When Jeep resurrected the Cherokee name for 2014, it did so with a compact crossover with a surfeit of front-end lighting. Of the trio of lamps per side, it wasn’t immediately clear which was the headlight, which was a fog light, and which was there just because. Whatever your feelings on the arachnid-like face, it was distinctive.
The refreshed 2019 Cherokee is less so. Every Cherokee has lost its belighted front styling, so you’ll no longer be confused by which light does what. There are now two prominent, obvious headlights that flank Jeep’s signature seven-slat grille. Beneath those are smaller fog lights. Simple. In back, the Cherokee’s taillights feature new internals, and the license-plate nacelle has moved from the lower bumper to the center of the liftgate.
Having swung the Cherokee’s aesthetic pendulum from overly interesting to somewhat boring, Jeep’s stylists—it could be said—brought the SUV’s outward appearance in line with its indistinct personality. Excepting the off-road-oriented Trailhawk trim level, whose capability is peerless in this class, the Cherokee remains a merely average crossover.
Among the Cherokee’s biggest changes outside of its resting bored face is a new, range-topping 270-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four engine option. That new powertrain, which includes a nine-speed automatic transmission, was not fitted to our test car. Instead, our Cherokee came with the same 3.2-liter V-6 that has been offered as an option since this generation of Cherokee debuted. (A 180-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is standard and now benefits from an automatic engine stop/start function.) The V-6 holds just a 1-hp advantage over the new turbo four and is down 56 lb-ft of torque to the boosted mill.
That power disparity—not to mention the V-6’s EPA-estimated fuel economy that lags behind that of the two available four-cylinder engines—explains why the V-6 is no longer the Cherokee’s premier powerplant. The V-6 is a $1745 upcharge on every trim level save for the Trailhawk and the Overland reviewed here, where it’s standard equipment. Jeep charges $2245 for the new turbo four on every trim except for the base Latitude (where it isn’t available) and asks to $500 on the Trailhawk and the Overland.
Anything beyond a hamster spinning a wheel is better than the Cherokee’s base 2.4-liter engine, which casts the V-6 in a relatively favorable light. The six is smooth and ladles its power to the wheels in a linear fashion, even sprinkling in a nice throaty exhaust ripple as the revs rise. Plus, a V-6 is a rapidly disappearing engine type among the Cherokee’s competitive set.
Lost in Transmission
Too bad the pleasant-mannered V-6 is dulled by the Cherokee’s substantial curb weight and ZF’s still-not-great nine-speed automatic transmission. Not only did our more or less loaded Cherokee Overland’s 4250-pound curb weight dull its zero-to-60-mph acceleration to a so-so 7.2 seconds (roughly on par with non-turbocharged four-cylinder competitors), it posted just 19 mpg overall during our time with it. That figure matches the EPA’s city fuel-economy estimate for this Cherokee powertrain, while the 25 mpg we recorded on our 75-mph real-world highway fuel-economy test loop falls 2 mpg short of the EPA’s highway estimate.
Although Chrysler claims to have fixed the nine-speed transmission’s biggest bugaboo—its seeming allergy to its ninth gear in normal use—reaching that top gear still seems dependent on the alignment of celestial bodies, a prayer uttered beneath one’s breath, or a good long downhill stretch of road. We suppose it’s for the best, since the transmission is highly reluctant to downshift. By steadfastly trying to stay in too tall a gear most of the time, the transmission ties blocks of concrete around the Cherokee’s ankles. Requests for small increases in throttle to maintain speed or accelerate gently simply go unanswered; if you’re on level ground, that means a big gas-pedal stomp is necessary to kick down several gears and accelerate with haste. Should you find yourself climbing a mild grade, the Jeep will slowly lose speed until you give it the boot. The problems don’t end when you come to a stop, either; accelerating from rest, the transmission stumbles trying to pick between first and second gear.
Crossing No New Ground
If the Cherokee has an area of expertise, it’s feeling bigger than it is, similar to the GMC Terrain / Chevrolet Equinox twins. This is a selling point, not a demerit, for the Cherokee’s core audience. As before, the Jeep moves quietly over the road with a palpable sense of heft (and it is quite heavy), its suspension absorbing bumps and thumps without sacrificing decent body control when cornering. Predictably, you won’t have fun on a twisty road—not with the subpar 0.80 g of cornering grip we measured on our skidpad—but the Cherokee steers accurately and the body doesn’t keel over. The brake pedal moves through a viscous, firm stroke that on a sensory level matches the heavily weighted steering action.
The interior, which carries over mostly unchanged from last year, is functional, attractively styled, and assembled from above-average materials (more so in upper trims). Yet the cramped cabin suffers from thick roof pillars, and the high seating position clashes with the fairly low roof. And although Jeep’s advertisements feature the tagline “the world comes with it,” you can’t actually fit that much stuff inside the Cherokee. Per Jeep’s specifications, its notably smaller Compass actually holds five cubic feet more stuff when both vehicles’ rear seats are folded down; behind the rear seatbacks, cargo volume is effectively the same between the two Jeeps. (In our testing, we were able to fit one more carry-on-sized case behind the Cherokee’s rear seats versus the Compass; we loaded two extra cases into the Cherokee with the back seats lowered.) Oh, and even though the Cherokee’s body is 10.1 inches longer overall—and rides on a wheelbase that’s 2.8 inches longer than that of the Compass—its cabin volume edges the Compass’s by a mere one cubic foot, and the two SUVs’ leg- and headroom dimensions are right on top of each other.
So, what justifies the Cherokee’s existence alongside the more affordable, better-looking, just-as-roomy Compass in Jeep showrooms? Besides the fact that Jeep can’t sell enough vehicles with its name on them, the Cherokee trades at higher, more profit-friendly prices. An entry-level, front-wheel-drive Cherokee Latitude starts at $25,440, which is $3000 more than a Compass; the least expensive Cherokee with the V-6 will run you $27,185 (add $1500 for all-wheel drive), including Jeep’s absurd $1445 destination charge.
It’s just a hop, skip, and a shrug between those Cherokees and the top-dog $39,220 Overland pictured here. Accounting for our test vehicle’s $1295 panoramic sunroof and $995 Technology package (rain-sensing windshield wipers, adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning, automatic high-beam control, an automatic parking system, and blind-spot monitoring), you’re looking at a $41,510 leather-lined compact Jeep crossover. Given the Cherokee’s utterly unexceptional looks and performance, we’d suggest opting for whichever version you can get for about $10,000 less, given the crushing excellence of competitors such as the Honda CR-V and the Mazda CX-5, both of which top out under $35,500 with similar equipment.