We're behind the wheel of the new Jeep Cherokee, nose pointed at the sky, our spotter's hands barely visible over the hood. We're at a stair-step climb on the ****'s Revenge trail outside of Moab, Utah, and the Cherokee hesitates briefly as one rear wheel loses contact with terra firma. But then the locked rear differential does its thing, and we lurch forward. As we do, the hood teeter-totters down, the red-rock trail again comes into view, and the Cherokee begins walking itself down the steep slope, at a controlled 0.6 mph.
Moab is home
Moab, of course, is the off-roader's paradise that each spring hosts the Jeep Easter Safari. Jim Morrison, director of Jeep product marketing, describes it as "the home base for the Jeep family." It's no surprise that Jeep has come here for this launch. When the new Cherokee was announced, Jeep traditionalists were up in arms over this transverse engine, front-wheel-drive/four-wheel-drive crossover, which replaces the Liberty. Here in Moab, Jeep is out to prove that the new Cherokee is worthy -- meaning that it earns its chops off road.
For our trail ride, we're driving only the most off-road-ready version of the new Cherokee, the Trailhawk. Its unique front and rear fascias, and one-inch greater ride height, give is better approach and departure angles than its siblings. It also gets tow hooks, skid plates, and, most importantly, Jeep's Active Drive Lock four-wheel-drive system.
3 4WD systems (+ FWD)
Active Drive Lock is one of three 4x4 systems on the new Cherokee. Sport, Latitude, and Limited 4x4 models come standard with Active Drive I, an on-demand 4WD system. (They're also available with front-wheel drive.) Like all Cherokee 4WD systems, it has a clutch to disengage the rear prop shaft to reduce drag. It also comes with hill descent control, and Selec-Terrain, with modes for different pavement/weather conditions and also a sport mode.
The Latitude and Limited can upgrade to the Active Drive II, which adds a two-speed transfer case with low range. Active Drive Lock, which is standard on, and exclusive to, the Trailhawk, adds a locking rear differential and Selec-Speed Control.
Cruise control for off-roading
The latter is a super-cool new feature (available on the 2014 Grand Cherokee as well) that we really appreciated out on ****'s Revenge. It's similar to hill descent control (when you use it, HDC is activated), but it's more like cruise control for extreme off-roading. You push the button to turn it on, and then toggle up and down with the shift lever's plus-minus gate to adjust the speed in 0.6-mph increments, from 0.6 mph to 5.5 mph. You can drive with your feet off the pedals completely, allowing you to concentrate exclusively on wheel placement.
Our drive on the trail was spent almost entirely in Rock mode, with low range and the locking rear differential engaged. We needed every bit of the Trailhawk's 29-degree approach and 32-degree departure angles, and 8.7 inches of ground clearance; even so, we occasionally put the skid plates to work as well. We also called upon the full range of suspension travel: 6.7 inches at the front and 7.8 inches at the rear. The Cherokee rides on Fiat/Chrysler's CUSW platform, but Jeep engineers say they've given it a unique four-wheel independent suspension.
Tigershark or Pentastar
Both Cherokee engines are new to Jeep, and both use Chrysler's brand-new nine-speed automatic. The base 2.4-liter is the Tigershark four-cylinder, which is also just arriving in the Dodge Dart GT. With 184 hp and 171 pound-feet of torque, it's more powerful than the 2.4-liter in the current Patriot/Compass, but it's still overtaxed in the Cherokee, and acceleration is leisurely. We much preferred the V-6, a variant of the Pentastar de-bored to 3.2 liters. With 271 hp and 239 pound-feet, the V-6 provides the oomph that the 4044-pound Cherokee (in 4x4 trim) needs. The nine-speed automatic, however, was kind of a non-issue. Of its nine forward speeds, the top four are overdrive, with ninth at an ultra-tall 0.48:1. In our admittedly brief on-road drive to and from the trailhead, we never got higher than seventh. Interestingly, the plus-minus shift gate does not provide manual up- and downshifts but instead lets you choose a maximum gear.
The Cherokee's wheelbase is close to the Liberty's, but the Cherokee is more than five inches longer, as the transverse engine layout makes for a much greater front overhang. The Cherokee is also lower and wider than the Liberty, although still shy of the Grand Cherokee on both counts. In passenger space, however, the Cherokee rivals its bigger brother; in fact, it has more rear-seat legroom. The interior design shares much with the Grand Cherokee: twin gauges flank a configurable TFT screen; Chrysler's large touch screen sits prominently in the center stack; and big, rubber-edged knobs are used for volume, tuning, and fan speed.
The wilder side
The exterior design, on the other hand, owes nothing to the Grand Cherokee -- or to any other Jeep. Sure, there are a couple of Jeep styling cues: a seven-slot grille and trapezoidal wheelhouses, but the whole Jeep form language of flat surfaces is gone, giving the Cherokee a generic-crossover look. Mark Allen, head of Jeep exterior design, says that, whenever the designers presented multiple options, management "kept going for the wilder side." The result may be a little too wild, and undoubtedly has fed the controversy that greeted this new Cherokee.
Controversial though it may be, the Cherokee did convincingly demonstrate on ****'s Revenge is that it can do real-Jeep things. Maybe not to the degree of an old-school Cherokee, but it's still impressive how much ability Jeep engineers have been able to bake into a car-based crossover. And in the mid-size SUV segment, crossovers are where the action is, since they don't demand the fuel-economy and packaging compromises of a truly optimized off-road machine. Jeep's Jim Morrison figures that the Cherokee can easily double the volume of the Liberty -- whether the traditionalists come around or not.