Payne: Jeep Cherokee grows up

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

We all have to grow up sometime.

Like the college grad who trades his AC/DC T-shirt and jeans for a button-down shirt and slacks on his first day at the office, the 2019 Jeep Cherokee has gone respectable.

The brand’s wild child debuted back in 2013 with a shark nose, three tiers of lights and its license plate hanging below its bum. Polite society was shocked – and couldn’t stop ogling it. The Cherokee eclipsed 200,000 in sales in 2015 and took the crown as Jeep's best-selling vehicle. Big brother Grand Cherokee was so proud.

But as the novelty wore off, sales steadily declined to under 170,000 last year. Time for a wardrobe upgrade  –  but happily, not a lifestyle change.

New wardrobe. With its first makeover since 2013 the 2019 Jeep Cherokee shows off new bodywork from the A-pillar forward. The extensive update is more than cosmetic - the Cherokee goes on a 150-pound diet to improve fuel economy.

Beneath its mature, upright seven-slot waterfall grille (just like big brother!), proper headlights (running lights and headlights under one cover) and tidy rear end (plate on tailgate, shirt tucked in), the Cherokee is still a tattooed, nature-loving four-wheeler that wants nothing more than to go off-roading.

And by off-roading, I mean navigating Detroit streets without fear.

The 2019 Cherokee arrived in my driveway after another Detroit winter from hell. Make that from the Arctic. A brutal winter and delayed spring wreaked havoc on the region's feeble roads. One crater swallowed a wheel on a Genesis G80; my teeth barely survived a recent week in a hard-sprung Nissan GT-R.

That means you don’t have to go to Moab to appreciate the Cherokee’s ruggedness. There are stretches of pavement I try to avoid: the Lodge service drive, Mound Road, Lone Pine. I use to think wealthy neighborhoods in Oakland County were unpaved to slow folks down; now I know it’s because dirt is smoother than Michigan pavement.

But the Jeep doesn’t care. Riding on thick-sidewall tires and a unibody chassis hewn from Thor’s hammer, my Jeep Overland shrugged off bad pavement like Deadpool absorbs bullets.

I’m pretty sure the Cherokee could’ve handled the wet, gravel and sand beach I got stuck in last year in little brother Compass Trailhawk. Jeep’s trail-rated Trailhawk trim (and countless ads of Jeeps scaling cliff faces) is a temptation to take on Mother Nature. I found myself charging around the beaches of Lake Michigan in the Compass – until I decided to stop and take a picture.

The Compass sunk – not far, but enough  –  into the sand and I couldn’t get out. I tried Sand, Mud, Rock, Snow and Mars traction modes (OK, I made the last one up). I tried traction control Off and On. The only thing that worked was flagging a nearby Ford F-150 to tow me out.

The Cherokee Trailhawk, however, comes with a standard locking rear-differential borrowed from the Wrangler. My Jeep friends tell me this would have been my ticket out (that, and never stop in sand).

My Overland tester was not equipped with a locker. Which begs the question: Why pay $41,000 for a compact Jeep – over, say, the $35,000 Honda CR-V or Mazda CX5 – I tested last year if not equipped with the best 4x4 system?

The Japanese entries are equipped with all-wheel drive systems suitable for our ox-cart roads even if they don’t come with Jeep’s multiple terrain settings. Like Jeep’s optional Technology Group, they also come packaged with the latest electronics – blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise-control, automatic headlights – which shame more expensive premium sedans (looking at you, $67,000 BMW X4).

The competitors are also more nimble. The Mazda is downright sporty and the lightweight Honda shares a 1.5-liter turbo-4 and platform with the athletic Honda Accord.

Jeep boasts beefier engine numbers to complement its beefy, off-road vibe. The Cherokee debuts a premium turbo 2.0-liter with a healthy 290 pound-feet of torque (compared to Honda’s 176), but my tester sported the tried-and-true, 3.2-liter, 271-horse V-6. Nitpickers will naysay its 22 mpg (versus CRV’s 29), but only the Cherokee V-6’s 239 pound-feet of torque will tow a class-leading 4,500 pounds.

Unfortunately, it is paired with the tried-and-less-true Jeep nine-speed transmission which grumped and hiccupped through its daily chores. I’m a fan of high-ratio trannies in competitors like the nine-speed GMC Terrain, but Jeep’s effort has been trouble from the start.

“(Cherokees) have transmissions that suffer from hard shifts, odd shift points and sudden shutdowns,” reported jeepproblems.com back in 2016 – and though the new generation promises better reliability on that shutdown bugaboo, the quirky shift behavior remains.

Speaking of reliability, Jeep’s record continues to keep lemon lawyers in business.

But like quality-challenged Tesla, Jeep’s highly anticipated Cherokee will be a hit because brand matters. In the lookalike world of today’s autos, Jeep sends a message. That grille. That terrain-conquering dial. That “since 1941” World War II legacy carved into the steering wheel. The brand that invented SUVs screams authenticity.

And despite its flaws, the package screams quality. Like GMC’ s Terrain (which comes from premium truck DNA), the Jeep brand is the rare mainstream badge that gets considered alongside premium brands.

While the Cherokee’s outside is cleaned up – “We took the geekiness out of it,” designer Mark Allen likes to say – the inside has been mature since generation one.

The tidy instrument display with chrome bezels is first-class, as is the Uconnect infotainment system. Already the industry standard with easy-to-use menus, Uconnect has been updated with faster, bigger screens (even the base Latitude trims gets a 7-inch pane) and smartphone connectivity. Google Maps is far superior to any car navigation system.

Even the rear cargo space has been improved. Engineers carved out an extra 3 inches of width and more than two more cubic feet of storage. It's good for two golf bags.

In an age when electronics are narrowing the gap between mainstream and luxury, Jeep bridges the gap with its macho vibe, powerful engines, and upscale interior. And now that it’s out of that awkward geek phase, you can take it on a date to the country club.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Jeep Cherokee

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $25,440 base ($41,510 Overland 4x4 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.4-liter, Tigershark inline-4 cylinder; 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6; 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4

Power: 180 horsepower, 171 pound-feet torque (2.4-liter I-4); 271 horsepower, 239 pound-feet torque (V-6); 270 horsepower, 295 pound-feet torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.6 seconds (Car and Driver est. for turbo-4); towing: 4,500 pounds (V-6 with Trailer Tow Package)

Weight: 3,960 pounds (V-6 4x4 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy (all figures for 4x2, front-wheel drive mode): 22 city/31 highway/24 combined (2.4-liter I-4); 20 city/29 highway/23 combined V-6); 23 city/31 highway/26 combined (2.0-liter turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: Classic Jeep exterior; high-class interior

Lows: Uneven 9-speed tranny; can get pricey

Overall: 3 stars