2019 Jeep Cherokee Test Drive Review: In Too Deep

Test Drive

The 2019 Cherokee lives up to Jeep capability standards, but misses the mark on practicality and value for crossover shoppers.

As much as Jeep trades on its off-road capability and sense of adventure, the reality is that most Jeep owners hit the mall more than they hit the trails. Jeep is well aware of this shift and is more than happy to welcome new buyers to the brand, and they have broadened their lineup to reflect this, with three small crossovers on offer in addition to the original Wrangler SUV and larger Grand Cherokee. The Renegade is a pretty tiny subcompact and the Compass is at the very small end of the compact class, while the Cherokee battles it out in the heart of the compact crossover class.

The Cherokee has been extremely popular for the Jeep brand, catapulting to instant success in the US and globally since its launch in 2013, and battling it out in one of the most competitive and popular segments in the market. Being such a crucial segment, Jeep made significant updates to the Cherokee for the 2019 model year to keep it fresh and relevant, introducing new styling, upgrading the interior, and adding an engine option.

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The styling, which was highly controversial when it debuted in 2013, has been redesigned to be far more mainstream and less distinctive, and also falls more in line with other Jeeps like the Grand Cherokee and Compass. I can’t begin to guess if even more consumers will flock to it now that it isn’t as 'unique', or if it will get lost in the shuffle with its more upright front end and conventional headlight arrangement, but the seven-slot Jeep grille still stands out, especially in the Velvet Red Pearl hue we had.

The interior doesn’t change much visually with this update, with some glossy bits added here and there, and a couple of interior themes available on Overland trims. While we didn’t get the chance to see the Storm Blue or Dark Sienna themes, our tester was trimmed in pale cream Nappa leather seats and armrests, creating a bright, airy cabin. The seats were also heated and cooled in addition to being superbly comfortable and power adjustable with two memory positions. Another nifty change in the cabin is a small but useful tray in front of the shifter, perfect for even an oversized smartphone and close to the USB charging it will need, with additional cabin storage under the big comfy armrest and door pockets with well-sized bottle holders. However, Jeep is a little behind the times without wireless charging, although you might want to plug in anyway if you like using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

While some cars’ infotainment systems make me turn to Apple CarPlay or miss it, FCA’s Uconnect is up there with the best systems in the industry right now. The home screen features plenty of positions that can be set up with all your favorite functions, the menus make sense with easy-to-decipher clear, catchy graphics, and the touchscreen responds quickly to inputs, all combining to make it a breeze to navigate. While Uconnect is a gem and the leather seats are nice, the switchgear and other materials are mediocre and the center stack is very basic and ungainly, so it seems like a missed opportunity to match the Grand Cherokee’s classy, appealing interior more closely.

The rear seats are spacious enough for a pair of adults to spread out in comfort, with good support and an armrest with cupholders. The middle seat is actually contoured a bit in an effort to provide some comfort, but there is barely any knee space and it’s still not a place any adult would want to spend much time in. Jeep also made an effort to improve the Cherokee’s practical appeal, increasing the cargo space to 25.8 cubic feet in the trunk, up from 24.6, but giving up max capacity with both sides of the 60/40 split-folding rear seats dropped, 54.7 down from 58.9. It still falls well short of sales leaders in the segment like the Nissan Rogue (39.3/70.0), Honda CR-V (38.4/73.4), or Chevrolet Equinox (29.9/63.5). In fact, even the smaller Compass manages 27.2 cubic feet in the trunk and 59.8 with all seats folded.

The Cherokee, however, comes back with a serious towing capacity for a small ute if you need to haul a trailer, up to 4,500 pounds with the V6 and towing package, and 4,000 with the new 2.0L turbo. Speaking of weight, here’s a curious fact: V6 models are lighter than their equivalent 2.0T counterparts by up to 40 pounds, the 2.0T 4x4 listed at an even 4,000 lb and the 3.2 V6 4x4 at 3,960.

The model we tested had that new 2.0-liter turbo, and although we didn’t do any towing, it definitely felt up to the task, the 295 lb-ft of torque available from 3,000 rpm helping it pull strong right through the heart of its power band up to 4,500 rpm. Keep pressing, and 270 horsepower is unlocked at 5,250 rpm, but it’s rare that you would get to that unless kicking down at highway speeds, because the torque really gets the Cherokee going almost without any effort.

However, anyone who experienced the smooth power of the Pentastar 3.2 V6 might miss it with the gruff engine note of the 2.0-liter turbo in its place, but it delivers a fuel consumption benefit of 2 MPG in every area for basic 4x4 models, 21 mpg in the city, 29 on the highway and 24 combined to the V6’s 19/27/22 mpg for its 271 hp and 239 lb-ft. The 180-hp/171 lb-ft 2.4L “TigerShark” four-cylinder gets the same EPA rating as the 2.0T, so it’s a tough sell when the V6 is only $1,745 more and the 2.0T $2,245 over the base engine. Limited 4x4 and higher trims start with the V6 as the base engine, and the 2.0T is a $500 upgrade on any of those.

Basic four-wheel drive is a $1,500 option on most trims with variable terrain setting and fully automatic engagement from its standard front-wheel drive operation, and higher trims can be upgraded to include a low-range setting, hill descent control, and off-road suspension. Top-dog Trailhawk models get a mechanical locking differential and skid plates as well, ride an inch higher for 8.7 inches of ground clearance, with 29.9-degree approach angle, 32.2-degree departure angle, and 22.9-degree breakover angle, and live up to Jeep’s Trail Rated off-roading standard.

The transmission options are far simpler, as it’s a nine-speed transmission across the board, and although it did help deliver fairly good real-world efficiency (22 mpg, which is quite good for my routine), I experienced a couple of hiccups with confused or slow shifts that marred the driving experience. Then again, the driving experience is about what you’d expect for one of the taller, more rugged crossovers in the segment. The suspension offers a soft, cushy ride, and with the high ground clearance I found it led to more body movement than I prefer, with pronounced body roll in turns, plenty of dive under braking and jiggling around quite a bit on rough roads – sharp bumps were softened without issue, but repeated impacts on rough roads led to would keep it constantly swaying and recovering, which became tiresome. For all its off-roading chops, it’s an easy vehicle to drive in traffic and tight quarters, the steering light and accurate, and the poor rear visibility overcome by the standard back-up camera and optional parking sensors, as well as rear cross-traffic alert.

While it’s far from perfect, the 2019 Jeep Cherokee delivers something distinct in a very crowded segment: a more rugged off-road capable utility vehicle in a sea of crossovers, with some good towing capacity to add to its appeal. However, even though it starts at an attractive $23,995 plus a $1,445 destination charge, the Limited 4x4 model, a mid-level trim with the 2.0 turbo engine jumps to $35,565, and as equipped almost hit $40K, and would have gone over that line if equipped with desirable options like a sunroof and adaptive cruise with lane keep assist. Many competitors are delivering those kinds of features at $35K with a more refined driving experience on the road, where most people spend their time, and the Cherokee is just more off-roading capability than they will ever really need. For the average suburban family or commuter, this is not the ideal tool for the job, but it is a good fit for those that regularly need to get through deep, unplowed snow or want a smaller vehicle to occasionally tow or hit the trails, and if that’s what you need, skip right to the maximum capability of the Trailhawk model.

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