Monday, October 13, 2014

First Drive--2015 Jeep Cherokee Latitude 4X4

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor
Jeep’s new Cherokee represents a rethinking of the SUV concept from the brand that practically invented the segment during World War II. It is a drastic departure from the Cherokee of old—no longer slab-sided and boxy, but sleek and aerodynamic. No longer old-school, but instead giving the option of three different 4-wheel-drive systems. Last week, I had the opportunity to drive a Cherokee Latitude 4x4, with the 2.4L “Tigershark” inline-4 and Chrysler’s industry first 9-speed automatic. Let’s take a closer look.

            The design of the new Cherokee has been the subject of much debate, acclaimed by some and scorned by a number of hardcore Jeep purists. Frankly, a “square Cherokee” would just be competing with the (square) Wrangler Unlimited (the 4-door model) for sales in the current Jeep lineup. The 4-door Wrangler was never offered during the rather long production run for the previous Cherokee, 1984-2001. Jeep wanted to compete within the high-volume small and mid-size crossover segment—and based on sales through the first model year, they’ve done quite well. This is an area where the Liberty, which the Cherokee replaced, never excelled. To the mainstream customer, the new Cherokee represents a compelling alternative to a sea of silver Honda CR-Vs and Toyota RAV-4s.

            The Cherokee Latitude that I drove represents the model that will drive sales volume. Equipped with the 2.4L and 4-wheel drive, acceleration and performance is acceptable—not fast, but not slow. The 9-speed automatic certainly helps here, with shorter gearing for the first few gears to help the Jeep get off the line more quickly, and with the final few gears representing tall overdrives for low-RPM freeway cruising. I don’t think the Jeep even reached 9th gear on the highway—it may only engage going downhill at high speeds. 8th seemed to be the cruising gear. I have read some reviews complaining about the operation of the 9 speed. I didn’t observe any unusual traits or hiccups while driving the car. I used the manual mode a few times, and it too, functioned normally, but was mostly unnecessary, as the car seemed to be in the right gear under normal operation. I’m eager to drive the 3.2L V6 model as well—I think for those that opt for 4wd, it’s certainly the right choice if you plan to regularly carry 5 people, or tow anything. In normal driving, the 2.4L performs fine.

            The interior is a massive step up from the Liberty that preceded it. Gone are the hard plastics, cheap finishes, and lackluster design. Instead, you’re greeted with a cockpit that definitely has some sweat equity built into it. The gauges are clear and easy to read, separated by a small, clear, driver’s information display. There is a small, hooded cubby atop the center of the dashboard. The doors, center console, and dash are covered in soft-touch materials. The 3-spoke steering wheel is trimmed in leather and has well-integrated steering wheel and audio controls. Chrysler’s superb Uconnect multimedia system is available, and was included in the model I drove. An 8.4 inch touchscreen houses most of the controls for audio and climate settings—many of which can be controlled by dedicated buttons directly below it. This remains the best infotainment system that I’ve tested. Furthermore, what I believe is the standard stereo blew other recently driven vehicles out of the water for sound quality and clarity.

            The standard cloth seats are very good, as well. As a taller driver, I found them to have plenty of lower back support, even without adjustable lumbar, and they were just generally very comfortable. The back seats were comfortable too, even if knee room seemed to be a little bit tighter than cars like the Subaru Outback. It was a little surprising that a car that stickered as-tested for a little over $29,000 didn’t have a power driver’s seat. Personally, it didn’t bother me, but it’s usually included at this price point. Instead though, the Jeep had heated seats, heated mirrors, a windshield wiper de-icer, and a heated steering wheel—certainly not bad things to have for an Ohio winter. One thing I’d change would be to mount the height-adjustment lever on the driver’s seat a little lower, because it hit the back of my legs as I swung them out of the car. Additionally, the cargo area is a little smaller than that of the Outback—a car that many might not see as a direct competitor, but in reality is after a very similar segment of the market.

            On the road, the Cherokee is well-behaved. As my drive was brief, I was mainly on straight boulevards with a short stint on the freeway, but I found road isolation to be good, and wind noise relatively low. It rides better than most small to midsize crossovers I’ve driven. Some of them have a tendency to have a slightly bouncy ride—like wagons that were never really retuned for high-clearance duty. Steering is accurate but slightly lighter than that of the Outback, and with slightly less feedback than Mazda’s CX-5.

            Jeeps are clearly marketed toward folks with an active lifestyle, as shown by the Cherokee’s TV spots. I think the Cherokee will be most appealing to buyers looking for something more nimble and less expensive than the Grand Cherokee, and with a bit more character than some of its competitors.

All photos courtesy Chrysler Group.

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