2015 Jeep Cherokee Driving Impressions

The first thing we noticed when we drove the Jeep Cherokee is how tight it is: smooth and solid with a firm ride. Steering is precise for an SUV, using a steering wheel that’s satisfying in its shape and function. The steering column made a bit of noise when we turned the wheel on at least one model, however.

We got good seat time in both the 2.4-liter four-cylinder and the 3.2-liter V6, with their 9-speed automatic transmission. You read that right, 9 speeds, squeezed into a box of gears not much bigger than a breadbox. Bold engineering by Chrysler, where good things have been happening lately on the technical front. We don’t mean to write corporate ad slogans, but in this case it’s true.

The V6 we drove wasn’t much smoother than the four. The four-cylinder has plenty of power for daily needs, and to cruise easily at freeway speeds. The V6 is for people who like more acceleration performance, or who tow. The four-cylinder is rated to tow 2000 pounds; the V6 with tow package, a class-leading 4500 pounds. If you don’t tow often, the four-cylinder will be fine. The 9-speed gearbox helps, but it will be busy.

During a day-long drive over varied terrain of freeways, winding two-lanes, mountains and off-road, we watched the transmission do its thing. Theoretically, a 9-speed transmission would shift almost twice as much as a 5-speed; but not in this case, because the ratio of 5th gear is an even 1.00:1. So 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th are all overdrives, to reduce rpm’s at highway speeds and increase fuel mileage. With drive ratios of .81, .70, .58 and .48, there’s very little rev change with each shift, so you don’t often feel more than five gears.

Shifting function is especially important in the Cherokee because in Manual mode, you’ve got those 9 speeds to play with (overdrive notwithstanding). But after you’re in 5th gear, you might as well go back to Auto. Except in Auto, it almost never gets up to 9th on its own. Overall in Manual mode, it shifts a lot on its own, including casual upshifts at 2500 rpm or so.

There are more than 40 shift maps for conditions and forces that software detects, meaning that there’s only a 1-in-40 chance that whatever we say about when it shifts will be correct. It’s going to shift a lot. We didn’t find it intrusive.

Like them all, the transmission is programmed to shift based on data from sensors trying to read the road conditions as well as your pace and style. It seems not unlike Google noting your surfing habits and sending the info to advertisers who try to give (sell) you what you want, on your screen. At least, Jeep isn’t invading your privacy by giving its transmission a potent memory and shifting algorithm.

The other issue with the 9-speed is reliability, and only time will tell. The transmission has four gear sets and six shift elements, including multi-disc clutches, dog clutches and brakes. Just more parts to break, the off-road old-timers with 4-speeds would say.

With the four-cylinder, having less torque than the V6, the transmission kicks down more. However, the Sport mode in 4×4 Selec-Terrain keeps it in the gears longer. We got 22.3 miles per gallon on the winding roads and freeway; it’s EPA-estimated at 21/28 mpg City/Highway with four-wheel drive. In the V6, mileage dropped to 18.1 mpg; it’s rated at 20/28 mpg mpg.

After driving the smooth four-cylinder Latitude, we expected the V6 Limited to be super smooth, but some engine noise appeared. Put your foot down, however, and it flies. Handling is good, but it doesn’t feel as attached to the road surface as the four. The electric power rack-and-pinion steering ratio is the same, but the V6 steering is lighter. And the ride is softer and smoother; it doesn’t take undulations as well as the Latitude, but speed bumps are gentler. The V6 feels bigger because it handles heavier due to the weight of the engine, which is true of all but the most carefully balanced and sophisticatedly suspended cars, none of them SUVs.

But the knockout punch with any Jeep is off-road capability. We spent a few hours facing off-road challenges in a Trailhawk. It breaks new ground, especially in descent control. It will do amazing things. For some of those things it doesn’t need or want your feet to be involved, to screw things up. It will climb up rocks and back down with your feet in the air; the driver just steers, and the machine takes itself down over treacherous terrain perfectly, safely. The descent advancement is that the driver can control the speed in 0.2-mph increments. That’s way better than before.

The transmission uses a numerically high 4.7:1 ratio for first gear, for quicker standing-start acceleration. Coupled with the 4.08:1 final drive with the four-cylinder (3.52:1 in the V6), and the Active Drive II or Active Drive Lock. That setup delivers a crawl ratio of 56:1, nearly as high as that of the Jeep Wrangler.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to test the traction of basic Active Drive I. Just because the Trailhawk with Active Drive Lock has offroad capability beyond real-world needs, it doesn’t mean that Active Drive I will keep you moving in two feet of snow, sand or mud. However, there are modes for those conditions in Selec-Terrain, and it is a Jeep, so we have faith.

At the introduction of the new Cherokee, we were given the opportunity for comparison spins in a Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4, and Ford Escape. Cherokee blew them out of the water. Compared to the Cherokee, the Escape is more nimble but has a mere 5-speed; the RAV4 has no feel and its transmission intrudes; the CR-V is boring and it labors.

The Cherokee claims the categories that matter, for example character, spirit and looks. It has a personality: decisive. Compared to the others, it feels like an Alfa Romeo.

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