As Peggy’s mean new boss says to her during the season opener of “Mad Men,” rapidly diminishing her overachiever spirit, “I seem to be immune to your charms.”
Sad, that. But it’s kind of the experience I had after a much-anticipated first crack at the all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee, the first truly post-Fiat-merger entry for the unstoppably popular off-road brand. And Cherokee is itself a throwback to those virtually unkillable, square-shouldered Jeeps we apparently all drove (or owned) at some point in the 1990s.
I’ll throw in a spoiler alert early: When I hit the road in a not especially inexpensive Limited 4x4 model, optioned up to almost $36,000 but still powered by the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, my enthusiasm quickly wavered.
Jeep’s brawny image does not connote a quiet and burpy motor, further flattened by a nine-speed automatic transmission that seems hell-bent on staying in gears seven or higher, even when cruising at about 20 mph.
You can toggle the oversized gear shifter into manual mode and downshift a half-dozen times to keep the rig cooking at a desired temperature — as I suspect you might have to do during drives above 9,000 feet, especially the uphill portions — but I found myself more often fighting (and cursing) the combined drivetrain.
Then, to make matters more awkward, I noticed Cherokee’s propensity to get extremely involved in highway grooves and multi-layered pavement — to the extent that it tugged the oversized wheel out of my hands as I cruised along. This on standard 18-inch wheels and non-combat-rated touring tires, as well.
Would my experience be vastly different in a Cherokee powered by the new 3.2-liter V6, or sporting full Trailhawk off-road status? Probably. But the Limited 4x4 is the one most folks are probably going to buy, and the mechanics and the rolling experience were a big letdown, considering the many attributes of the rest of the vehicle.
Admittedly, during a journey on a very bumpy gravel road — the most off-road most of you will get until the end of mud season — Cherokee’s new front and rear independent suspension handled itself with better poise than the recent generations of soft-roader Jeeps (Patriot, Compass, etc.). But that suddenness of character also carries forward onto the paved surfaces you’ll be traveling for the most part, and … well, there you are. Mine was also equipped with the Selec-Terrain control system to assist in snow, mud and rock crawling, simply by spinning the gigantic knob on the center console.
What’s the disconnect? You got me. In terms of aesthetics and design, it’s a pretty spiffy entry in the segment, though the ultra-stylized seven-bar grille is topped with a pair of teeny-tiny slits of headlamps (with LED daytime running lights) that are distinctive, if vaguely creepy.
It’s a stylized and stubby re-do of the relatively new Grand Cherokee, with deeply sculpted sides — but like the mid-sized sedan segment, there’s a lot about the smaller Cherokee’s looks that is very, very similar to its competitors, especially from the rear.
Inside, it certainly earns the kudos it’s received for a package that, with a $1,595 upgrade, included remarkably sporty, leather-trimmed bucket seats — with highlight stitching (also seen throughout the cabin) and full summertime ventilation.
It’s one of the most modern-looking cabin designs around, echoing the ahead-of-the-curve looks of the Escape, including one very busy, 7-inch, mid-instrument cluster video display capable of apparently a million different forms of trip-computer, lane-departure or transmission-temperature readings.
Upgrade to the effortlessly intuitive new Uconnect navigation and entertainment system and you get big, easy-to-use touchscreen controls that do what they’re supposed to, when you want them to.
Although a little jarring, the forward-collision warning system also does what it advertises, warning you if a vehicle juts in front of you in traffic and briefly tapping on the brakes for you.