Historically, the Jeep Cherokee was a boxy, utilitarian, mud-loving SUV whose extreme off-road capability made up for its crude on-road talents.
But since the 2014 model year, the Cherokee has been an aggressively modern compact crossover. Except for the vertically-slatted grille and a few cabin details, the 2014 Cherokee’s design paid little homage to its Jeep heritage.
Although sales have been strong, critics and customers alike have been divided over the latest Cherokee. Now, for the 2019 model year, Jeep has updated the vehicle to address some of customers' common complaints.
Attentive Jeep fans will notice the first difference instantly. The 2014-2018 Cherokee wore an odd face, with slit-like headlights sitting at the very top of the front end, and a second pair of boxier headlights below them. The 2019 model moderates that effect, drawing from Jeep’s smaller Compass and larger Grand Cherokee.
Cosmetically, the 2019 update also moved the rear license plate from the Cherokee’s bumper to the liftgate, addressing complaints about too much empty space on the rear end.
Jeep also introduced a new turbocharged four-cylinder engine that aims to combine the power of a V6 with the fuel economy of a four-cylinder, and added new features that include a foot-activated power liftgate, various weight-saving tweaks, upgraded in-cabin technology, and some new interior trim.
Overall, though, the 2019 Cherokee has most of the same strengths and weaknesses that were familiar to last year’s model.
To put it generally, the Cherokee provides off-road capability that far exceeds what you’d find in an everyday Honda CR-V or Ford Escape. The tested Trailhawk model is particularly dominant, with a five-mode four-wheel-drive system that optimizes the Cherokee for conditions that include snow, mud, or even boulders. Off-roading has long been part of the Jeep heritage, and even as a crossover, the Cherokee lives up to its roots.
However, the Cherokee continues to give up some everyday qualities in order to provide its off-road performance. There’s nothing crude or truck-like — this is still a well-executed modern crossover. But it’s one that’s more expensive, less fuel-efficient, and less roomy than the best competitors.
The Cherokee’s base price is a competitive $25,440 (which includes an unusually high $1,445 destination charge), but costs can rise rapidly. The tested Trailhawk model had a sticker price of $41,425. To get the Jeep’s capability, you’re essentially paying for a midsize SUV but getting one sized like a compact.
Pleasant on-road driving dynamics and a well-finished interior help justify the expense. The Cherokee is sold in Europe as a luxury car, and it avoids feeling cheap or basic.
But the size is harder to avoid. Models like the Honda CR-V achieve massive interior volume by keeping the floor low, but Jeep needs extra ground clearance and suspension travel to support the Cherokee off-road. There’s still comfortable seating for four adults, but cargo capacity is pretty tight for the class. The 2019 updates included a slightly wider cargo hold, but there’s still just 26 cubic feet of space available behind the rear seat compared to 38 cubic feet in the CR-V. The Cherokee is still useful, but you can feel the pinch at times.
Fuel economy is another area in which today’s Cherokee handily beats its truck-like ancestors while still falling short of today’s leading crossovers. EPA ratings range from 26 miles per gallon in mixed driving for the front-wheel-drive model with the new 270-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo down to 21 mpg for a four-wheel-drive V6-powered Trailhawk.
Base models still come with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that’s a little loud and not terribly powerful, while the new turbo and carryover 3.2-liter V6 remain widely available. All three are surprisingly close in terms of fuel costs, especially considering that the turbo wants premium-grade fuel instead of regular and costs $500 more than the V6. For most buyers, the V6 remains the best balance of performance and value, and it also has a richer engine note than the new turbo.
But value isn’t the Cherokee’s strong suit. Rather, it combines many of the benefits of light-duty crossover with a higher grade of capability. If that sounds like it’s worth some extra money to you, check it out.
Also consider Jeep’s less-expensive Compass, which doesn’t feel as fancy as the Cherokee and doesn’t offer any powerful engines, but has similar interior space and off-road chops at a lower price.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.