The Jeep Cherokee KL is one of the most polarizing, angry alligator looking mean mugging SUVs on the market today.
And, surprisingly, it’s also among the most capable in its class.
I was pretty excited to get behind the wheel of the controversial little Jeep. When the KL first hit the market in late 2013, the return of the Cherokee name to the Jeep line-up turned heads and sparked controversy.
Its predecessor the Cherokee XJ had become infamous in the off-road community, as a cheap go anywhere do anything family hauler that could, with a few modifications, go toe-to-toe with the more capable, but then more cramped Wrangler.
The XJ has garnered a cult following for good reason and it remains one of the most popular Jeeps on the market today.
The new Cherokee KL, however, shares little to nothing in common with its namesake and for a lot of people that was a big problem.
Sure, the KL isn’t the rugged off-roader the XJ was, but I don’t think that was the point.
The XJ’s capability off-road was more of a byproduct of its design than its purpose. Solid axles were better off-road and cheaper than independent suspension.
If you think about it, the Cherokee’s target demographic hasn’t changed all that much. It was a midsize SUV for the masses.
There is no arguing the new Cherokee can’t hold a candle to the XJ’s legacy off-road. Jalopnik proved this when they pit the two against each other in an off-road obstacle course.
With that out of the way, I’ll get on to my first impressions.
The Cherokee certainly has a mug only a mother could love.
Say what you will about the Cherokee’s aggressive styling — it certainly has a face only a mother could love — but it brings with it a bit of flair to a somewhat tired midsize SUV segment.
The funny thing is, while I certainly wouldn’t call it good looking, it’s growing on me.
It’s obvious why Jeep went with such an aggressive front end. With all the crossovers flooding the market, Jeep had to do something to stand out. What better way than make it look like an alligator, or is it a crocodile or maybe a weasel? Whatever you think it looks like, it’s weird, it’s quirky, it stands out and that’s a good thing.
From the side, the Cherokee could, to the untrained eye, be confused for a Toyota RAV4 and from the rear a Kia.
There just isn’t much else to differentiate the vehicle from any of the dozen other midsize crossovers on the market today. I applaud Jeep for taking such a risk, especially with the Cherokee name.
The Cherokee Latitude I tested featured a set rather unimpressive Continental ProContact TX tires.
A big argument against the new Cherokee was the move to fully independent suspension. Cherokees of old featured solid live axles that flexed and articulated to keep tires where they belonged. This made the XJs formidable off-roaders, but it meant ride comfort suffered.
I’m convinced that, had it been cost effective, the XJ would have had an independent front end.
It’s easy to pick on the KL because of its name, but when you start to look at its competition, things start to fall into perspective.
Even the most basic four-wheel drive equipped Cherokee is just as capable off-road as just about every other crossover on the market today.
When you factor in the Cherokee can be had with one of three drivetrains, including two with low-range gearing and one with a locker, this thing really stands out.
Sitting at 7.9-inches off the ground, the Cherokee Latitude sits in the middle of the pack for ground clearance, just behind the Subaru Forester with 8.7-inches of clearance and well ahead of the Rav4 with 6.3-inches.
Short of some Landrovers, I have no problem saying the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is among the most capable crossovers on the market today. Sorry, the roof basket is not included, but totally badass. Photo credit: Dan Carlson
The Cherokee gains more than 3/4-inch of clearance on with the Trailhawk and Overland trims. This puts it on par with the Subaru Forester at just under 9-inches of ground clearance. In addition to added ground clearance, the Overland and Trailhawk trims feature a more aggressive front bumper complete with stylish red recover hooks, underbody protection, and a more advanced four-wheel-drive system.
The Cherokee is available with either 17 or 18-inch alloy rims. The Latitude we tested had a set of attractive bronze painted 18-inch rims wrapped in Continental Procontact TX tires.
I’m not a big fan of big painted rims on 4x4s because they’re prone to scratching on the trail, but I really like the look of the bronze.
Jeep’s choice of tires reflects the Latitude’s target audience. The Continental Procontact tires are hardly what I’d call aggressive. In the snow, they made the case for a second set of snow tires, but I’m willing to forgive that when the top spec Trailhawk can be had with a set of grippy Firestone Destination all-terrains.
My advice, if you’re considering a lesser specced Cherokee, find a better set of treds.
Off-roading for dummies
One of my favorite features was the Jeep’s Selec-Terrain system that made driving in adverse conditions a no-brainer for anyone. More advanced models add hill-decent control,low-range and a rock mode.
Making up for the lackluster tires in a big way was the Cherokee’s traction control system, which for the most part kept the Jeep tracking straight and true.
Unlike a traditional 4×4, the Cherokee doesn’t have a manual lever or even a button to engage four-wheel drive. Instead, the vehicle dynamically proportions power front to rear.
A small dial located next to the shifter allows the driver to select different driving modes, which proportion power differently depending on the situation or desired experience.
In automatic, the Jeep behaves just like most AWD crossovers. Power is sent to the front wheels until slip is detected and power is split front to rear.
However, unlike other crossovers, in the Cherokee, you can override the computer and split the torque 50/50 for snowy or icy conditions or send more power to the rear end for a sportier ride.
All 4×4 equipped Cherokees feature an automatic, snow, sport and mud and rock mode, but higher end models get low range and hill descent control.
Unfortunately, during my short time with the Cherokee KL, I never had an opportunity to take it off-road, not that I would have in a loaner vehicle.
The Cherokee Latitude I tested had a cramped engine bay with a transversely mounted 3.2 liter Pentastar V6 tucked under the hood.
All bark and no bite definitely isn’t how I would describe the Cherokee when it comes to performance. Putting power to the wheels is a transversely mounted 3.2 liter naturally aspirated V6 Pentastar putting out 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm.
If this engine sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Its bigger brother, the 3.6 liter Pentastar, is Chrysler’s bread and butter V6.
This makes the Cherokee far from the pokiest small SUV on the market today. Sure there are plenty more powerful luxury models out there, but in a segment dominated by high-strung four-bangers, it’s nice to see a peppy, naturally aspirated V6 in the ranking.
The downside to more cylinders and a lack of turbos means the V6 equipped Cherokee doesn’t score highly in fuel efficiency.
Its 20MPG city and 27MPG highway ratings felt more like wishful thinking during my daily assignments. In town, the Cherokee settled in at a reasonable 19MPG, a fair improvement over my Wrangler’s 16MPG rating. On the highway, I never managed to get close to 27MPG. At best, I only ever managed to get 23MPG during straight highway driving.
Tucked under the baby Pentastar is Chrysler’s notoriously bad 9-speed transmission.
At higher speeds, you’d be hard pressed to find fault with the transmission. It’s got plenty of gears and it shifts quickly and cleanly. The same can’t be said of city driving. At lower speeds, the transmission can be infuriating.
Making things worse in the city is the Jeep’s automated stop-start feature, which is designed to save gas. More often than not, it makes taking off from a stoplight an even clunkier experience. It might save fuel at the expense of your sanity. I say, leave it turned off.
If you’re considering a Jeep Cherokee KL, be sure to take it for an extended test drive before committing.
When it comes to judging interiors, I’m not the one to ask. Either I like it or I don’t. I might think it’s plain or luxurious, but that’s about it.
That being said, the Cherokee’s interior is a nice place to be. Even on the relatively basic Latitude trim that I tested, there was a surprising number of premium features: heated seats and steering wheel, sunroof, 8-inch infotainment center and stitched leather galore.
To tell the truth, the Cherokee betray’s Fiat’s influence, in a really really good way. Jeep interiors have been stark, utilitarian affairs filled with hard plastics for far too long.
Everything about the Cherokee’s interior screams premium. When you consider that this isn’t even one of the more luxurious Limited or Overland trims, it’s a real value.
I was particularly impressed by Jeep’s clutter-free infotainment center, which perfectly balanced physical controls with a great big 8-inch display.
Speaking of the touch screen, the interface was intuitive and easy to use. Everything was right where I’d expect it and, for most tasks, I didn’t have to dig through endless menus.
My short time with the Cherokee KL completely changed my opinion of this vehicle. It still isn’t my favorite Jeep, but there is no denying its capability, comfort and grisly looks. It may not be the same rugged, off-road family hauler the Cherokee XJ once was, but it certainly holds a place in today’s Jeep lineup.
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