In our latest head-to-head comparison we pit Cars.com's long-term 2014 Jeep Cherokee against a formidable competitor: Mazda's 2015 CX-5. The CX-5 came to us in our regular rotation of press cars and was ripe for a duel with our Cherokee, which was looking for redemption after being defeated by the well-rounded 2014 Nissan Rogue.
We've had good experiences with both SUVs. The Cherokee was purchased because it's unique to an extreme and impressed our editors with its refined ride quality and class-leading technology. The CX-5 scored second place in Cars.com's $25,000 compact SUV comparison of 2012-13 models a few years ago thanks to its space-efficient design and stylish exterior.
The all-wheel-drive CX-5 Grand Touring's price of $31,760 is not too far from our Cherokee Limited's $33,375, a $1,615 difference; both prices include destination fees. Under the Mazda's hood is the more powerful of its two four-cylinder offerings while our Cherokee is equipped with the base four-cylinder engine. Both SUVs are equipped with all-wheel drive. Our Cherokee is otherwise the loaded Limited trim level and equivalent to the CX-5's Grand Touring as the premier trim. Cars.com editors Joe Wiesenfelder and Joe Bruzek put these closely matched SUVs through their paces to evaluate the pair in nine categories of driving, comfort and versatility.
Jeep's Cherokee is without a doubt the more substantially sized SUV with more length, width and height over the CX-5. As you'll read below, that doesn't necessarily mean larger on the inside. The Cherokee also has an additional 484 pounds that put the 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder and nine-speed automatic transmission to work. The lighter CX-5 coincidentally makes due with an identical 184-hp, though from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with a more conventional six-speed automatic transmission and a lot less weight to carry around.
The Mazda beats the pants off our acceleration-challenged Cherokee. Even though the two have the same horsepower rating, the Jeep has a bit less torque and outweighs the Mazda by nearly 500 pounds. The CX-5's transmission is also much better behaved and reactive. It doesn't have a Sport mode, but in this contest, the Jeep's Sport mode doesn't impress much anyway. The CX-5 has the larger of its two available engines, and the Cherokee the smaller of two, yet the Mazda has higher mileage by 2 mpg combined: 24/30/26 mpg city/highway/combined to the Cherokee's 21/28/24 mpg.
Both do their jobs and feel strong enough. The CX-5's brakes are linear on application, but Wiesenfelder was seriously disappointed by the nonlinearity on release. The Cherokee is better on release, though its brakes are a bit grabby on initial application.
The Mazda has excellent balance, road-holding and overall dynamics. The steering has good weighting and directness, and just the right amount of feedback when hitting mid-corner pavement disruptions. The Cherokee's handling is composed and, in our opinion, underrated, but it is nose-heavy even with the four-cylinder and definitely less visceral than the Mazda. As important, the Cherokee's transmission doesn't like to power into corners, and the CX-5 had no such reservations.
Noise is definitely one of the CX-5's disadvantages, including road and wind noise. The engine's a bit loud at full acceleration, but it isn't otherwise objectionable. Conversely, the Jeep has one of the quietest cabins in this class. Only once did its tires sing, on a short patch of grooved pavement. The Cherokee's quiet cabin masks abnormally loud "sewing machine" noises coming from under the hood at idle, but luckily the engine is quiet once moving.
The CX-5's ride quality really impressed us. For a vehicle that handles as well as this one - and had 19-inch wheels, as equipped - it rides firmly but comfortably and with definite poise over rough surfaces. The Cherokee still outdoes it for comfort and isolation, and though the Jeep was the champ as we intentionally ran the SUVs over brutal potholes, the CX-5 surprised us by sparing our spines more trauma than we had expected.
Interior quality was another close contest that could go either way depending on consumer preference. Wiesenfelder liked the CX-5's piano-black finishes and lack of unconvincing faux metal trim, but it also has super-cheap vinyl sun visors. The multimedia display is as much a factor in interior quality as it is in multimedia performance, and the Mazda's touch-screen is small with a low resolution and generally disappointing for an extra-cost item compared with the Cherokee's (above) optional 8.4-inch Uconnect touch-screen. We could say the same for the moonroof comparison; the Cherokee's larger panoramic one wins - it's a $1,395 option opposed to the CX-5's smaller one included in the Grand Touring trim.
Seating dimensions are quite close, but Wiesenfelder wished he had a little more driver's legroom in the Cherokee. The Jeep gets a slight edge because its seats are otherwise wide and comfortable, and the rear seats slide forward and back; the Mazda's backseat does not. Bruzek didn't think the CX-5 was at much of a disadvantage because of the already generous rear seat room and cargo room.
To put things in context, the Uconnect system is one of our favorites, from its 8.4-inch touch-screen size and responsiveness to its inclusion of many features, some of which cooperate with smartphone apps. To that end, we were shocked to see a Pandora tab on the CX-5's multimedia screen, because the optional system otherwise looks like it pre-dates Pandora internet radio and possibly smartphones overall. We also find its TomTom navigation interface perplexing even after plenty of exposure and practice. Mazda is cleaning up its act in the multimedia arena; it just hasn't hit this model yet.
Anyone who doesn't knock himself out on its low-hanging liftgate can see the CX-5's (above, right) cargo area is superior to that of the Cherokee (above, left), despite having an overall smaller footprint. It has more volume both behind the rear seats and when they're folded. Its load floor is a bit lower than the Cherokee's, yet the cargo area is taller overall and certainly wider. It even has a 40/20/40-split folding backseat rather than the Jeep's 60/40 split for more flexibility. The center segment even folds independently.
Our lovable Cherokee eked out the win with five categories to the Mazda's four. The Mazda exhibited a more capable handling, acceleration and braking experience against the four-cylinder Cherokee that's continually battling physics. Our long-term Jeep rallied from its lacking acceleration with a more refined ride and interior experience topped with useful technology and a few standout features at its slightly higher as-tested price.
Cars.com photos by Joe Bruzek and Evan Sears