The 2016 Jeep Cherokee builds something completely new onto a very familiar name and heritage. While the original Jeep Cherokee that launched in 1986 set the bar for SUVs that could be used as family transport, inspiring a generation of competitors (and perhaps, the SUV trend as a whole), times have changed, and the market has come to favor models that are far more carlike.
For the most part, that's what the Cherokee is—although Jeep has managed to built a surprising amount of ruggedness and off-road ability onto a package that's designed primarily for families, road trips, and the daily grind. Top rivals for the Cherokee include some established crossovers such as the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, and Toyota RAV4. It's a clean break from the more truck-like Jeep Liberty it replaced, and its styling is less blunt and bluff.
The current Cherokee may be the first compact SUV get the midpoint right, masterfully bridging the gap between city-friendly crossover and serious (or, serious enough) off-roader. It's an unlikely subject, stuffed with the heart of a Trail Rated Jeep. There's plenty of ruggedness and a general zest for things outdoorsy, while remaining perfectly suitable for families that merely want all-wheel drive (AWD) security and the suggestion that they might have enjoyed camping a time or two.
Instead of taking a design direction that's closer to that purpose—or going with something a little edgier—the Cherokee enters the fray with a startling variation of the Jeep face, then becomes something entirely derivative at other points. The cabin does paramedic duty here though, healing up all that poorly thought-out stretching with some palliative shapes and some truly nice finishes and Easter-egg touches (consider it a challenge to find all the hidden Jeeps inside).
The Cherokee really sizes right in with models that would be called compacts in the U.S., like the CR-V, Forester, and Escape. Jeep might call it a mid-sizer, but it's right in with those models. There’s no third-row seat, but it's a relatively roomy five-seater, with a back seat that’s suitable for adults—or even asking three to sit across for shorter distances—but the jutting front headrests might enforce a slouching position that robs some of that rear-seat space. The second row slides fore and aft to choose between legroom and cargo space, and there’s a handy organizer for the more retentive fans.
You have a choice between an inline-4 and a V-6 under the hood—which helps it stand out in a class that includes several models that have gone all-4-cylinder. The standard 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline-4 is plenty strong for quick acceleration (as well as smooth and quiet for this class), provided there isn't too much weight aboard. The other 3.2-liter V-6 makes 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque; it's torquey and generally happy with whatever work you throw its way. With the V-6 and a towing package, the Cherokee can pull 4,500 pounds. No matter which version, the Cherokee has fairly numb but accurate steering, with a well-tuned and well-damped ride.
The Cherokee also sports a 9-speed automatic that offers a shockingly wide range of ratios—allowing even the 4-cylinder versions to take off very quick from a standing start and cruise with very low revs on the highway. Yet there's some unhappiness in the way that this transmission sometimes balks, sometimes shifts with a bang, and sometimes holds a gear a lot longer than needed. It's not a deal-breaker, but it makes us wonder if the Cherokee would have been better with fewer gears. Its top figure of 31 mpg highway isn't class-leading either, but we've seen close to it in real-world conditions; four-wheel drive models post a few mpg lower. All V-6 Cherokee models now include engine stop-start system, which might not boost the official EPA numbers but will save some fuel in low-speed stop-and-go commuting.
Sport, Latitude, Limited, and Trailhawk editions are offered, with each model serving a different kind of buyer. Sport and Latitude models appeal to cost- and value-conscious families, while Limited models are the luxurious flagships of the lineup and Trailhawk models are ready for the trail. Jeep's Trail-Rated badge applies to the Trailhawk, and it gets a 1-inch lift, unique front and rear fascias, an Active Drive Lock and locking rear differential, added skid plates, and red tow hooks. There are several different four-wheel drive systems, including Active Drive I, and Active Drive II (adding a dual-range transfer case). All models with 4WD have the Selec-Terrain system, with separate modes for Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud, and Rock, and in low-range models with 4-cylinder engines, its crawl ratio is an astonishingly good 56:1.
Latitude and Trailhawk models now include a rearview camera plus automatic headlamps. On Latitude, Limited, and Trailhawk models, there's a new package that combines blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-path detection, rear park assist, and signal mirrors with courtesy lamps. About the only thing missing in the Cherokee's safety feature set is a clever surround-view camera system, which would be a boon for off-road use.
The 2015 Cherokee also offers more options than you'll find in most other affordable crossovers—if you're willing to spend extra, of course. Highlights include a CommandView panoramic sunroof and Sky Slider roof, memory heated/ventilated seats, and soft Nappa leather upholstery with ventilated front seats in the top Limited model. Infotainment systems include 8.4-inch Uconnect media center audio-streaming app connectivity (Pandora and Slacker, among others); and top models include a full-color configurable LED instrument cluster.
This year, all models with that 8.4-inch system get a new "Drag and Drop" menu bar that allows more personalization, plus Siri Eyes Free compatibility and a "Do Not Disturb" mode that blocks out calls and text and can send a customized "I'm driving now" message.
The Cherokee boasts available adaptive cruise control that can bring it to a full stop if an impending collision is detected; optional lane-departure and frontal-crash warning systems are also an option; and blind-spot monitors and parking sensors that can also trigger the vehicle to a full stop at low speeds, if obstacles are detected.
Fuel economy isn't as good as others in its class. Although the Cherokee can manage up to 31 mpg highway on base, inline-4 models, most all-wheel drive Cherokees will earn in the low-20s, which is low for its class.