The fairly small Jeep Cherokee is overlooked by some because many buyers do cartwheels over newer, small sport/utility vehicles such as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.
The $15,440-$21,995 Cherokee also battles slightly larger, heavier rivals like the Chevrolet Blazer. But the Cherokee is bigger and roomier than the RAV4. And some Cherokee models cost much less than the CR-V and Blazer.
Chrysler Corp. says its 1998 Cherokee has ``classic'' styling. After all, it was introduced as a 1994 model in late 1993, when it helped launch the sport/utility boom.
The 1994 Cherokee had little competition and was alluring because it offered four doors and a handy size for driving in congested areas. At the time, General Motors and Ford didn't offer a reasonably sized four-door sport/ute.
The Cherokee's no-nonsense design has been updated to make it sufficiently competitive with the newer small Japanese sport/utes. For instance, the 1997 Jeep was given minor styling revisions for a more rounded appearance, and a new interior with dual air bags, improved climate controls, added sound insulation and a tight, almost European feel.
To help fight the new, smaller Japanese sport/utes, the 1997 Cherokee also was blessed with new manufacturing processes that resulted in better quality and fit-and-finish improvements. The Cherokee feels anvil-solid.
As for the 1998 models, one almost can't tell the players without a scorecard. For instance, the Cherokee gets new high-line Classic and Limited models, although the Limited really is a Classic with a special option package that contains items such as leather seats.
The Limited replaces last year's Country model, while the entry-level SE and mid-range Sport models return. Only the SE and Sport offer a two-door body style, besides the four-door setup.
The 125-horsepower four-cylinder SE model is offered with an automatic transmission, whereas it only came with the Cherokee's five-speed manual transmission last year. But it's an old-fashioned three-speed automatic and slows acceleration to substandard level when hooked to the four-cylinder, which provides marginal acceleration even with the manual.
Other Cherokees get a four-speed automatic, which is optional for the SE and Sport and standard in the Classic and Limited.
Most Cherokee buyers opt for Jeep's stout 4-liter, 190-horsepower in-line (not V-shaped) six-cylinder, which produces good torque but offers fairly lazy acceleration above 70 m.p.h. It works well with the standard five-speed manual or a modern, slick-shifting four-speed automatic transmission. The six is optional for the SE but standard in other Cherokees.
Fuel economy isn't very good, although the base Cherokee weighs only 2,979 pounds and the heaviest four-wheel-drive model is a fairly light 3,354 pounds. Figure on about 16 m.p.g. in the city and 21 on highways with the six-cylinder/automatic combo and in the high teens and about 23 m.p.g. on highways with the four-cylinder/manual setup.
The RAV4 and CR-V deliver a few more miles per gallon in the city and on the open road. But the CR-V only has 126 horsepower and the RAV4 just has 127. And neither can match the Cherokee's six-cylinder acceleration.
Cherokees have either rear- or four-wheel drive. The four-wheel-drive systems are Jeep's proven Command-Trac part-time system or Selec-Trac full-time system.
Both systems help the Cherokee be a good off-road performer and can be shifted on the fly in or out of four-wheel drive, but Command-Trac is only for poor-traction surfaces.
The attractive Cherokee interior is quiet with the six-cylinder.
Four 6-footers fit, but have little room to spare in the quiet interior. Getting in and out of even the four-door model calls for above-average effort because the Cherokee stands high and has narrow lower doorways located near wheel wells that can dirty clothes.
A large, wide tailgate makes it easy to load a Cherokee. Cargo space is decent, although a spare tire eats into it. The rear seat easily folds forward to allow considerably more cargo room.
The power steering is quick, and handling is especially sharp with the optional Up Country package, which has heavy duty springs with gas-charged shock absorbers.
A short 101.4-inch wheelbase and stiff suspension result in good handling. But the ride is firm and gets firmer and occasionally jittery with the Up Country package. Braking is fine, with an easily modulated pedal.
In all, the Cherokee is one of the nicer lower-cost sport/utes.