If a Grand Cherokee is bigger than you need, but you’re not ready to commit to the rough-and-tough of a Wrangler, the 2021 Jeep Cherokee may do the job.
It comes in eight trims, including an entry-level front-wheel-drive model, but my tester was the off-road-ready Trailhawk, and it’s far more capable than you might think. Offered in two levels, I had the upper Elite, which starts at $41,795 before fees and taxes. It was then topped up with options, bringing it to $47,285.
The Cherokee was a bit wonky-looking when it was first introduced for 2014, with thin headlights oddly set atop the fenders. It’s been massaged since then into a design that, if not outstanding, blends well into the midsize sport-ute market. Mine was spiffed up with a no-charge coat of Spitfire Orange paint, while my 17-inch black wheels – the same size as stock, but done in a different style and shade – added $695.
The Trailhawk sits 25 mm (one inch) higher than other trims, and includes front and rear red tow hooks, along with skid plates. All front and rear lighting is LED. The Elite includes a hands-free power tailgate, but my tester’s dual-pane panoramic sunroof was part of a $1,995 Sun and Sound package that also adds a premium stereo system.
The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) differ slightly on the Cherokee. The NHTSA gives it four out of five stars overall, with five stars for side crash but only four for frontal and rollover. However, the IIHS gave it the top “Good” rating for all crashes (three frontal, side, and roof) plus head restraints and seats, and “Good+” for child-seat latch ease of use, although the LED headlights only rated “Acceptable.”
The Trailhawk comes standard with blind-spot monitoring, rear parking sensors, and the back-up camera that’s mandatory on all new vehicles. My tester was further equipped with a $1,095 Technology pack that added adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic, automatic high-beam headlights, lane-keep assist, emergency front braking, and a self-parking feature.
My tester came with a long list of features stuffed into a good-looking and well-finished cabin. The Trailhawk’s standard items include dual-zone automatic climate control, 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, seven-inch instrument cluster display, voice command, satellite radio with one-year trial subscription, all-weather floor mats, a heated steering wheel, and a 115-volt outlet.
The Trailhawk Elite further adds heated and ventilated leather seats, a security alarm, hands-free tailgate, power driver’s seat, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and integrated garage door opener. My ride was also equipped with the aforementioned safety-tech package, black wheels, and sunroof/audio bundle, plus a towing package, and upgraded infotainment with navigation, traffic, and travel information, off-road pages, and a Wi-Fi hotspot.
User Friendliness: 8.5/10
Even with the Trailhawk’s slight increase in ground clearance, it’s easy to get in and out of this trucklet’s front and rear seats. I appreciated my tester’s power-adjustable chair and was able to find the right position, and visibility is good all around.
Most of the controls are big dials and buttons, which is always good, including on the steering wheel and the button/dial combination for the four-wheel-drive configuration. The Uconnect infotainment system remains one of the industry’s best, with big-and-simple icons and intuitive menus. My only quibbles are that I’d prefer a temperature dial to the up-or-down toggle here; and the heated seats and steering wheel are controlled not by buttons but through the touchscreen, which requires extra steps and takes your eyes off the road.
The Cherokee is roomy inside for its footprint, including a decent amount of space for those in the rear seat. The cargo compartment offers 700 L of space with the rear seats up, and the cargo floor can be lowered for taller items. The rear seats fold, but not completely flat. The cargo liftover is a bit higher than some, but I didn’t have any issues getting my groceries into it.
There isn’t as much small-item storage in the centre console as with many other SUVs, mostly because cubby-bin space is taken up with the four-wheel-drive dial and connectivity outlets. But there is a storage spot in front of those, as well as a lidded bin atop of the dash. When equipped with the optional towing package as mine was, the Trailhawk can pull up to 2,041 kg (4,500 lb).
The Trailhawk Elite’s leather-faced seats are sculpted and bolstered, and they’re as comfortable and supportive as they look. The Elite also adds power adjustment to both front chairs.
That comfort follows through with the on-road ride, and for a vehicle that’s tuned for off-road, it behaves itself very well on the asphalt. It’s smooth and quiet, and it soaks up bumps very well and allows only the nastiest potholes to make their way into the cabin.
The Cherokee lineup offers three engines, but the Trailhawk comes exclusively with a 3.2L V6 that makes 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a nine-speed automatic, and while that multi-gear unit can sometimes hunt for gears with some other engines, it’s a good fit here. Acceleration is smooth and quick, and there’s plenty of power for highway passing. This is a very sweet little engine and extremely impressive. I also like that it’s not turbocharged. If I’m planning on keeping a vehicle for a long time, I prefer the simplicity of a naturally aspirated engine.
Three four-wheel drive systems are offered across the Cherokee range, but the Trailhawk uses the beefiest of them, called Jeep Active Drive Lock. It’s an automatic system that can be driven anywhere, but can be put into four-wheel low, which should only be used on loose or soft surfaces, and further has a mechanical locking rear differential for the toughest stuff. Hill descent control is standard, as is a low-speed cruise control for use on trails.
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Driving Feel: 9/10
If the Cherokee Trailhawk surprises you with how smooth and comfortable its on-road manners are, wait until you take it off the beaten path. It may look like your average pavement-pounder, but it can off-road alongside most of the best. It wears Jeep’s “Trail-Rated” badge, and while the company – rather annoyingly – will not divulge exactly what standards a vehicle has to meet to get one, they’re obviously tough enough based on the Trailhawk’s performance.
I’ve driven the Trailhawk on some very challenging courses, including mud, snow, and rocks, and got through them all. And then, on pavement, you get responsive handling, smooth performance around curves with a minimum of body roll, and good brake feel. It’ll do most of what the Wrangler can handle, but while that model is rough and noisy on-road, and you’re always correcting the steering, the Cherokee Trailhawk is also an everyday commuter sport-ute that’s as laidback as any.
Fuel Economy: 8/10
With the largest of the Cherokee’s engines, and its full-time four-wheel drive system, the Trailhawk racks up the highest numbers in the lineup, at 12.9 L/100 in the city, 9.7 on the highway, and a combined 11.5 L/100 km overall. In my week with it, my combined driving matched the city numbers, and I got 12.9 L/100 km.
Those Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) numbers are among the highest in the segment, but it’s also difficult to compare it head-to-head in the marketplace. Most of its midsize all-wheel-drive competitors have four-cylinder engines, and they don’t have the Trailhawk’s heavier-duty – and just plain heavier – four-wheel drive system. As they say, if you wanna play, you gotta pay.
This Jeep ain’t cheap. You’re paying for that off-road goodness, and likely a few bucks tacked on for the name’s reputation. But you’re also getting far more capability in the Trailhawk than the majority of its competitors hand over.
My Trailhawk Elite started at $41,795 before its various options were added. You can certainly get into other off-road-inspired all-wheel-drive SUVs for less, such as Subaru’s Outback or Honda’s Passport, but for a real off-roader, the choices are limited and pricing is in the same general ballpark. Toyota’s RAV4 Trail TRD Off-Road is $42,910, while Ford’s Bronco Sport Badlands is $40,199.
The Cherokee Trailhawk impressed me for all the right reasons – its engine, its ride and performance, its comfort and practicality – and then threw in “You wanna go off-road? Well, hang on tight!” on top of it. If you want to hit the heavier trails, but you want on-road comfort and you’re not ready to commit to a Wrangler, this might well be your ride.
A very capable weekday and weekend warrior 2/17/2021 6:30:00 AM 2/17/2021 6:30:00 AM