The Jeep Cherokee is one of the most recognisable off-road nameplates, but since the badge first appeared in the mid-eighties, the small SUV market has boomed. Now, it must compete with models as diverse as the Nissan Qashqai and Range Rover Evoque. So, has the radical new Cherokee got what it takes?
The newcomer is one of the first models to benefit from the Chrysler tie-up with Fiat, so it gets multi-link suspension and a nine-speed ZF automatic gearbox. American buyers get to choose either a 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol or the new 3.2-litre Pentastar V6 with the option of two or four-wheel drive, but European customers will get an exclusively diesel-powered line-up that will start with a new 2.0-litre engine with a six-speed manual gearbox likely to produce 148bhp and 380Nm.
Inside, the Cherokee represents a huge leap forward. Its design is hardly revolutionary, but the fit and finish is now vastly improved. Top-end models like the flagship Trailhawk we tested include a configurable 7-inch TFT display screen in the instrument cluster.
There’s also a massive 8.4-inch screen, equipped with Chrysler’s intuitive Uconnect infotainment system, carried over from the 300C saloon. Interior space is about on par with the Ford Kuga, but the Cherokee feels more upmarket than the Ford thanks to more soft-touch cabin materials.
In the Cherokee’s home market, four drive configurations are available: Standard front-wheel drive (a Cherokee first), Active Drive I (a simple all-wheel-drive setup), Active Drive II, (which adds a low-range transfer case for light off-road use) and Active Drive Lock, which is only standard on the range-topping version tested here.
Jeep’s Active Drive Lock includes a Land Rover-esque traction control system that offers five different modes depending on the surface: Auto, Sport, Sand/Mud, Snow and Rock modes. You get a locking rear differential, too, giving the Cherokee serious mud-plugging abilities.
The ZF-developed nine-speed auto gearbox, (also soon to be found in the Range Rover Evoque) offers smooth and imperceptible changes, but at low speed the extra ratios can cause the odd clumsy shift as it searches for the appropriate gear.
Both petrol engines provide ample power, but the diesel should add a slug of torque into the mix, and improve the petrol’s less than impressive 28.8mpg economy. Otherwise, the Cherokee needs to make no excuses. Its suspension is compliant and refined, which combines with direct and accurate steering to make it one of the best-driving five-seat crossovers on the market. It’s stable and reassuring on the motorway, but resists roll well in corners, too.
The Cherokee will certainly earn you a lot of attention on the road, with its flat nose and elongated LED running lights making it seem like an optical illusion from some angles. Traditional Jeep design cues like a seven-bar grille and squared off wheelarches do survive, though – and it retains rugged off-road cladding and roof rails.