The new Jeep Cherokee is a vital model for the Fiat/Chrysler partnership. It needs to sell in significant numbers, but to do that, has the Jeep DNA been diluted? Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case
Words: Nigel Fryatt
“We invented this segment, it’s great to be back in it with this vehicle.” Despite the comment being made at the new Cherokee’s launch in Italy, there was no mistaking the Stateside accent of Mitch Clauw, chief engineer for Chrysler’s C and D segment vehicles. Indeed, Mitch looked as you would expect a Jeep engineer; stocky, tight-fitting khaki workingman’s shirt, faded denim jeans and serious boots. Not for him the slick black designer hoodies worn by other assorted promotional and PR personal at the launch. Mitch is a Jeep man.
The invention he was referring to goes back to the 1984 Cherokee and what Jeep proudly claim to be the first ever SUV; a comfortable, family sedan, with four-wheel drive and confident off-road pretensions. It was the first such 4×4 that was built using a unibody frame, and not what was then the more traditional chassis + body construction. Times have changed, motor vehicles particularly so, but the new Cherokee is certainly back with a plan to underline all that is great about Jeep products, yet now has the target of serious success in a global market, not just in hometown USA. At present, the new Cherokee is being produced in Toledo, Ohio, and exported, but the company confirms that it has been designed with “more emphasis on the European customer,” and the sales targets for this vehicle reflect that.
The last four years has seen successive growth for the new Fiat/Chrysler combination. The dark days of 2008, and a depressed global financial market that so nearly saw the end of the Jeep brand, seem a long way away. In 2013, Jeep vehicle sales hit a record high of 731,565, and in Europe, much of this success has been thanks to the revised Grand Cherokee. This new Cherokee has a good platform to extend that growth, and it is certainly expected to do exactly that. In the UK alone, the Cherokee will be available from the end of May and the company expects to sell 2000-2500 models this year, rising to 5000 in 2015. At present in the UK there are 56 dealers, this is expected to be increased to 74 by the end of the year. Those dealers are going to be busy.
Now there are two ways of looking at the new Cherokee, and they neatly sum up the US/European merger. From the front, there is absolutely no mistaking the Jeep heritage. The ‘waterfall’ seven bar front grille dominates. The slit-eyed, angled lights on the front wings are a touch like the Evoque, but they do make this a unique looking SUV, and it looks even better in the metal than the photographs. The vehicles headlights are almost hidden, cleverly incorporated into the moulded plastic front bumper design. The trapezoidal wheel arch shapes quite clearly claim heritage from the Wrangler, and this is further emphasised in the Trailhawk models where the arches protrude to offer a ‘tougher’ off-road image. From the front, the new Cherokee makes an impressive statement. Sadly, for the rear three-quarters, it is pure European SUV jelly mould, and quite uninspired, which given the bold frontal treatment is a shame. If you buy one of these, remember to reverse into parking spaces and you’ll easily spot your car – otherwise it will be tricky to distinguish. The clash in design is quite intriguing; loud, brash American front, safe, bland, European backside.
The body architecture of the vehicle’s monocoque and chassis platform has some commonality to a number of other Chrysler products, but the Cherokee team are keen to emphasise that there were no compromises made when it came to making sure that while this will undoubtedly be sold as a comfortable family SUV, it remains a Jeep and an off-road Jeep at that.
Such commonality is, well, common throughout the global motor industry due to costs and ease of production. What is underneath this is far from common when compared to many other competitors in this mid-size SUV. As we have mentioned before, the Cherokee has three different 4×4 systems; Active Drive I, Active Drive II and Active Drive II Lock. The significant differences are that in Active Drive I, the system is a fully automatic torque control option, electronically controlled by a variable clutch on the rear axle. For the majority of on-road driving a Cherokee will therefore be a front drive machine, the rear drive coming in as road conditions change, or if the driver starts to be more aggressive. For Active Drive II and Active Drive II Lock, the Cherokee has a 2.92:1 ratio Low Range option, which works in conjunction to the Jeeps established Selec-Terrain system where the driver can select Auto, Snow, Sport, or Sand/Mud mode. The top of the range Trailhawk models – which, despite our initial fears, will be available in the UK, we are pleased to announce! – has the addition of a Rock mode, plus the ability to lock the rear diff (it locks automatically in Rock mode, but is selectable in the other modes).
One new feature of the Cherokee is the Selec-Speed Control, which works in conjunction with the Hill Descent and Hill Ascent control. This means that the driver can select this and then decide the speed needed to climb or descend and obstacle. We used it on a 70 per cent, concrete obstacle. Selecting a crawl speed of just 2kph (it is selectable from 1 to 9kph), release the brake and let the vehicle climb an admittedly bone dry, but significantly steep slope, and descend the other side without drama. Keen off-road drivers can be heard wailing that this takes all off-road driving skill away from the nut behind the wheel, but there’s no denying that technically it is very impressive. We also used it to crawl over the concrete mogul obstacle, when merely using low first and controlling the vehicle on the throttle, did need gentle dabbing of the brakes to avoid the vehicle taking the descents fractionally too quickly. Now there was no drama in actually ‘driving’ the Cherokee over these humps and using the throttle and brake, but we have to admit that the electronic crawl option did manage exceedingly well on its own! And you can adjust the speed with the +/- on the auto transmission.
The new Cherokee is claimed by Jeep to be the first mid-size SUV to have a nine-speed automatic transmission (Jeep do not consider the Range Rover Evoque as being a competitor in the group as that has a nine-speed automatic option). On the road, this transmission is excellent, offering at times almost imperceptible changes. You can, of course, select manual gear changes, but it did appear during our limited road test that occasionally the transmission would override your decision to change up or down if it felt that to be the wrong option! Computer says no, it seems. The Sport option in the Selec-Terrain system is for more enthusiastic road driving and this mode intriguingly limits the traction control, and alters the front/rear torque split to 40/60.
The engine options for the UK will primarily be the two versions of the 2.0-litre turbo diesel Multijet II variants. The differences being that one model offers 140bhp, the other 170bhp. Interestingly, they both claim to offer 350Nm of torque, which comes in earlier on the less powerful model at 1500rpm, compared to the more powerful units when it’s available at 1750rpm. The 140bhp version comes with the six-speed manual transmission and has a C02 of 147g/km, while the 170bhp plus nine-speed auto box has a very impressive 154g/km, one of the best in its class.
As we mentioned earlier, versions that come to the UK will include the Trailhawk in its ‘Trail Rated’ specification – good to know that they listen to what we suggest! The other good news is that they didn’t decide to use the turbodiesel engine option for the Trailhawk and this will come to the UK with the new 3.2-litre V6 Pentastar petrol engine, which offers 272bhp and 315Nm of torque. It’s a very smooth engine, and sounds very refined on the road, thanks to the fact that the Cherokee itself is indeed remarkably quiet, thanks to some clever insulation and new sound-deadening windscreen and side glass technology. It’s not a rocket ship 4×4 by any means, but it’s sprightly. The 170bhp didn’t quite impress, but our drive was limited and we would rather like to withhold judgment until we have tried it on our crumbling UK roads. If you choose the 2.0-litre engine with the nine-speed gearbox then the towing capacity is an impressive 2475kg, useful for anyone wishing to tow a boat, caravan or horsebox, especially with the additional option of specifying the Low Range option 4×4 system. There are over 100 specific Mopar accessories designed for the Cherokee for people to personalise their Jeep.
The Trailhawk certainly looks the business. It has a decent 2.9deg Approach/32.1deg Departure angles and 221mm of ground clearance. Add to that the comprehensive Active Drive II Lock 4×4 system, with all its electronic wizardry, and the Trailhawk has to be one of the best off-road capable mid-range SUVs in the class. While we were only able to drive the Cherokee over the purpose built off-road course at Fiat’s Balocco test track, you can certainly appreciate that it has ability and the comments of chief engineer Mitch Clauw that this model has the necessary Jeep DNA are certainly true. We look forward to a much more significant test in the future. The majority of models coming to the UK will be the 2.0-litre 140 and 170bhp options, and the Trailhawk will be a limited number, but it’s great that it is coming here and it’s certainly the one most 4×4 Magazine readers would want. Here’s hoping that when the new Renegade comes to the UK in January 2015, there will also be a Trailhawk version on offer to British owners.
After the Trailhawk models, the ‘base’ model Cherokee for the UK will be the Longitude, with the highest specification being the Limited. And it is certainly high specification, plus all models achieved the top EURO NCAP 5-star safety rating. All the versions we drove certainly felt well built, and were remarkably quiet to drive on Italian roads. Prices had not been announced as we closed for press but indications are that the entry model will be in the £25,000 range, but this will probably rise to a high £30,000 figure for a fully spec’d Limited. That’s not cheap, but it is a highly competent and technically clever off-roader – which is not what many others in the mid-range SUV segment can claim. The sales targets, however, are tough for this new Cherokee, not just in the UK, but also across the globe. These high numbers mean that dealers will be selling to people who are not necessarily Jeep ‘enthusiasts’ and may not, therefore, understand the Jeep brand quite as much as the glitzy press presentation and high quality advertisements will have you believe. Indeed, listening to the marketing hype that surrounded the launch of the Cherokee, the new tag line that will be used to sell this new Jeep is ‘BUILT FREE’. Perhaps it’s just that we are getting a little old in the tooth to respond to what at times appears to be glossy polished gibberish, but if it was up to us to describe the new Cherokee, we think TRUST MITCH would be a far better tag. From this initial, all too short, on and off-road drive, we are prepared to do exactly that. 4×4
We like: Front design, built quality, Trailhawk version
We dislike: Rear design, and probably the price…