and not to be scary or unsafe, but it's a long way from having a dynamic touch on tarmac. It doesn't have it, nor does it want it, and if you're looking for it, you're looking at the wrong product.
The good thing about all this is that what is a disadvantage in dynamic driving on tarmac, is usually an advantage off it. Hitting dirt tracks or loose rocks with the Cherokee we were given to test was a pleasure. The suspension works great, the steering, disconnected in tarmac driving, does not offer bounces and vibrations in this environment, which is a relief when driving off-road if you have to get home from the mountain or have gone to do some expedition.
It is clear that the Cherokee 4×4 with 140 horsepower and ActiveDrive I is not a car for trialeras (for that we will try the TrailHawk in the month of August), but it defends itself well. Not just well, but better than all the rivals in its segment that we've been able to test in these conditions.
The dashboard doesn't creak as you speed past loose rocks or bumpy road junctions. Nor does it vibrate or rattle. You just get the "solid car" feel one expects from a Jeep, without being harsh or uncomfortable like a Wrangler because of it.
Where does all this leave us? To place it in its market slot and draw conclusions. The evolutionary leap from the past is so great that to relate this new Cherokee to the previous one is like trying to find similarities between people with the same name who share no family relationship whatsoever... It wouldn't make sense.
As a D-SUV, in its segment, it is an extremely comfortable car to travel on the highway or motorway without noise and with acoustic, thermal and suspension comfort. It uses little fuel (more for the size and weight it has), and its quality of finish is worthy in the segment and within its price. In the city it is also comfortable, and despite its generous size, I will say that it is easy to move and even versatile. The engine is fine, but not its Start & Stop, and its consumption is not high. It is only difficult to go fast on winding roads, not because it is dangerous to do so, but because it doesn't ask you to do so, and it is clumsy at it. Off-road it's as good or better than any other car in its class.
Now, would I recommend it? That requires you to assess exactly what you want and expect from it. If you're never going off-road, you're fine with all-wheel drive, unless you live in areas with harsh climates (snow every winter, rain, etc.) and therefore want the help of all-wheel drive. But if you're never going off-road then you should ask yourself why you want an SUV. Is it for aesthetics? Well, then go for the 4×2, and not this version. Even so, I can think of 4×2s that are better tuned for off-road, but at this point (wanting an SUV with no intention of taking it off-road) I don't think logic is going to be your thing.
If you're going to eventually leave the asphalt, or you've got the Cherokee 4×4 140 hp between your eyebrows, I'll tell you that it is the most recommended in its category for pure and simple comfort. The most important thing: I can't think of any compelling reason not to recommend it over its rivals, something you couldn't exactly say before. It only lacks in boot space, and not because it's necessarily short, but because its rivals are more generous, but I doubt that a conventional family would miss space in the boot.
And if you want something more capable off-road? Well, for that we'll be testing the TrailHawk in the near future, although the fact that it's only available with the V6 petrol engine means it's not recommended if you appreciate fuel economy. In between is the 170 hp ActiveDrive II automatic, which is a better all-rounder than the one we tested, and also has a bit more power in the engine...
Last but not least, an exclusive premiere for you. Starting this week, most of the tests we offer you will be accompanied by a "low quality" video, with the name #selfiestyle. The concept behind these new videos is to offer what many of you have been asking for since we started the video-testing experiment in 2008: more video. The fact is that with no staff to film and edit with sufficient quality and volume, what we have done is to go for a format where everything is recorded and produced by a single person, adding b-roll videos of the brand so you can see the car on the outside too.
I hope you like it, because if you like it, many more will come, at the rate of one a week, at least until we can climb the next step and have a person dedicated 100% to video production in conditions. Here it goes.