The revamped Jeep Cherokee offers the enviable one-two punch of practicality and driving fun.
The Cherokee helped launch the sport/utility craze when it debuted in late 1983--further giving the Jeep name incredibly high equity in the sport/ute market.
Here was the first compact sport/ute with the convenience of four doors and a size that made it manageable to drive in urban environments. Finally, the average person could get an affordable, user-friendly sport/utility.
The always-popular Cherokee has sorely needed updating for years, so Chrysler Corp. spent $215 million--a modest sum in the car business--to improve the 1997 model.
While it looks much like the 1996 Cherokee, the new $15,300-$23,420 version has a more rounded appearance, new interior with better climate controls, more sound insulation and a tighter feel.
Importantly, the Cherokee benefits from new manufacturing process changes that result in higher quality and fit-and-finish improvements.
Most would want this vehicle with the 4-liter, 190-horsepower six-cylinder because the 2.5-liter, 125-horsepower four-cylinder lacks the juice to give good performance.
The ``six'' is not a V-6, but rather an in-line unit--with cylinders all in a row. Tall and narrow, it looks like a classic car engine. But the fairly quiet motor provides good performance up to 70 m.p.h. Above that, acceleration slows noticeably--although 75 m.p.h. cruising is no problem.
Expect to get about 15 m.p.g. in the city and 20 to 21 on highways with the popular six-cylinder/automatic transmission combination and four-wheel drive.
The automatic upshifts nicely and downshifts crisply.
The quiet interior easily handles four 6-footers--or five in a pinch--unless a tall driver shoves his seat back; then, a tall person behind him will find leg room has become tight.
Also, narrow rear door openings make it difficult to get in or out of the back seat.
The Cherokee, which continues to be a superb off-road vehicle when equipped with Jeep's excellent four-wheel drive, stands high for good ground clearance during off-road motoring.
So don't let its compact size fool you into thinking you can slide into it as if it were a car; the Cherokee is nearly as high as the larger Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The modern dashboard offers easily read gauges and smooth-working, conveniently located climate controls. And all four side windows roll all the way down.
The cargo floor is easily reached by the wide, user-friendly tailgate. But that floor is rather high and has a spare tire that eats into room. However, cargo space can be enlarged considerably by folding the rear seat forward.
Handling is good, especially with the optional ($750) Up Country Suspension package that has special shock absorbers.
But the precise power steering is a bit too light at highway speeds, and the brake pedal should offer a more reassuring feel.
The Cherokee has a short 101.4-inch wheelbase and stiff suspension, so it rides just like what it is--a truck.
Still, the ride is decent most of the time--at least for front-seat passengers. Those in the back sit almost squarely over the rear axle, so they feel bumps more than occupants up front.
Options can cause a Cherokee's base price to soar. The bottom line of my top-line $23,420 Cherokee Country model totaled $27,970 after a $775 ``Jeep Discount''--due to items such as a $1,240 Country Package that included air conditioning, tilt wheel and speed control, $600 anti-lock brakes, $410 sound system and $835 leather upholstery.
Still, the new Cherokee is a significant improvement over its predecessor.