2014 Jeep Cherokee Introduction

The 1984 Jeep Cherokee arguably invented the small SUV, and it ruled for 17 years until its slot was taken by the 2001 Jeep Liberty. Now it's back in the lineup. The 2014 Cherokee is new from the ground up, a redesign to knock your socks off. Cherokee looks cool again. And the base price is $400 less than the 2013 Liberty.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee comes standard with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Called the Tigershark MultiAir 2 I-4, it makes 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque, with fuel mileage EPA-rated at 21/28 mpg City/Highway. We got 23.4 on the highway and winding mountain two-lanes.

The optional engine is a 3.2-liter Pentastar V6, making its debut in the Cherokee. It has many new features, some improving resource use, such as a disposable oil filter. It's derived from the 3.6-liter that's been one of Ward's 10 Best Engines for the last three years. It makes 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque and it's EPA-rated at 19/27 mpg City/Highway. We got 18.1 mpg in a 4×4 model. The advantage to the V6 is towing, rated to 4500 pounds (best in class says Jeep) versus 2000 pounds for the I4. For daily driving, we like the four-cylinder, it's smooth and powerful enough. However it's a tough call, because the V6 is only a couple mpg thirstier.

Both engines are aided by a new 9-speed automatic transmission, standard in all Cherokees. It's a compact marvel, raising the regular-car bar for tranny construction and packaging, not to mention the electronic and mechanical complexities of high-speed meshing of spinning steel gears. Our test drives revealed the shifts are smooth, while the programming is dominant even in manual mode. First gear is an aggressive 4.71:1 for low-end performance, while 6, 7, 8 and 9 are all overdrives for the highway, to increase fuel mileage and lower noise and vibration. Ninth gear is a super overdrive, at 0.48:1.

The off-road oriented Trailhawk will do amazing climbing and descending things, while looking too good to be able to do those things. Floods, blizzards, earthquakes, typhoons and the Outback are no worries mate. It breaks new ground with electronic descent control. With its tall 4.7:1 ratio for first gear, the crawl ratio of 56:1 is nearly as high as the Wrangler's.

There are three new 4WD systems introduced in the Cherokee: Active Drive I, with a one-speed Power Transfer Unit; Active Drive II with two-speed PTU and low range (it's towable); and Active Drive Lock with two-speed PTU, low range and locking rear differential. The basic Active Drive I is all-wheel drive, distributing some but not a lot of drive to the rear wheels when needed.

The Selec-Terrain traction control system has five modes: Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud, and Rock. There's a new independent suspension to go with increased torsional rigidity in the frame. There are significant standard extras, like LED headlamps and daytime running lights, fold-flat front passenger seat with storage, and more.

As for looks, it sure doesn't get lost in the SUV crowd. Its designers delivered style and distinction while enhancing the iconic image. Other SUVs dream of looking like the new Cherokee. The Cherokee Latitude is less blingy than the Cherokee Limited. Trailhawk looks best because it's tough, with raised suspension, overfenders and painted tow hooks. It says Jeep the loudest.

The interior is stylish and utilitarian, both. Everything has a function, while being easy to reach and operate. Many knobs. Knobs are good. There's a lovely storage bin on the dashboard that can hold a laptop. There are clear digital gauges between the speedometer and tach, lit organic white. Navigation on the touch screen is easy to read, with basic buttons. We wish the radio had a dial.

The Latitude standard cloth seats are rugged and sporty, and fit just right. You're surrounded by the right stuff in the right places: leather armrest/grab handle, deep door pocket and center console, clean and responsive center stack, black vents, trim like brown titanium, stitched leather on the dash of the Limited.

Behind the front seat, there's a lot of room and convenience for passengers and cargo. The 40.3 inches of rear legroom is nearly 2 inches more than big brother Grand Cherokee, due mostly to seat height. The 60/40 rear seats fold flat in a heartbeat.

Behind the wheel, it feels tight. Smooth and solid with a firm ride. The four-cylinder has plenty of power for daily needs, and to cruise easily at freeway speeds. The V6 has a bit of engine noise, with kick-butt acceleration. The V6 handling is good but it's not as attached as the four. The ride is softer except for undulations, while speed bumps are gentler. The V6 just feels bigger.

At the introduction of the new Cherokee, we were given the opportunity for comparison spins in a Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4, and Ford Escape. The Cherokee turned them into vanilla. It looks and feels like an Alfa Romeo, compared to its competitors.

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