2019 Jeep Cherokee First Drive

You have to appreciate how the Jeep Cherokee separates itself from the usual compact SUVs. Unlike the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, and even its Compass stablemate, the Cherokee’s commitment to providing unparalleled off-road capability, not to mention an available V6 engine and superior towing capacity, makes it undeniably attractive.

Alas, “attractive” wasn’t how we’d describe the Cherokee when it debuted in the 2014 model year. Aside from the polarizing front end, its interior storage options were lacking and the base 2.4-liter engine seemed poorly matched to the nine-speed automatic transmission. Jeep has addressed most of these issues in the 2019 Cherokee with a new — but optional — turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, smoother exterior design and additional interior storage.

Four, Six or Four 
The new 270-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder sits atop the Cherokee engine hierarchy, which may seem odd. It costs $500 more than the 3.2-liter V6, a $1,745 option itself, and yet the 2.0-liter makes 1 fewer horsepower. What gives?

At 295 pound-feet, the 2.0-liter provides much more torque. Not only does it boast 56 lb-ft more than the V6, but peak torque arrives at a lower engine speed (3,000 rpm versus the V6’s 4,400-rpm peak). The torque advantage makes the 2.0-liter Cherokee feel much brawnier when you dip into the gas. Plus, this drivetrain also uses a 3.73-to-1 final drive ratio that’s shorter than the V6’s two options. The combination makes for a quicker overall acceleration, and the off-road crowd will appreciate the extra torque and superior 51.4-to-1 crawl ratio from the optional low range.

While the 2.0-liter is also available in the new 2018 Wrangler with an eight-speed automatic and Jeep’s new mild hybrid eTorque system, for the Cherokee the engine comes mated with the same nine-speed automatic used with the base four-cylinder and V6 engines. Though we found the base engine overworked by the nine-speed, the 2.0-liter’s extra oomph smooths out the rough patches. Aside from a mildly annoying whooshing noise from the rear under hard acceleration, the 2.0-liter feels like the right fit for the Cherokee.

Fine-Tooth Comb 
You can pair the 2.0-liter with Jeep’s array of drivetrain configurations, which range from front-wheel drive to all-wheel drive to four-wheel drive with a low range. The latter can be upgraded further with a mechanically locking rear differential. The all-wheel-drive system, what Jeep calls Active Drive I, works like the systems in many compact SUVs, where power is transferred to the rear wheels only when the system sees a need for additional traction.

Jeep says updates to the all-wheel-drive system have decreased its weight and fuel consumption. The 150-pound diet combined with improvements such as the addition of engine stop-start mean the 2019 Cherokee should have better fuel economy no matter what engine is under the hood. Official figures were not yet available, but you can safely expect the 2.0-liter to beat the current V6’s ratings of 21 to 24 mpg combined, depending on the drivetrain configuration. Also, consider that the turbocharged 2.0-liter won’t run out of air in high altitudes.

With a $500 difference between the optional engines, you might wonder why someone would choose the V6. Well, it still reigns supreme with a 4,500-pound towing capacity, which is 500 pounds more than the 2.0-liter’s rating. In addition to being able to out-tow any other compact SUV no matter the engine, the optional low range’s neutral setting means you can tow the Cherokee behind an RV.

In and Out 
With a new engine getting all the attention, you might miss the softened exterior design. The most noticeable change is the switch from last year’s narrow and high-riding halogen headlights to larger LED lights that resemble those on the Grand Cherokee and Compass. While there aren’t any significant changes to the exterior dimensions or clearances, the hood and liftgate are now made from lighter materials.

On the back, the license plate now sits on the liftgate instead of the rear bumper, and you can swipe your foot under it to release the liftgate. Enlarged side pockets and a relocated liftgate latch help bump up the reworked cargo space to 25.8 cubic feet behind the second row. That figure still trails the space in many compact SUVs, but at least now you can fit a golf bag or two without having to drop the fold-flat 60/40-split rear seats. And with 54.9 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, there’s still plenty of room for the needs of most families.

Sit in the front seats and you’ll notice new interior accents such as satin chrome and piano black trim. More importantly, a new cubby ahead of the shifter accommodates a phone or two and sits in close proximity to the USB port and a 115-volt power outlet. We appreciate this smart upgrade since the latest version of the brand’s Uconnect infotainment system offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support across all models.

Pay Dirt
Part of our drive included a guided path along a dirt trail in the off-road-focused Cherokee Trailhawk. With the low range and low-speed cruise control engaged, the 2.0-liter hummed away as the Cherokee confidently climbed over and around obstacles that would have destroyed the bumpers and side skirts of other compact SUVs.

While it doesn’t have as much storage or seating space as some SUVs in the segment, the Cherokee has always been appealing for its skill off-road and in the snow. Add a new, more powerful and efficient engine, a more mature exterior design and useful interior updates, and the 2019 Jeep Cherokee is a better value than its closest competition.