Road Raves: Jeep Cherokee

02/05/2014 12:00 AM

02/05/2014 3:20 PM

With its reptilian “eyes,” gaping maw and upswept body line, the all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee bears little resemblance to the boxy but beloved icon that arguably started the whole SUV craze back in 1974. In fact, at first glance, it looks downright weird. But that’s OK, because once you get used to that lizard face — and you will — you’ll also see that the new Cherokee can bull its way along city streets and billy-goat through rough terrain pretty much like the old one, and a whole lot more comfortably, too.

Cherokee’s revival is a timely market move by Chrysler. The underwhelming Liberty, which replaced the Cherokee in 2001, struggled to attract crossover buyers awash with Ford’s Escape, Honda’s CR-V and Toyota’s Rav4. Given the 2014 Cherokee’s plethora of performance and comfort options, those buyers will likely welcome the new Jeep, even if it does look a little strange and, possibly, because it does.

The 2014 Cherokee is the first Jeep built on a proprietary unibody chassis co-developed by Chrysler and Fiat. Called the Compact U.S. Wide Platform, this chassis uses a transverse-mounted engine and will be the base for many of Chrysler Group’s upcoming products.

Two engines are available: the standard 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir four-banger (same as the 2013 Dodge Dart) with 184 horses and 171-lb-ft of torque, and the 3.2-liter Pentastar V6 with 271 horses and 239 lb-ft of torque. Both are mated to an industry-first nine-speed automatic, designed by German-based transmission company ZF and manufactured by Chrysler. That means a lot of running up and down the gears in city driving, but shifts are silky smooth and hardly noticeable.

Four trim levels are offered: the base Sport, with choice of 4x2 or 4x4 capability; the front-wheel-drive-only Latitude; the off-road 4x4 Trailhawk and the luxury, leather-clad and amenity-rich Limited.

Those choosing 4x4 can also select from three rugged drivetrain options: Active Drive I is an all-wheel drive that sends power to the rear wheels when the front wheels slip. Active Drive II adds low-range gearing for greater off-road capability, and Active Drive Lock (standard on the Trailhawk) offers a locking rear differential. All 4x4 Cherokees feature the Selec-Terrain system with settings for Automatic, Sport, Snow and Sand/Mud. If that’s not enough, Active Drive Lock adds a Rock setting.

The roomy, well-appointed cabin is remarkably nice, with high-quality materials, including optional full-grain Nappa leather upholstery in several color themed-schemes (Iceland, Morocco, Grand Canyon and Vesuvio). Clever storage nooks and crannies abound (the removable grocery bag holder is a thoughtful touch), and the adjustable rear seat that slides 6 inches front and back is a terrific idea.

Connectivity is a no-brainer: The base trim 5-inch touch screen is acceptable, but the optional 8.4-inch UConnect infotainment system is one of the best currently available anywhere, and the 7-inch customizable instrument display will keep the family gadget-freak happily occupied for hours (hopefully in the driveway rather than on the road).

Pricing is also reasonable: The base-level Sport starts at $22,995, followed by the $24,495 Latitude. The off-road oriented Trailhawk is $29,495 and the civilized Limited starts at $27,995.

As proof that the 2014 Cherokee is on the right track, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the new Jeep a 2013 Top Safety Pick, and the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) chose it as “Best New SUV/CUV Under $35,000.” Plus the Texas Auto Writers Association — undoubtedly a hardy bunch — called it the “2014 Compact SUV of Texas.”

Whether your driving preferences include off-road antics or just a spirited sprint through the carpool line, you can saddle up the 2014 Cherokee and hit your happy trails with comfort, confidence and style.

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