Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Jeep Cherokee

Malibu, CA – Jeep represents about half the sales of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). The Cherokee is Jeep’s bestselling model in Canada. So today’s first-drive event for the 2019 Jeep Cherokee in scenic southern California mattered a lot, to the company and Jeep fans alike.

Four very efficient cylinders, capable of 290 hp and 295 pound-feet of torque! Don’t just pound feet, clap hands. Go ahead.

The bottom line: There have been a lot of small and positive changes to this latest model, starting with its looks and how it pampers its owners.

On the road, it’s a genteel all-purpose family vehicle

The reimagined front fascia with what Jeep’s presentation lyrically calls the “waterfall hood mated to signature seven-slot grille” presents an attractive rolling fortress, protected with scores of safety features. Meanwhile, the daytime running lights, LED headlights, and fog lamps are rearranged for a simpler and more striking impression than the previous version.

From the inside, there’s a feeling of lightness awaiting anyone who’s paid for the dual-pane sunroof upgrade. The rear panel doesn’t open but the enhanced brightness is welcome nonetheless. Besides, there’s enough legroom for a 5'10" writer to make notes, though an exceptionally tall person should consider a trial ride before hauling out their chequebook.

While we’re in the back and talking about passengers, let’s review your commuting experience. This fourth-generation Uconnect system includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, essentials in this market. A seven-inch screen that actually responds even to my cold dead vampire digits is standard in any Cherokee, but you can upgrade to 8.4 inches.

The available Nappa-leather-covered seats are comfortable and look fantastic. Choosing white is a gift to yourself in summer but will get filthy fast in winter. Speaking of which, Brian Nielander, Jeep Cherokee’s lead designer, told us how they drew inspiration for two new interior colour themes from their travels (which makes sense considering Jeep is produced and sold worldwide).

For instance, the blacks, greys and, yes, blues in the theme they’ve dubbed Storm Blue are meant to reflect impressions of Iceland. The tans and rich browns of Dark Sienna, however, were not inspired by Siena but Marrakesh. I don’t understand.

Tell you what: Let’s leave these fey designers with their picas and colour pallets, and go kick up some dust, trail-testing a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.

Off road, it’s all Jeep!

The Cherokee alleges best-in-class trail-rated capability. Considering the trails they put us on today, I dare not disagree. But first ... just what is a Jeep Cherokee? (Not to be confused with the more upmarket Jeep Grand Cherokee.)

If you find the world of sub-model trims and upgrades as baffling and arcane as any Canadian mobile phone roaming package, you’re not alone. But let’s give it a go.

You can’t simply buy a Jeep Cherokee. You need a sub-appellation. They begin with the Cherokee Sport 4x2, which you can upgrade to 4x4 for $2,500. (Mind, find me a Canadian Jeep owner who consciously chose the 4x2 and I’ll buy you a double-glazed Tim Hoser donut.) According to Brad Horn, Product PR Manager for FCA Canada, 90 percent of Jeep sales here in the frozen north are 4x4s. This is despite the fact that 80 percent of us live in cities. We clearly think we need them.

After Sport, Canadians can purchase the following trims which rise in price and succession: Cherokee North 4x2 and North 4x4; Limited 4x2 and Limited 4x4; Trailhawk (mercifully not offered with a 4x2 option); Overland 4x2 and Overland 4x4. You can further sub-divide things with a choice of engines but we’ll come back to that. After all, you were promised dust and have ended up choking on details.

Today, my drive partner and I spent much of the day in a Trailhawk – it was the luck of the draw – though we capped off the day in the Cherokee Limited 4x4. All morning, we twisted, dipped, and climbed about these scrubby hills north of Los Angeles on roads narrower than a starlet’s hips, and briefly drove the appropriately named Ocean View Drive before cutting inland.

Soon we arrived at a private ranch among the very hills where the outdoor scenes of MASH were once shot. (And you thought it was in Korea!) It was strange: If you listened closely whenever someone cracked a joke at lunchtime, you’d hear a faint laugh soundtrack prompting smiles from viewers in the background.

The ranch’s hills are almost perpendicular – we could be in Tuscany – and the perfect place to test the off-roading capabilities of a Jeep Trailhawk.

Do you remember in MASH’s early episodes, how that psychic hayseed Corporal Radar O’Reilly, piece by piece, mailed a Jeep home? Well, if you’d attempted the course they set for us drivers in their own Cherokees today, you’d probably want to mail one home too.

Meaning? The two-dimensionality of photography simply can’t convey the heart-arresting panic a forty-degree angle can instill – some of the course’s descents weren’t visible beyond the hood – especially when that angle is exacerbated by divots like lunar craters punctuating each side of your vehicle. Prompted by one of Jeep’s hired guides, I negotiated a patch of boulders which scraped noisily across the bottom of the Trailhawk. “It’s designed to take it,” he assured me. But with every agonizing grate, that latent thought you’re never too old to experience surfaces, regardless of how irrational: My dad’s gonna kill me!

Probably no longer than a kilometre, the course took some drivers up to fifteen minutes to complete.

The Cherokee’s Selec-Terrain traction control boasts up to five modes: Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud (I prefer to pronounce the slash but Jeep’s professional drive instructors don’t), Rock, and Auto. Select the active-lock device (exclusive to the Trailhawk) and it can perform miracles; its Selec-Speed feature is best described as off-road cruise control. It’ll maintain your speed up and down hills and boulders.

Sayeth Jeep: “Selec-Terrain electronically coordinates and optimizes up to 12 systems on any terrain, providing enhanced vehicle control including: drivetrain control module, electronic brake controller, electronic stability control (ESC), transmission controller, powertrain controller, and Selec-Speed Control (hill-ascent and hill-descent control).”

It does the really hard stuff on seemingly impossible terrain. So mostly you just need to gird your loins and hang on – okay, steering still matters. But without these algorithmically assisted controls, the Cherokee would’ve been at the very least scraped or, more likely, crushed.

Other important stuff – like space – for when you’re not off-road

Heated steering wheels are included. (Thank you, FCA.) Furthermore, the 2019 Cherokee’s been to the gym and lost about 68 kg compared to the 2018. Which ultimately means better fuel efficiency, though we don’t have the numbers in yet.

The engineers subtracted about an inch from the front, reducing some weight there. The new handsfree liftgate is redesigned to provide more space and, built from composite, weigh less. But more importantly, yes, the cargo volume has been increased too. The 2019 model is eight cm (roughly three inches) wider. Our Jeep hosts continually reiterated that you could now fit a set of golf clubs in sideways.

The new fuel door opens with a push. Sound trivial? Remember, this is a review of lots of little improvements. Besides, who hasn’t forgotten to press the fuel door button on cold days and grumbled when walking back around the car to release it? The fuel tank, meanwhile, is capless. So your hands don’t stink afterwards.

And let’s talk about the engines

FCA has a recent history of building engines even bigger than the one that got away. Consider the Dodge SRT Demon or, more closely related to today’s review, the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, whose engine output numbers are so high it’s getting beyond the human ability to relate and into what Josef Stalin called statistics.

This year’s Cherokee isn’t that grand one, but it does offer a peppy two-litre direct-injection four-cylinder engine with some models. Now, usually you say “four cylinders” and the real men in the room leave for more jalapeño single malt with raw steak at the concession stand, but this is four very efficient cylinders, capable of 290 hp and 295 pound-feet of torque! Don’t just pound feet, clap hands. Go ahead.

If you do buy this engine, it’s paired with noise-cancelling technology. Moreover, Jeep recommends you feed it premium fuel, but it’s not de rigueur. It’s available on the North, Limited, Trailhawk, and Overland models – that is, everything but Sport.

You can also upgrade to a six-cylinder Pentastar engine (Pentastar is the Chrysler logo, not the Satanic star logo called the pentagram – but it may have been where they found inspiration for the Demon). It comes standard with the Trailhawk, Limited 4x4 and both Overlands.

While most of our day was passed driving the Trailhawk with the Pentastar V6, we capped things off in the Limited 4x4 with 2.0-litre. The difference is noticeable in the whipping sensation.

Anyway, as said, these engines are both upgrades. The standard entry-level 2019 Cherokee comes with a 2.- liter four-cylinder engine which puts out just 180 hp and 170 pound feet of torque. It seems to make about as much sense to me as a 4x2. We’ll see how many Canadians choose to upgrade.

Pricing: 2019 Jeep Cherokee

Jeep Cherokee Sport 4x2: $29,995
Jeep Cherokee Sport 4x4: $32,495

Jeep Cherokee North 4x2: $33,495
Jeep Cherokee North 4x4: $35,995

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk: $38,995

Jeep Cherokee Limited 4x2: $36,995
Jeep Cherokee Limited 4x4: $40,495

Jeep Cherokee Overland 4x2: $42,595
Jeep Cherokee Overland 4x4: $46,095