Over the years, decades really, the Jeep Cherokee XJ is has developed a cult following and it is quickly becoming an icon. In a brand that has so many icons, and given its modest unibody setup and family-friendly purpose, that is quite an accomplishment. It’s unlikely that its replacement, the Jeep Liberty, will ever see the same kind of love. I would even bet that the hugely popular Grand Cherokee will never be that loved.
Jeep is aware of that XJ love. That is why they brought the Cherokee name back in 2014. But that new Cherokee didn’t receive the instant love that the brand executives may have been hoping for. In the world full of bubbly CUVs, the Cherokee was a bubbly SUV with a front-end that can be best described as striking. But the sales number, surely helped by the economy, were good, significantly outselling the Liberty.
For 2019 the Cherokee gets a refresh. The Cherokee design goes back from being striking to a more conventional and relaxed design, similar to those of the bigger Grand Cherokee and the new smaller Compass. And it also gets a new turbocharged engine. Will these changes yield more love for the iconic model name?
It’s not even fair to compare the current Cherokee to the classic XJ. The XJ was a pioneer as at the time there were not many vehicles like it. It had a proven inline six engine in the front and a live axle in the back. It was also cramped and the interior, despite being made over several times, was always quite bad. As I see it, there is nothing but badges linking the two vehicles together.
That does not make the current Cherokee bad, just different, and more spacious and comfortable. And safer and more fuel efficient. With its transversely mounted engine and independent suspension, its off-road proves is realistically limited to a grassy soccer field or a ski resort. Realistically, current buyers want safety, efficiency, and comfort, and they don’t care to venture far off pavement.
Despite being a completely different vehicle, the 2014 and up Cherokees feel much like a scaled down Grand Cherokee. The interior is perhaps not as nice, slightly smaller, and obviously the drivetrain was all twisted sideways. But for an empty-nester who does not know a piston from a cylinder, the Cherokee is 85% Grand Cherokee for 70% of the money.
But damn it, that striking front-end. Educated guess is that it drove away a few buyers.
The redesigned 2019 front-end immediately looks better, more conventional, even if over the years we got used to the striking old front-end. All lights on all models are now LED, which good because lighting was never FCA’s strength. Subtle changes continue around the vehicle to its new taillights and rear bumper fascia.
Jeep claims that the interior is now more premium, more refined in functionality and design, with new finishes. But aside from really nice quality leather on this Overland model, updated infotainment system with Apple CarPlay, I had a really hard time seeing the differences. Cargo area packaging was redone which added three cubic feet and improved cargo management which is great news for all of your outdoor gear.
The really big news is under the hood. An all-new 2.0-liter direct-injection turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine is available on all but the base model. It makes 270 horsepower at 5,250 rpm and 295 lb.-ft. (400Nm) between 3,000 and 4,500rpm. And like most new engines, it comes with the engine stop-start “technology”
I briefly drove two vehicles equipped with this new turbo four-banger. The first was a new 2018 Jeep Wrangler Sahara. Right away I was blown away by its low-end power and overall smoothness from this four-banger.
Then I switched to the 2019 Cherokee Overland and it felt completely different. The Cherokee did not have the low-end kick of the big Wrangler. It was really puzzling to me and I chalked it up to a different configuration, transmission, and final gearing. But even then, the differences between these two seemingly similar engines were far too great.
It was after talking with a FCA engineer and endless minutes of research, did I realize that the Wrangler has something called eTorque System. In laymen terms, it is an electric hybrid system that gives the four-banger the much needed kick at low engine speeds but is never used to propel the vehicle on battery alone. Think of it as an electric supercharger. It comes on the new 4-cylinder turbo Wrangler and on some new 2019 V6- and V8-powered RAM 1500s. But packaging constrains currently keep it out of smaller vehicles such as the Cherokee.
So the new engine – it lacks some low-end power but once the engine speed picks up, it goes. To achieve passing speeds on the highway, like other similar engines, it needs to kick down a gear or two in its nine-speed transmission. But once it does, it goes like hell. Given the choice, I would still chose the old Pentastar V6 for its smoothness over the new turbo four, but I’d pick the turbo four in a heartbeat over the 2.4L Tigershark engine.
The design updates to the Cherokee make it less striking, almost more conservative, which, oddly, may attract younger people. It’s no square XJ but it is better looking than before. The new engine gives more highway power and perhaps slightly increased fuel economy. Jeep says there is no increase in price. Overall, it’s coming closer than ever to being a Grand Cherokee alternative but it will never be an icon of the brand.
[Disclaimer: Jeep invited me to a local presentation of the 2019 Cherokee and the 2018 Wrangler. Yummy food was served.]