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BBC Autos

Review

Jeep Cherokee, mud wrestler

HIDE CAPTION

November 11 was a good day for off-roading a Jeep.

It was Veterans’ Day in the US; Armistice Day in many other countries. As the vehicle that substantially replaced horses in World War II, the original Jeep established itself as an icon around the world.

My father’s First Cavalry Division rode into Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley in Huey helicopters, not in Jeeps, but Dad did come home with one Jeep-germane battle story. Having retrieved a newly arrived soldier from the airfield in one of the vehicles, he eventually came under fire. The soldier, in his fright, emptied his entire rifle clip inside the Jeep, effectively blowing the canvas passenger-side door to bits.

Today’s Jeep Cherokee is thankfully not that bare-bones, war-weary machine, a fact made obvious by its sturdy if somewhat gawky appearance, its creature comforts, conveniences and price tag. Despite deriving its skeleton from a car’s unibody set-up, the Cherokee delivers authentic off-road thrills when outfitted in maximum-capability Trailhawk guise. This version receives the company’s “Trail Rated” badge, certifying that it can traverse the same obstacles as a modern Jeep Wrangler, today’s counterpart to the original Willys Army Jeep.

A visit to West Virginia’s Summit Point Motorsports Park helped verify the Cherokee’s uncanny ability to slither through mud and climb over rocks using its advanced Active Drive Lock system. This comprises a low range and a locking rear differential, the latter forcing the rear wheels to rotate at the same speed – ideal for dislodging two tonnes of Jeep from the muck.

The company’s Selec-Terrain system manages all of the electronic tools at the driver’s disposal, presenting them in five available driving modes: automatic, snow, sport, sand/mud and rock.   Separate buttons engage the low range, the locking rear differential and the hill descent control system, the latter feature automatically controlling vehicle speed when descending steep hills with a combination of engine braking and selective application of the hydraulic brakes.

Obstacles that did not demand an aftermarket lift kit and monster tires were surmounted without the aid of a locked rear differential. Switched to “sport” mode, the Cherokee’s suspension effectively absorbed nasty washboard gravel, and combined with the rear-drive bias of sport mode, the SUV accelerated adroitly from slow corners that would have sent most vehicles skittering or spinning their wheels.

Considering the Cherokee’s off-road prowess, perhaps most impressive is the quality of the ride and handling. Jeep drivers have traditionally made some serious sacrifices in this respect, as off-road-worthy suspension and tires have tended to perform poorly on pavement. But the Cherokee’s knobby Firestone Destination A/T tires are surprisingly quiet on the highway, and though they’d never be mistaken for Pirelli P-Zero Corsas, are unexpectedly responsive in a corner. Dynamically, there is a quantum leap beyond the on-road behaviour of the model the 2014 Cherokee replaces (marketed as the Liberty in the US and the Cherokee in export markets).

There are times when some seams are revealed in this off- and on-road marriage. A mere tap of the gas pedal snaps the throttle nearly wide open. The unexpected, unnecessary jolt of power conspires with heavy bias towards the front wheels in “auto” mode to spin the inside front tire in routine, pulling-out-into-traffic scenarios.

The Cherokee’s arrival at dealerships was delayed as engineers tweaked the programming of the nine-speed automatic transmission – the first application of nine forward ratios in Chrysler’s product portfolio – and the extra time was apparently well spent. Gear changes were silky, with no noticeable hunting for the right ratio, a common bugaboo of automatic transmissions with more than five speeds.

As a conventional family hauler, the Cherokee excels, with a spacious, comfortable rear seat and a 30cu-ft (850-litre) cargo area. The test model boasted the trifecta of winter-weather gadgets: remote engine start, heated seats and a heated steering wheel.

Inside, the brand custodians seeded the cabin with “Easter eggs” – little reminders of the company’s history – such as the Willys Jeep silhouette at the base of the windshield, a trail outline of Utah’s Moab country on the underside of the passenger’s seat cushion (it lifts to reveal an under-seat storage bin), and “Since 1941” at the base of the steering wheel.  No one will purchase the Cherokee because of such things, but they are subtle reminders of the brand’s heritage amid an onslaught of faux-rugged SUVs and crossovers.

The available 8.4in touch-screen infotainment display is one of the industry’s best, with intuitive operation and graphics that smartly split the difference between coluorful and cartoonish. Kudos to the team responsible for the unbranded sound system: when your favourite song comes on your favourite station, the standard stereo delivers unexpected clarity and bass. A shame, then, that volume buttons on the inboard side of the steering wheel mar the aural splendour with their clickety-clack, plasticky operation.

That’s the sort of nit-picking we’re left with in the Cherokee. No Conestoga wagon ride. No tire hum, wind roar or gear whine. Just a comfortable, modern, classy family hauler that can alight for the most remote campsite in the park or churn through unplowed snow without breaking a sweat – or a sway bar.

Such are the challenges in today’s Jeep country – where there is thankfully no great risk of shooting your door off.

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