We had high hopes for the 2019 Jeep Cherokee. We're very fond of it overall — in spite of the fact that after a year's ownership of a 2014 model, we unanimously concluded that we wouldn't buy another. Somehow, our affection for the Cherokee was strong enough that we were able to overlook the engine replacement it mysteriously required; what we couldn't overlook was the bad behavior of its only transmission, a nine-speed automatic — especially when paired with the base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Despite numerous changes to its programming both in our early model and in subsequent model years, the transmission would hesitate too long when a downshift was called for. (At least the hard upshifts improved somewhat over the years.)
The 2019 Cherokee has a few things going for it, starting with its first substantial refresh since 2014, which is an opportunity to make improvements. On the flip side, the Jeep Compass was completely redesigned for 2017 and was a disappointment, partly due to the same transmission. The 2019 Cherokee could go either way. How did Jeep do?
One Step Forward, Technically
Both of the 2019 Cherokees we drove, a Trailhawk and an Overland, were equipped with an engine that's new to the lineup: a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Its 270 horsepower rating is 1 hp lower than the V-6 that's standard in these two high trim levels, but it has more torque — and it's accessible at lower engine speeds: a peak of 295 pounds-feet at 3,000 to 4,500 rpm, versus the 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6's 239 pounds-feet at 4,400 rpm. The difference is very noticeable in off-the-line starts, and the transmission lag is somewhat better.
More power and torque tend to make automatics perform better, primarily because they don't have to downshift as frequently in order to make the vehicle step out, and downshifting is where transmissions usually introduce lag. But this nine-speed's lag problem is far from cured by the new engine; it's merely less frequent and less noticeable at lower speeds. It's enough better that you can drive normally and not even notice it — until you attempt a passing maneuver at highway speeds and find yourself waiting a staggering 2 to 3 seconds for the Cherokee to accelerate after you floor the pedal.
The efficiency goal has produced some frustrating transmissions of late, and we can't say we're fans of the droning sounds or so-so responsiveness of continuously variable automatic transmissions, which competitors like Subaru and Honda use, but that doesn't excuse the Cherokee's gearbox. CVTs have improved over time and the Tiguan's conventional eight-speed, to cite one example, does a fine job. All vehicles must pass the stomp-and-go test, and the Cherokee's lag tests the limits of what's safe and reasonable.
As I laid out in our Edge of Glory article, this nine-speed transmission is supplied by Germany's ZF, and though it works well enough when teamed with the larger 3.6-liter V-6 in our Best of 2017 Chrysler Pacifica, it drags down several lower-powered models from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and other automakers, including Honda and Jaguar Land Rover.
You'll have to decide if the transmission is a deal-breaker for you regardless of the engine you prefer. The new turbo power plant absolutely helps, but you'll pay for it: Optional on all trim levels but the base Latitude, it's a $2,245 option versus the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder, more expensive than the V-6, which is $1,745 on the Latitude through Limited FWD versions. The turbo is a $500 option on trim levels that include the V-6 standard. Another strike against it: Though the turbo can run on regular gasoline, it prefers 91-octane premium for its rated output and mileage. Also note that the turbo four, when equipped with the Trailer Tow Package, raises the Cherokee's towing capacity from 2,000 to 4,000 pounds, but the V-6 is still tops at 4,500 pounds.
One of the Cherokee's triumphs is that there's nothing flat-out stupid about it. That's how low the bar can be these days.
The cost of premium gas undermines the turbo engine's otherwise decent EPA-estimated mileage of 23/31/26 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive. The combined figure drops to 24 mpg with the simplest of the three four-wheel-drive systems the Cherokee offers, Active Drive I, and to 23 mpg with Active Drive II, which adds a low gear for off-roading; further off-road enhancements for the Trailhawk trim lower its combined estimate to 22 mpg. For comparison, the V-6 engine is rated 23, 22, 21 and 21 mpg combined, respectively. The base four-cylinder is rated 25 mpg combined with FWD and 24 mpg combined with Active Drive I.
How the Cherokee's mileage compares to competitors depends on how you classify it. Its base trim is priced to compete with compact SUVs, but it's almost 10 inches longer than Jeep's version of a compact, the Compass. It's wider than the 2018 Subaru Forester and Outback and the 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan, which is among the larger compact competitors, but the Outback and Tiguan are both several inches longer than the Cherokee.
The Forester carries an EPA rating of 28 mpg combined with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 25 mpg with a turbocharged 2.0-liter. The Outback is also rated 28 mpg combined with the 2.5-liter and 22 mpg with a 3.6-liter six-cylinder. (Both Subarus have standard all-wheel drive.) The Tiguan is rated 24 mpg combined with front-wheel drive and 23 mpg with AWD on regular gas; stepping up to the Limited trim shaves 1 mpg off both ratings and requires premium.
Where the Cherokee has no peers in its price class is its off-road capability, which is best realized in the Trailhawk trim level. It combines different front and rear bumpers — for improved approach and departure angles — with Active Drive Lock 4WD (which is Active Drive II four-wheel drive plus a locking rear differential) and Selec-Terrain traction modes including Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud and Rock.
I tested the Cherokee Trailhawk alongside Jeep's ultimate off-roader, the redesigned 2018 Wrangler Rubicon, and the Cherokee can go almost anywhere the Wrangler can. Its approach and departure angles aren't as steep (though its breakover angle is better than the four-door Wrangler's), and the Cherokee Trailhawk's 8.7-inch ground clearance doesn't match the Rubicon's 10.8 inches, but just the fact that the two can be compared shows how far ahead of direct competitors the Cherokee is. Foundationally, the Wrangler's use of solid front and rear axles allows for more wheel articulation and more assured traction than the Cherokee's four-wheel independent suspension, but the latter provides better on-road performance.
So Much Good
The Cherokee's transmission stands out as such an Achilles heel because the model is otherwise so good. It rides comfortably and handles well enough (few compact SUVs stand out for sportiness). It's reasonably quiet, though the off-road tires of the Trailhawk trim are noticeable, as were the relatively aggressive Bridgestone Dueler H/L Alenza Plus tires on our Overland. The brakes feel strong and linear on both application and release.
Jeep made a few upgrades to the cabin for 2019, such as more piano-black finishes and a larger bin at the front of the center console, but very little needed attention. The touchscreens are well-executed, starting with a 7-inch display in the Latitude trim level and stepping up to an 8.4-inch version, with or without built-in navigation, in higher trims. The new fourth-generation Uconnect adds Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility regardless of screen size. Our test models had the 8.4-inch touchscreen, which remains among the best systems on the market for controlling various aspects of the vehicle. Android Auto was super buggy for me, but we've found these glitches to depend as much or more on the make, model and operating system of the phone attached as they do the vehicle in question. By the time we returned the Cherokee, an app update had already improved performance somewhat.
Ease of use is no small feat in today's cars, and it's one of the Cherokee's strengths. In addition to the favorable Uconnect, the dashboard has simple mechanical buttons and knobs and is gloriously free of touch-sensitive panels, remotely positioned control interfaces and other such claptrap. The only shortcoming of the traditional PRND gear selector lever is that it's connected to such a disappointing gearbox. One of the Cherokee's triumphs is that there's nothing flat-out stupid about it. That's how low the bar can be these days.
As in other areas, the Cherokee's cabin dimensions are somewhere between compact and mid-size. According to the specifications, it has more front legroom than the Tiguan but less than the Forester and Outback, yet it has at least a couple of inches more backseat legroom than those models (see them compared) as well as the mid-size Hyundai Santa Fe Sport and large-compact Nissan Rogue (see them compared). Having a split, folding backseat that can be adjusted forward and back is another benefit in the Cherokee, as it allows you to give more space to occupants or to cargo based on your need.
Again, by the numbers, the Cherokee has less backseat headroom than the other models mentioned except the Rogue, which it equals, but at 6 feet tall, I was perfectly comfortable back there despite the presence of a headroom-robbing panoramic moonroof.
Modest Cargo Space
Jeep scooped out the walls of the cargo area for 2019, adding more than 3 inches of width and 1.2 cubic feet overall, but cargo volume isn't the model's strongest suit. Bearing in mind that the sliding backseat grants flexibility and seems to favor the backseat legroom specification detailed above, the Cherokee's 25.8 cubic feet of volume behind the backseat trails the Forester (34.4 cubic feet), Outback (35.5), Santa Fe Sport (35.4), Rogue (39.3) and Tiguan (33 cubic feet behind the second row).
Removing the backseat from the equation, the Cherokee's maximum, seats-folded volume is 54.9 cubic feet; most other models provide 70 cubic feet or more. Raise the cargo floor and you'll find a few inches' more depth even with the temporary spare tire in place. Overall, the relatively high cargo area is well-designed and versatile, but its size is no leader even among compact competitors. The Compass is larger at 27.2 and 59.8 cubic feet behind the backseat and maximum, respectively.
As of publication, the refreshed 2019 Cherokee had not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, though the organization plans a test for sometime this summer. The earlier generation earned a disappointing score of marginal (out of a possible good, acceptable, marginal or poor) in the driver-side small overlap front crash test, which was its only substandard rating and definitely below average among competitors. Jeep says it has made changes that could improve the 2019's score, but we won't know until test results are posted. Look for the 2019 Cherokee on the Institute's mid-size SUVs page in place of the 2018 report.
The Cherokee's safety report card is otherwise very good. It now offers a slew of advanced safety and driver-assist features, including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control that works down to a stop, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring with cross-traffic detection, rain-sensing wipers, automatic high-beams and active parallel/perpendicular parking assist. Unfortunately, the optional Technology Group that includes these features isn't available on Latitude trim levels. A backup camera is standard.
The 2019 Cherokee also earned straight A's for child-safety seat accommodation, a rarity even among large five-seat SUVs. See the details in our Car Seat Check. For offspring of driving age, the subscription-based Family Connect can alert parents if the driver exceeds preset speed, curfew or geographic limitations.
About the Styling ...
I'm one of the few oddballs who liked the old Cherokee's oddball styling, which positioned bright LED daytime running light eyebrows up high and headlights rather low, where people didn't realize that's what they were. I was in the minority, and Jeep not only resisted extending this design to other models but has abandoned it altogether with the 2019 Cherokee, which now groups the DRLs and standard LED headlights higher up in more conventional clusters. (Hyundai has already adopted this design — less deftly, if you ask me — in the Kona and redesigned 2019 Santa Fe.) Additionally, the waterfall grille that formerly began above a crease in the leading edge of the hood and then cascaded down — you know, like a waterfall — now has a more conventional look on a more vertically oriented nose.
I admit this design will appeal to more shoppers, and it looks fine on the Trailhawk version of the Cherokee with its gray bumper, but to me, the body-colored versions look doctored rather than holistic, with a too-broad swath of bumper where the headlights once were. That's my parting shot.
Honor Student Breaks Bad
In addition to all the other upsides, the Cherokee is built in the U.S. in Belvidere, Ill., and the 2018 model ranked No. 1 on the Cars.com American-Made Index. (The 2019's rank will depend both on its criteria and the rest of the 2019 field, to be determined in June 2019.) If we seem overly harsh about the Cherokee's transmission, it's for the same reason you're hard on an honor student who does something really stupid: It's otherwise really, really good. I believe that someday this transmission will be abandoned, and industry folk who are currently mum will talk openly about it as a known problem that couldn't be replaced quickly enough. Or maybe the same will be said about me and my animosity toward this gearbox. But my money's still on the ZF nine-speed dying a welcome and overdue death first. It's 2018; we can do better, and many transmissions do.
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