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Driven: 2014 Cherokee remains the Jeep of crossover SUV's

Today we got our first opportunity to drive Jeep's bold new 2014 Cherokee crossover which has met a good deal of controversy with the Jeep faithful due to its new styling direction and car-based chassis. It was an opportunity to see if the new SUV could rise above the hype and be a credible entry in the class.

2014 Cherokee remains the Jeep of crossover SUV's-slide0
Sam Haymart
2014 Cherokee remains the Jeep of crossover SUV's
Sam Haymart

The Jeep Cherokee competes against the likes of the Toyota RAV4, Honda CRV, and Ford Escape just to name a few. Because of this, the new Cherokee is one of the most important new vehicles from Jeep in well over a decade.

Its styling takes some DNA from the popular Jeep Grand Cherokee but really takes a new turn for the brand with its controversial front grille and headlamp design. Up top are thin horizontal daytime running lights with the headlights actually residing lower in the front bumper.

The look has had detractors in the Jeep enthusiast community, but with the new Cherokee selling at the rate of about 15,000 units a month, it's obviously been winning some admirers. Those numbers put it right up there with sales of the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee, not to mention some competitors.

With 8.7” of ground clearance it's at the top of its class, and its short overhangs offer up impressive approach and departure angles. In silhouette it remains a Jeep with lower body cladding giving a sense of off-road style with long term durability.

Inside the Cherokee is seating for five with comfortable chairs both front and rear. Head and leg room is more than adequate for this class, and the seating position for the driver is well placed. Your sense of height is right in the middle between car and truck for outward view.

Rear seat room was impressive with a nice high seating position. Rear seats can fold down of course, which gives you a near flat load floor to expand the size of the rear cargo area. The latter came with a handy pull cover to shield your valuables from sunlight and prying eyes.

Our Cherokee Limited was optioned up with the Technology Package, Luxury Group, and Uconnect touch screen NAV and audio system. Despite the my general satisfaction with the cabin these options brought the price of our Cherokee to $37,000 and change, which made some of the interior plastics and lower grade switchgear seem a little out of place.

The Uconnect system offers a lot of good things including infinite customization of the vehicle settings and user interface. Sound quality is good and its ease of use is in the top of the class. The menus are legible and easy to learn, the touch screen responsive when driving.

Driver assistance systems such as the blind spot and cross path detection worked well with different chime tones to let you know when each potential danger was at hand, even both at the same time. Best of all there are “off” buttons for some of these features on the dash for those who would rather them not be constantly on the alarm.

The chassis is fully independent with McPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear suspension, all of which aim to provide a ride free of noise, vibration and harshness. As with most new vehicles it has electrically assisted power steering which helps save fuel.

The chassis feels tight and solid with little body lean. Motions are well controlled on the highway with a quiet ride devoid of tire noise and harshness. Steering is commendably sharp for a crossover and weighted well.

Our Jeep Cherokee had the basic Active Drive I all-wheel drive system with a console mounted knob which offers drive mode programs of Auto, Snow, Sport, as well as Sand & Mud. These alter the traction control, ABS, and transmission behavior to best navigate each surface type. This system does not however have a low range or manual locking mode like the optional Active Drive II.

When we left the pavement onto the back trails, the Cherokee had excellent composure in the rougher surfaces. Chassis and suspension seem well up to the task with little crash trough over rocks and ruts. Traction from the passive all-wheel drive system is good, transitions from front-wheel drive to all-wheel drive seamless.

Under the hood of our tester was the optional 3.2 liter V6 which is derived from the larger 3.6 liter engine Chrysler introduced a few years ago. It offers up 271 horsepower and 239 lb.-ft of torque. Mated to a segment first nine-speed automatic transmission, it's rated at 19 mpg city, 27 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined by the EPA.

The engine is delightful in its power delivery with smooth sewing machine like behavior and even with its acceleration qualities managed to deliver us 24 mpg combined in our testing. The area of disappointment is the nine-speed transmission which is fussy and fidgety in its shifting and remains rough around the edges.

It's nice to have a choice in the compact crossover segment that still offers some off-road credibility. Most of the 2014 Jeep Cherokee's competitors have long run for the mall parking lot. The fact is that this is the Jeep of crossover SUV's.