It's easy to look at the ultra-sleek 2014 Jeep Cherokee and think to yourself, "Blasphemy!"
I know I did when I first laid eyes on Jeep's latest compact crossover SUV. That's because I grew up in an era when the Cherokee was something decidedly different. Perhaps the quintessential box on wheels, the Cherokee of the '80s and '90s was rear-wheel drive, of course, and its angular lines and rough-and-ready character made it one of the coolest vehicles of my youth.
There's no way that a futuristic-looking crossover based on the Dodge Dart sedan could measure up to this legacy, right? That's how I was feeling as I headed to Westlake Village, north of Los Angeles, for the Cherokee's North American launch.
My, How Many Speeds You Have
A headline news item for the 2014 Cherokee is its novel 9-speed automatic transmission, which is standard across the board. Billed as a global first, the 9-speed theoretically provides the best of both worlds: Fuel economy is maximized in cruising scenarios, while the just-right acceleration gear is only a computerized downshift away.
In practice, the new transmission shifts smoothly, though sometimes you can feel it thinking for an extra beat during downshifts as it weighs all those options. In terms of fuel economy, the Cherokee's maximum of 31 miles per gallon isn't world-beating -- the new Nissan Rogue, for example, gets 33 mpg -- but anything over 30 mpg in this segment is a respectable performance.
The 1994 Cherokee, by the way, maxed out at 23 mpg. OK, maybe there's something to be said for decades of progress.
A Cabin That Makes You Go "Wow"
The Cherokee's all-new interior was an instant hit at the launch event. To be fair, some other compact crossovers have recently stepped up their game in this regard -- the Ford Escape, Mazda CX-5 and Toyota RAV4 come to mind. But in terms of overall materials quality, the Cherokee makes a strong case for class honors, from its supple dashboard trim to its soft-touch front and rear door panels. (The Volkswagen Tiguan, for example, has hard-plastic rear panels.)
On the technology front, a 5-inch touchscreen comes standard on entry-level Cherokees, but there's no substitute for the stellar 8.4-in uConnect touchscreen that's standard on the Limited trim (and optional on Latitude). It's so pretty and easy to use that it's basically like having an iPad in your dash. Only the MyFord Touch system compares in terms of aesthetics, and uConnect easily takes the usability award.
The Dodge Dart is a fine effort as economy sedans go, but nothing about the way it drives prepares you for the 2014 Cherokee experience. There's a sense of solidity and heft from behind the wheel that reminds me more of the award-winning Grand Cherokee midsizer. I was particularly impressed by the lack of road and wind noise relative to the competition. Chrysler doesn't make a compact luxury crossover, but a well-equipped Cherokee makes for a worthy substitute. That's particularly true if you spring for the 3.2-liter V6, which delivers a snarling 271 horsepower on demand. The base 2.4-liter 4-cylinder is forgettable by comparison.
Still a Jeep on the Trail
Most Cherokee drivers won't stray too far from the beaten path, but file this one in the "nice to know it's there" category: The Cherokee Trailhawk model is so adept in the dirt that Jeep pitted it against the famous Rubicon trail, and the Cherokee won. Having driven a Trailhawk through a variety of off-road scenarios at the event, I can attest that it's astonishingly capable, especially given its humble front-wheel-drive roots.
Now, would I pay the $31 grand or so that Jeep's asking for the Trailhawk? Actually, yeah, I'd consider it. The Trailhawk's only $1,500 more than the luxurious Limited, and you get special wheels, mean-looking flared fenders, skid plates and a unique suspension with a 1-in lift. If you ask me, that's a pretty good deal.
The Bottom Line
Hey, I've still got a soft spot for the original Cherokee -- probably always will. But the more I drove the 2014 Jeep Cherokee, the more I realized what a powerful drug nostalgia can be. I love the image of yesteryear's boxy, no-nonsense Cherokee. But which one would I rather drive? The new one is the easy choice here, and that's arguably true vis-à-vis its modern competitors, too.