Mountain Wheels: Jeep Cherokee outstyles similar small SUVs
It has been interesting seeing the original equipment manufacturers of the automotive world learn from their counterparts in the aftermarket world — the land of bright paint jobs, ridiculous tires and accessories gone mad, as seen at the recent SEMA show in Las Vegas.
In the case of the still relatively new Jeep Cherokee, the relaunched version of the smaller SUV you may have owned or learned to drive in, especially as a High Country resident, an optional package that actually de-glosses the lesser-sized Cherokee is in fact one of those fashion statements.
Earlier this year, I had a chance to roll around in a 2015 model Cherokee with the Latitude level of trim (2016s have since appeared). That’s one of four different models — culminating in the much more aggressive Trailhawk version, which is indeed a much Jeep-ier and off-road-ready setup, though certainly not as rugged and battle-proven as the Wrangler Rubicon, for instance.
My Latitude featured a distinctive package that transforms the plentiful but not overwhelming selection of chrome bits on the Cherokee’s body with gloss black bits. Kind of like that guy you know who bought the expensive watch with the black numbers on a black background. Blacker than black.
This means that the fascia, grill surrounds, roof rails and all the exterior badging have been darkened out, plus a set of gloss black five-spoke aluminum wheels, just to give it that slightly gangster lean. There’s even some black plaid inserts on the seats. Yes, they make black plaid, it turns out.
It’s a strategy that’s perhaps more effectively used on Fiat Chrysler America’s more macho products, such as the Dodge Challenger or Charger, but in its Cherokee application, it was a nice touch.
Cherokee turns out to be less of a slouch than I found it to be on my first appraisal, especially when you go up a notch in the food chain and equip yours with the 3.2-liter V6 engine, which also brings automatic stop/start technology for more fuel savings.
That engine means 271 horsepower and 239 lb.-ft. of torque, which is pretty decent, especially compared to the somewhat anemic experience I remember in the four-cylinder model, even with its 184 horsepower.
The bigger engine’s prowess is offset a bit by the constant mixture of sorrow and joy that emerges from the Cherokee’s nine-speed transmission — sometimes it’s right on the money and can whisk you along in traffic with some properly timed shifts that will have you thinking the car is magically turbocharged, and sometimes it spends so long hunting and pecking around for an appropriate gear, that you want to strangle yourself.
Throwing it into manual gear-shifting mode for a downhill highway descent, I found that the Cherokee’s transmission had to be bumped all the way down to third gear before I felt any real engine braking effect.
The positive of all of this is mileage that’s predictably in the 29 MPG range, even in a 4×4-equipped model; the auto stop/start functions are also well integrated and not too off-putting, as I still find in the European cars that feature them.
Speaking of 4×4, regular Cherokees can be equipped with two different 4×4 systems, the more adaptable of which includes a two-speed power transfer unit and a true 4-Low setting for more aggressive off-roading or traction in extremely heinous winter conditions. The upscale Trailhawk model features a variation that’s then loaded with a locking rear differential for all that rock crawling you do on the weekends.
All of them come equipped with the easy-to-use Selec-Terrain knob, which allows you to dial up performance settings more suited for snow, sand or the aforementioned rocks.
You’ll find the regular on-road ride competent, clearly rugged enough to handle bumps and curbs and some basic obstacles, but still sporty and composed on the highway.
As one cohesive unit, Cherokee itself is well sorted, charmingly inoffensive and fitted with a good, contemporary cabin design. While it’s mostly plastic, there’s a comfortably fluid feel to the mostly rounded theme going on throughout; nice swoops and curves and textures on the rubbery door tops, plus some fabric inserts and highlight-stitched leather on the armrests.
Controls are also country simple, with just single audio and fan control knobs, the start/stop button, light controls and hatchback latch to garnish the console and dash.
The new Cherokee is certainly as futuristically styled as possible — smoothly curved, elegantly shaped and fronted with a chrome-edged seven-bar grille that’s bookended by a pair of almost deviously small headlamps and slit-like LED running lamps, creating a profile that sets it apart from other compact SUVs.
Some might consider the multi-layered rear aspect perhaps a little busy — with brake lamps high above a dimpled belt line, running lamp reflectors in a hard plastic ridge beneath that, and then a bottom layer with metallic-outlined exhaust ports.
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