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First drive: 2014 Jeep Cherokee tackles our track

Eric Evarts

We recently had a chance to briefly drive the all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee at our test track, shortly before Chrysler is expected to announce that it is releasing vehicles to dealers. (Chrysler officials told us that they have withheld thousands of Cherokees from the market, pending final tuning of the nine-speed transmission.)

The Cherokee will replace the unloved Liberty, and will be positioned above the Compass and Patriot, yet below the Grand Cherokee. Initial impressions are that it’s better than the mediocre Compass and Patriot and a dramatic improvement over the low-scoring Liberty.

We sampled three versions: A base model with the 184-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder; a Limited version, with the 271-hp, 3.2-liter V6, leather interior, giant sunroof, and 8.4-inch Uconnect screen, and a top-of-the-line, off-road-ready Trailhawk edition with the V6. Each trim line will offer a choice of either engine; the aforementioned nine-speed automatic transmission is standard on all models.

The Cherokee is intended to compete with other small SUVs such as the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4. Although it measures up against those popular small SUVs, in person, the Cherokee design reminds us—at least sizewise—of the BMW X1. The Cherokees proved comfortable inside, with just enough room to allow a couple of six-footers to sit comfortably in the backseat. Cargo space is modest but bigger than it looks from outside.

Other than the size, a few things set the Cherokee apart from other small SUVs:

•    An available six-cylinder engine.
•    A full suite of driver safety assist features unavailable in most small SUVs.
•    And for off-roaders, an optional two-speed transfer case and locking rear differential to tackle difficult terrain.

In our limited time behind the wheel, we found the Cherokee smooth and quick, and handled well enough.

V6 models had plenty of punch. The four-cylinder was a little rough at high revs, but it still had enough power. The Trailhawk—with its one inch of extra ground clearance, two-speed transfer case, four electronic off-road traction modes, and a limited-slip differential—had impressive traction going up and down our challenging rock hill. The driver can use the Selec-Speed Control to set a target speed of 1 to 5 mph, for creeping off road.

A Technology Package, available on all trim levels, includes adaptive cruise control, forward-collision mitigation and braking, lane keeping, and blind-spot assistance. We had a chance to try the LaneSense feature on the highway near our test track. At speeds above 37 mph, it uses the electrically assisted power steering to pull the car back into the lane, if an inattentive driver allows the vehicle to drift. The system’s camera, mounted above the rearview mirror, needs to be able to monitor lane lines on both sides of the SUV. When it registers both guide lines, an indicator pops up on the instrument cluster to indicate the system is active. Point the SUV at an angle to one of the lane lines and take your hands off the wheel, and the road on the opposite side of the car lights up in yellow as the steering wheel turns on its own to bring you back in line. In three or four seconds, a warning chime sounds and an alert on the dashboard tells you to put your hands back on the wheel.

Interiors are a mixed bag. The cabin in the base model looked a little cheap, with a small low-res radio screen and acres of semigloss black plastic on the console. But all versions get a nice soft-touch dashboard and soft materials on the door panels and arm rests. The bigger, Uconnect screen and leather in the higher-end models were nice. Covering a broad price spectrum, the Cherokee experience is correspondingly diverse.

Base Cherokees start competitively at just under $24,000; a loaded Trailhawk can reach the high $30s.

We look forward to adding a Cherokee, or two, to our fleet for a full test soon.

Eric Evarts

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