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2014 Jeep Cherokee tackles a steep climb: Motoramic Drives

Neal Pollack

I was driving a nail polish-red 2014 Jeep Cherokee out of Topanga Canyon early on a Saturday morning, with another Cherokee a pace behind me. We loped down the hill together, two weak-looking CUVs chasing after the ghost of a more muscular Jeep forebear.

Behind us, an Audi A5 was giving the rear car a rough time. When I next checked the mirror, the driver had somehow squirted between us, and he was practically scooting under my bumper.

“That Audi is on my ass,” I said to my drive partner. He looked back.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said. “It has an S-Line badge, which means he got the S package but without the engine. He got duped at the dealership.”

Only a professional automotive journalist could make an observation like that. So I kept moving down the canyon while the undercharged, overpriced Audi revved behind me. Finally,at the bottom the road split; the Audi moved to my left and ripped around me like he had important places to go. Either that, or he’d put too much Viagra in his Captain Crunch.

But he was waiting for me at the next stop sign, a T-intersection. He sat at the light, middle finger extended, yelling something. This seemed like an opportunity to make a new friend. I rolled down the window.

“Get your ***** out of your *****!” he shouted.

“What?” I said.

“You were braking at all the wrong time. You were weaving in and out of the lane. The speed limit is 45. You didn’t punch it once!”

Now, I’ll admit to not being a high-performance racer. But I’ve handled a lot of vehicles in a lot of situations. I didn’t need to take this crap, before my second cup of the morning, from a guy who looked like Scott Caan’s worst hair day.

“Dude, this is a 184-hp car,” I said. “It’s a family CUV. And it’s not mine. Also, I was within the lines.”

“**** you!” he said. “Take some driving lessons. And stay out of my neighborhood!”

My Malibu welcome aside, it did make me wonder: Why do people get so angry around this new Jeep Cherokee?

The 2014 Cherokee has been unglamorously controversial since the day it first broke cover in spy photos in February, highlighting its narrow headlamps and weird, toothy grille. The automotive press corps acted bitchier than Joan and Melissa Rivers on the red carpet. One car site posted a photo essay of the reactions on its staffers’ face when they saw the Cherokee for the first time.

This hurt Jeep’s feelings, confessed one Jeep executive who rode along with us for an uncomfortable half-hour. “It was an ugly car,” he told me. “It was also unfinished, and the photos were at a bad angle. What started off as a fun controversy became really awful.”

That said, there aren’t many difference between that “unfinished” car and what will appear in showrooms at the end of the month. Gone forever are the boxy lines of Cherokees past, and even the slightly-less-boxy lines of the Jeep Liberty, which took over the Cherokee nameplate last decade and proved so relentlessly unlovable that Jeep had to bring back the original name. Contemporary design standards dictate a less macho look. More importantly, federal fuel economy rules demand better gas mileage. Every new-production car looks more aquiline than it once did. The rough places must be made smooth, so the old brush-handling Cherokee now looks as uncreased as a selkie. When you see it driving toward you, the two-tiered headlights look pretty cool, and it has an almost distinctive front fascia. It’s really not bad.

The Cherokee’s interior bears a few touches of wit, like a “trapezoidal” center stack inspired by 1940s-era Jeep grilles, and there's Easter eggs like a hidden outline of a famous off-road trail, but it’s mostly quotidian, despite the company’s pretentious insistence that its cabin design was inspired by odd choices like Mount Vesuvius. “We thought of the city of Morocco at night with its golden hues,” a designer told us about one interior color swatch, adding that a different scheme was patterned after the “accessories and outerwear” of tribes who live in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. That should prove appealing to the middle American families who are going to buy 98 percent of the Cherokee’s showroom stock.

It all adds up to something a little nicer and less plastic than the Ford Escape, and less generic than the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. But like those competitors, the new Cherokee is relatively cramped inside. The rear seat works best for children, and it’s got great storage space if all you’re going to do is take it to the grocery store.

There are two available engines: a 3.2 liter Pentastar V-6 that generates 271 hp, and gets 22 mpg combined (less if you opt for four-wheel-drive) and a 2.4 liter Tigershark four-cylinder that gets 184 hp and claims 31 mpg combined, though my drive partner and I didn’t even get close to that in the two hours we had behind the wheel. Both engines are paired with Chrysler's new nine-speed automatic transmission, an unobtrusive fuel-economy booster that, like Nigel Tufnel turning the amp up to 11, has a few numbers too many.

The Cherokee drives competently but not spectacularly with either powertrain. It steers a little loose. Locking it into Sport mode helps the handling a lot. Nothing about its on-road performance will stun drivers, but it’s definitely competitive in its segment, if not at the front of the pack. This may not exactly be an old-style Cherokee, but it should do pretty well for Jeep.

That said, Jeeps can do what your garden-variety crossover vehicle can’t: Go off-road. I wouldn’t recommend much heavy work if you’re driving a 4X2 Cherokee with a 184 hp engine, but that’s why God, or at least Jeep, made the Trailhawk, a cool (and, starting at $29,000-plus, far and away the most expensive of the Cherokee line) trail-ready offroad machine. I forged an impressive but practical offroad course in the Malibu Hills last weekend, and there was nothing the Trailhawk couldn’t handle, made even more extraordinary by the fact that it’s built on the same platform as the decidedly not off-road-capable Dodge Dart.

I set the Active Drive Lock on Sand/Mud, slapped it into 4WD, and let the “Selec-Terrain” system do the work for me. The Trailhawk handled everything perfectly, keeping its nose low, holding an incredible stance through some very tough moments. No other brand’s car — other than a Land Rover, which costs two or three times as much — could even begin to attempt the rock crawls we did. It was almost like being in a Wrangler Rubicon. This was the Jeep that dreams are made of.

Hill Descent and Select Speed controls are the best feature of contemporary off-roaders. The Trailhawk goes one step further. You take your foot off the brake and the gas, press a couple of buttons, and upshift or downshift to adjust your speed. You only have to concentrate on steering. On the kinds of inclines Jeep had us doing, that’s a real gift.

I’ve driven a lot of trucks, and this was the best Hill Descent and Select Speed I’ve yet encountered, on par with what Jeep offers in the Wrangler Rubicon. It’s a huge surprise for a vehicle that, on-road, could barely beat the CR-V in a dead sprint. Off-road, though, it was flawless. Even my nemesis in the Audi could have handled it, and he wouldn’t have needed to take his ***** out of his *****.