2019 Jeep Cherokee First Drive: The Anti-RAV4


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Adapting to America’s growing interest in SUVs and crossovers has been a challenge for some automakers. Jeep, however, hasn’t really had that problem. Without a sedan in its lineup, vehicles such as the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee have cemented Jeep’s image as more than a brand that sells SUVs. It’s the SUV brand.

But that long history of building off-roaders and growing demand for high-riding, all-wheel-drive vehicles hasn’t guaranteed success for Jeep in more mainstream segments including the one in which the newly refreshed 2019 Cherokee competes. So while the KL-generation Cherokee quickly blew Jeep Liberty sales out of the water, it’s never been as popular as segment sales leaders including the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, and Toyota RAV4.

Both the new turbo-four and the V-6 offer plenty of power for around-town driving, but the Cherokee never feels especially quick. Then again, the Jeep focuses more on being a practical daily driver with more off-road capability than any other vehicle in the segment.

In 2017, for example, the Toyota RAV4 and the Nissan Rogue each sold more than 400,000 units in the U.S. Jeep, on the other hand, sold just under 170,000 Cherokees. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s also not enough for Jeep. The automaker wants a bigger share of the compact crossover segment, and that’s where the updated 2019 Cherokee comes in.

As you can see, the most notable change for 2019 is up front, where the polarizing-at-best headlight layout is finally gone. That look may have helped the Cherokee stand out from the crowd, but even Jeep admits it likely turned off potential buyers. Hoping to avoid that going forward, the new Cherokee’s headlights now have a much more conventional look. When paired with a more upright hood and tweaked front clip, the new headlight design integrates with the rest of the front end remarkably well.

Designers also tweaked the rear end, updating the taillights and exhaust tips, as well as moving the rear license plate from the bumper to the liftgate. None of those changes are particularly drastic, but they do a good job of keeping the six-year-old design fresh. With the headlight issue taken care of, the new 2019 Cherokee is a legitimately good-looking crossover.

Unlike with the exterior, the interior didn’t have any particularly notable flaws that needed fixing. As we discovered with our long-term Cherokee Trailhawk, the Jeep’s cabin was very comfortable, with supportive seats, commendable ride quality, a nice stereo, and convenience features such as adaptive cruise control that made it an impressive road-tripper. Instead of trying to fix what wasn’t broken, Jeep’s interior designers focused most of their efforts on giving the cabin a more premium feel. Hard plastics are still used in a few places, but the areas that did get upgraded materials do improve the overall experience. That’s especially true if you spring for the top-level Overland trim.

Of course, for the price, the Overland better be pretty swanky. The base, front–drive Cherokee Latitude starts at $25,190 with destination, but the Overland 4×4 will set you back $38,970. Suddenly, the Trailhawk’s $34,415 price doesn’t seem so lofty.

One of the most important updates Jeep gave the 2019 Cherokee was to the infotainment system. Available with a 7.0- or 8.4-inch touchscreen, the newest generation of Uconnect looks sharper and feels like it responds more quickly than the previous version. It also comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, meaning most buyers won’t need to pay for a navigation system.

The layout of the center console has also been tweaked to make room for a larger storage compartment in front of the shift lever, giving you the option to plug in and store your phone there instead of in the cupholder. It’s a little thing, but it’s also one of those minor conveniences owners will appreciate.

Safety-wise, the 2019 Cherokee offers most features owners could want other than active lane keep assist and automatic emergency braking. Adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, roll mitigation, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, a rear-view camera are all offered, along with eight standard airbags.

Under the hood, Jeep a new engine to the lineup, giving buyers the option of a 2.0-liter turbo-four in addition to the 3.2-liter V-6 and 2.4-liter naturally aspirated inline four. With 270 hp on tap on the turbo-four, the 271-hp V-6 has a slight edge in the power department, but the turbo is quite a bit torquier, making 295 lb-ft instead of 239. The base 2.4-liter, meanwhile, makes 180 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque.

From behind the wheel, the turbo’s extra torque is noticeable but not to the degree you might expect. We’d be willing to bet that’s partly a result of how the nine-speed automatic is tuned, but the updated transmission is smoother and more refined than before. Considering the issues we had with our long-termer, hopefully it’s more reliable, too.

We didn’t get a chance to drive the 2.4, but both the turbo and the V-6 offered plenty of power for around-town driving. Regardless of the engine, the Cherokee never felt especially quick, though, and anyone looking for sporty handling should shop elsewhere. There’s too much body roll, not enough tire grip, and the brakes are too spongy to have much fun on a winding canyon road.

Then again, the 2019 Cherokee isn’t meant to carve canyons. It was designed to be a practical daily driver with more off-road capability than any other vehicle in the segment. And in that regard, the Cherokee delivers. Even in non-Trailhawk form, the Cherokee can do things you wouldn’t think about attempting in a Rogue.

Hop in the Cherokee Trailhawk, though, and it’s truly astonishing what the Jeep can do. The knobbier tires, one-inch higher ride height, 4-low mode, locking rear differential, and improved approach, departure, and breakover angles take what’s already a surprisingly capable crossover and turn it into a vehicle that you’ll have to drive a long way off the beaten path to find something it can’t handle.

The off-road course we drove was staged by Jeep, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Cherokee Trailhawk handled it without an issue. That said, as technical as many parts of the course were, the fact that every driver made it through without incident is a testament to the Trailhawk’s serious off-road capability.

The thing is, the Trailhawk model isn’t new to the lineup. You’ve been able to buy a trail-rated Cherokee since this generation was introduced for the 2014 model year. And buyers who legitimately need a more hardcore off-roader can always buy a Wrangler.

The challenge for Jeep will be convincing mainstream buyers to look at a crossover they might not normally consider. By eliminating the polarizing front end, introducing a new engine, smoothing out the transmission, and adding desirable features including Apple CarPlay, the 2019 refresh has done a great job of sanding off the Cherokee’s rough edges and improving its mass-market appeal.

Now we just have to wait to see if it will be enough to attract the customers Jeep is after.