WESTLAKE VILLAGE, California – The Jeep brand has always taken on that rebel label. American-built and American-looking for that distinct, edgy design catered to a rugged, outdoorsy lifestyle.
Back in 2014, the fifth-generation Jeep Cherokee drifted a bit away from that heritage mainly due to a makeover wanting to differentiate itself from both its previous Liberty nameplate, as well as the incoming smaller Renegade. It grew to a big compact-segment SUV, but not in character and performance, and that's where the refreshed 2019 version fills those voids.
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“It's time to make it more premium,” exults Brian Nielander, Jeep Cherokee lead designer.
For the 2019 Jeep Cherokee—available late March/early April—the bar was raised with better inside and out styling, weight savings, more powerful powertrain choices, and improved cabin space and technology. From its distinct Jeep looks, it may not seem like much of a change, but after a day of on- and off-road excitement, the refinement is real and simply spectacular.
New optional turbo sensation
Three powertrain options are available and we will start with the new kid in town: the turbocharged, 2.0-litre direct-injected inline-four with 270 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque that comes with automatic start/stop and active noise cancellation.
The other two engines are slightly revised carryovers: the base 2.4-litre four cylinder with 180 hp and 170 lb.-ft. of torque (now with start/stop technology and a revised intake system for better sound) and the 3.2-litre Pentastar V6 rated at 271 hp and 239 lb.-ft. (which gets different engine and transmission calibrations). Jeep Canada expects 15-20% of its sales to go to the 2.0-litre unit, many of those shifting away from the V6.
Jeep has attempted to set up the perfect combination of power and fuel economy with the 2.0-litre producing more total power than the current V6. On top of a weight savings of 68 kilograms, an enhanced nine-speed automatic transmission (standard with all engines) is tuned to match the engine's performance, while achieving during one stretch of highway a measly 9.6 L/100 km. That number would rise to 10.7 during a later stint, so it should be interesting to see where the ratings fall when released.
This first drive program took us around the curvy roads of Thousand Oaks, California, eventually hitting a lengthy off-road section that tested the abilities of the 2019 Jeep Cherokee. The road section showed plenty of improvement in initial acceleration and handling. At one point, the Cherokee weaved its way up a windy uphill stretch with plenty of gusto and steering ease. However easy that was, the gearbox seemed to constantly fluctuate, making the drive more choppy than seamless. When not facing switchbacks, a rare occurrence for its majority of consumers and more geared towards sports cars, that seamless and quiet ride kicks in with vast amounts of torque at your disposal.
The only catch to the 2.0-litre is its optional price tag. It doesn't come standard on any trim level, upping the final total between $1,595 and $2,590, depending on which engine that trim starts with.
What separate the Cherokee from its rivals are its off-roading capabilities. It won't take on massive crawls like the Jeep Wrangler, but it can do a lot more four-wheeling than its appearance would dictate.
The 4x4 setup comes standard with a Selec-Terrain traction knob for Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud and Rock modes, as well as Jeep Active Drive I that's lighter and more fuel-efficient. Optional 4x4 systems are Jeep Active Drive II and Jeep Active Drive Lock. The former has a two-speed power transfer and low-range gear with no input needed from the driver, while the latter adds a locking rear differential that comes standard in the Trailhawk trim (starting at $38,995).
The Trailhawk (standard with the 3.2-litre V6) not only looks more rugged with a two-tone hood and signature red tow hooks, it's best suited for off-roading adventures with skid plates, that aforementioned locking rear differential, hill ascent and descent controls, and 8.7 inches of ground clearance, one-inch higher than on other Cherokees.
Naturally, the Trailhawk was our weapon of choice and it tackled every rock crawl, steep climb, slippery dip filled with major divots and odd-angled deterrents. The ease of getting past each obstacle simply blows the mind. Not once was I ever in trouble, nor did my confidence falter; it was actually the exact opposite with the feeling that the Cherokee could do no wrong.
In addition to the Selec-Terrain, there's a Selec-Speed system that allows you to alter speeds in low-range gears. During a few instances, I managed to lay off both brake and throttle and let the Cherokee do the work at a set speed while only managing the steering. It's up to the driver to set that speed, but at least Jeep provides an option when the easy or safer path is desired.
All other enhancements
Design was paramount for the 2019 Cherokee and that all starts with its front fascia. Moving away from its polarizing past iteration, a new chrome-integrated, signature seven-slot grille and standard LED headlamps and daytime running lights are consolidated into one sleek-looking raised package. According to Nielander, the headlamps possess a 57% improvement in visibility over the outgoing version.
Around back, the Cherokee receives a more chiselled tailgate with LEDs complemented by a distinguishable red trace element below its newly-located license plate that's been raised into the liftgate. And if the Cherokee didn't make life easier yet, it adds a capless gas tank and a hands-free power liftgate that's activated through an upward kicking motion.
On the inside, the base infotainment system becomes the seven-inch (formerly five-inch) unit, while a new 8.4-inch touchscreen is offered on higher trims featuring better graphics, as well as pinch, tap and swipe gestures. In order to receive Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, consumers will need to upgrade to at least the second-tier North trim. Regardless the trim, cargo space is expanded by 79 litres, including 3.3 inches in width, for a total of 1634 litres with the rear seats folded down.
For a starting price of $29,995 for the 4x2 Cherokee and $32,495 for the more favourable 4x4, consumers can enjoy both on- and off-road adventures with improved performance, comfort, cargo and fuel economy.