My wife and I live in the northeast, where brutal winters ensure lots of driving on snow and ice and roads that resemble the surface of the moon more than anything most modern vehicles are designed for. Anyone who says normal people don't need SUV's only needs to endure one winter here to change their mind. Off-roading is supposed to be illegal on New York public lands, but don't tell that to mother nature or the DOT. A paved road around New York City is worse than most dirt roads elsewhere.
When it came time to replace our 2004 Grand Cherokee (one of the best vehicles I've ever owned), we looked at a bunch of different crossovers and compact SUV's before deciding on the 2015 Cherokee. For me, this was like a return to my childhood, when Cherokees roamed the roads en masse on their way to defining what a compact SUV was supposed to be for a generation. Today's modern Cherokee may not have the live axles or fully selectable full/part time 4WD system of our Grand Cherokee, and it may look a little goofy, but it's the only crossover out there that's more SUV than car.
The Cherokee's a little polarizing but I think people are starting to finally get used to it. I do still think it looks a little wagonesque, but I've gotten used to the unusual front and rear. I normally think it looks its best (like most crossovers) either from the side or the back - but I still wish it was a little less "rounded" for rounded's sake. Give me some straighter, more angular lines. I like the styling of the newly-redesigned Nissan Rogue a little better - it's a little more muscular. (Too bad the vehicle itself doesn't match its looks.)
We had to special order ours because we wanted a set of options that "nobody" buys, according to our dealer. Honestly, most of the Cherokees I see on the road are either completely base, or they're Trailhawks. The Trailhawk is the full off-road version of the Cherokee, and even around here a lot of people buy them. I'm actually a little jealous whenever I see one. But Trailhawks do quickly get into the realm of "you paid what for that thing?" A Jeep crossover just shouldn't approach $40,000, ever.
INTERIOR AND CARGO
We ordered ours with a cloth "light frost beige" interior - I am just so sick of soul-sucking all-black interiors in modern cars. That alone meant we needed to special order it, although the "Active Drive II" system we also wanted was an option so infrequently asked for that the dealer initially didn't even think it existed. They figured it out eventually.
(Incidentally, in the photo above the floor mats had just been cleaned - this is the downside of rubber floor mats.)
The interior was a big selling point for my wife and me - it's always hard to convey this in photos (even for professional publications) but it just has a more upscale look and feel than any of its competitors. It's mostly the materials - a leather-wrapped steering wheel is standard, and soft-touch leather-like material is used throughout most of the dash area. The knobs, shifter, and signal/wiper stalks all feel somehow both solid and soft at the same time. That's in contrast to our leased Mini, which just feels super-stiff, or most Mazdas, where everything feels loose as soon as the car leaves the factory.
There are a few ham-handed attempts at convincing you that "no, seriously, this is a Jeep!", like this "since 1941" proclamation on the steering wheel in a military-style stencil. There's also a little silhouette of an original Jeep climbing a rock at the bottom of the windshield that I initially didn't recognize and thought was just a mistake in the way the factory applied the weatherstripping.
Then there's stuff like this:
Some kind of faux-bamboo? Weird.
Generally, though, the interior's nice. It's much less oppressive than my Mini's interior; it feels wide open and more expensive than the Cherokee's direct competitors.
There's also just so much storage that I don't think we'll ever use most of it.
There's storage everywhere. Top of the dash, above your head, inside the passenger seat, even below your left knee there's a tiny little storage box. It's like every single piece of empty space, the designers said "storage box!" If your problem has always been finding a place to hide your stash when you get pulled over, this is the vehicle for you.
That handle there nearest the camera? Yep, storage box! There's also a spare tire that's bigger than a donut but smaller than a full size tire. If you buy the tow group option, you apparently get a full size spare. We didn't, so this is a downgrade from our Grand Cherokee. On the plus side, it does mean we don't need to either buy 5 tires at the same time, or do a 5 tire rotation.
Rear cargo space is fine, though it's not cavernous like either the Rogue or CX-5 seemed when we checked them out. Our Grand Cherokee had 70.1 cubic feet and this Cherokee has 55. (The Rogue has 77, and I think the CX-5 has something like 65.) So it's a definite step down, and the one real compromise we made vs. the competition. But it was rare that we ever filled up our Grand Cherokee (though it did happen) so hopefully it won't be an issue very often. Most of the space you're giving up vs. the competitors seems to be in the wheel wells, which jut into the cabin.
MECHANICAL AND DRIVING
What does Active Drive II get you? Of course you still get the selectable AWD/4WD modes that most other manufacturers don't even offer, but you also get a real 4WD "low" mode, a 1" lift in ride height and ground clearance, and a heavy duty "off-road suspension", whatever that entails. Essentially it's half of what makes a Trailhawk a Trailhawk (the other half being bigger wheels and all-terrain tires, a better entry/exit angle, and a locking differential). It's a $995 option, and I think well worth it considering the three full sets of control arms destroyed by the roads around here on our PT Cruiser.
The lift also gives me confidence driving through snow and ice, and it makes the vehicle look a little tougher. (It also makes other Cherokee owners go "huh?" when they stop behind you at a traffic light and see the badge on the back of your vehicle.)
My wife wanted the $795 "Cold Weather Group" so we got that too. Essentially this gives you heated seats, mirrors and steering wheel, although I rarely use them. I don't like half my body being warm and the other half freezing cold. But my wife loves it. You also get rubber floor mats and remote engine start, both of which I do like. The windshield wiper de-icer, though, didn't work at all the one time we've needed it so far.
Lastly, we upgraded to the V-6 engine, which cost us $1,695. This is, as far as I know, an option unique to the Cherokee in the crossover class. Our Grand Cherokee had a V-6 and that thing felt slightly underpowered. When I test drove a Mazda CX-5 - supposedly a drivers' crossover - it felt like driving a riding lawnmower. Ditto the Nissan Rogue, which is also hampered by a CVT transmission.
The V-6 in the Cherokee almost feels like overkill in comparison. Truthfully, this thing is overpowered. The Cherokee is a bit lighter than our Grand was, and there have been a lot of advances in engine tech over the last 11 years - a modern V-6 is as powerful as a decent V-8 used to be. No crossover really needs 271 horsepower. I admit that it can be nice to have on New York highways, where "island time" seems to so often apply and the ability to blow around slow traffic can be fully appreciated, but gas mileage has definitely been a little disappointing.
I haven't been getting anywhere close to the 22mpg average I'm supposed to in mixed driving. Jeep makes auto stop/start standard with the V-6 (I don't think it is with the 4 cylinder model) in an effort to try to squeeze out a couple more mpg. I do usually leave this on - it doesn't bother me unless I'm stuck in stop-and-go highway traffic. It can be switched off with a simple button if you really dislike it, but it's a very smooth system. It's not like my Mini, which violently lurches back to life when the engine restarts. The Cherokee feels refined.
Incidentally, this is how you know someone has the V-6. I'm sure it's completely unnecessary, but you get wide dual exhausts. If you see a Cherokee with a single small pipe, that's a 4 cylinder. Surprisingly, even Trailhawks come with the 4 cylinder standard - the V-6 is one of the options that can easily push a Trailhawk to 40 grand.
As you've probably realized by now, I've already driven our Jeep through some pretty horrendous conditions and I've parallel parked it both in about 5 inches of snow and on top of a mountain of ice. (Hey, there's a reason no one else wanted those spots.) So far it's proven itself entirely capable of what we need it to do, and I've felt the 4WD kick in several times. I'm not quite as confident with it as I was with our Grand Cherokee, but some all-terrains would probably take care of that. I plan for that upgrade next winter, and that'll be permanent once installed. Though I understand (and you should too) that proper SUV tires will probably knock the mileage down another 1-2 mpg.
One last thing I have to mention is the transmission. The 9-speed that's the only available option on the Cherokee has already had kind of a checkered history - hopefully it's better now but I will say that it feels a little sluggish at times. The engine is always willing, but the trans always has to hunt for the right gear when you put your foot down. Shifting into reverse is also sometimes instant, but sometimes it takes about 5 seconds. It's weird. Hopefully it's just a little finicky, but I would have rather had the old-school 5 speed automatic from our old Grand Cherokee. I don't really feel any benefits from those 4 extra speeds, but I do feel some wonkiness.
Most of the reviews you're going to read about the Cherokee will include the fully upgraded Uconnect 8.4 system, which has a full suite of apps, cameras all around the car, automatic climate control, Sirius XM radio, and even adaptive cruise control (I think). That's what Jeep wants you to read about, so that's what they give magazines and other car critics to review.
Well, we got none of that. If you want to know what the base Uconnect 5.0 system is like, read on! I know this kind of info is often hard to find when shopping for a car.
This is the base 5" screen playing a song from an SD card. The touch-screen is the old resistive type, which isn't as responsive as something like a cell phone, but on the plus side it's less reflective and doesn't attract fingerprints quite as much. The Uconnect system itself works pretty well and it's not slow or laggy - it's quick. Most of the functions are available both through the screen as well as through regular knobs and buttons.
I actually took this photo to show where the auto stop/start button is, but you can see many of the other standard controls as well. You can do most common functions here, the big exception being selecting the climate control mode (that is, where the air is coming out). I change modes often while driving, and this is something you have to press the "climate" button for, then navigate through at least two screens in the Uconnect system, taking your eye off the road to make sure you hit the right spot on the screen.
The base Uconnect 5.0 system doesn't come with much, but it does at least include a backup camera. This is going to be legally mandated soon, so they're just getting a head start on that. It is pretty useful, to be honest, although you have to realize that the red lines there mean "you have already hit this object".
Bluetooth is standard, which is nice, and there is some rudimentary voice operation possible, although I can never, ever get it to work. Saying "PLAY ARTIST SCANDAL" never seems to result in anything other than the system telling me to do exactly what I just did.
As mentioned, there's also SD card playback, which is actually a huge feature and not one many cars offer. This can easily make up for the lack of satellite radio or app support. I happened to have a spare 64GB card lying around and I was able to load my entire music library on it with plenty of room to spare. Leave it in the car until you get new music, then just drag and drop it over.
Someday we will all have cars that connect to our home wifi and let you sync or drag and drop whatever you want to them at any time. But until then, a simple SD card slot is a workable substitute.
The small SUV market is in pretty bad shape right now. The current Cherokee fills pretty much the same role now (and costs about the same amount) as our old 2004 Grand Cherokee did - but it's not quite as capable. It is of course more refined, and more powerful with the V-6. I don't think there's a better option if what you want is good cargo hauling combined with power and real traction on difficult roads.
There's only one "true" compact SUV left, and that's the Nissan Xterra. But it only has a part-time 4WD system - you can't use it on dry pavement, which means you can't use it on snowy pavement that might become dry as you're driving on it.
Everything else is a crossover, and most of them are just big hatchbacks.
The Cherokee is the only crossover you can get with at least some off-road pedigree, and with a tougher suspension and really usable 4WD system (if you order it that way). It's more than capable enough for most suburbanites.
Or just get a Trailhawk. But be prepared to pay for it if you want any options at all.