Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is at a crossroads. Led by the outsized sales growth of everything branded Jeep, plus the current market splurge on pickup trucks (including FCA’s Ram brand) the former Chrysler Corp. seemingly has its automotive future invested solely in trucks.
The data cements that impression, as FCA car sales are wanting — compact Dart sales are rapidly retracting, the midsize 200 sedan’s sales have fallen by half, while no hybrids or otherwise new products are in the pipeline. Fiat sales in America have been a disaster, far underperforming expectations, and minivan sales have fallen in the segment that Chrysler used to dominate. No wonder FCA boss Sergio Marchionne is looking for an automotive partner.
Thank goodness for Jeep. With plans for a new Wrangler evolving — including revamping assembly plants in Toledo and, finally, bringing the Wrangler pickup to market next year — Jeep is a huge bright spot/cash cow at FCA. This week’s Cherokee, the compact class crossover entrant meant to replace the Patriot and Compass, is now the brand’s top-selling vehicle. Slipping past both the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee, the Cherokee has polished some early burrs, fixed the transmission glitches that initially plagued the new nine-speed automatic, while ramping up production to meet consumer demand as the infatuation for all things crossover proceeds unabated.
Arriving on the heels of last week’s RAV4 Hybrid, the Cherokee made a decidedly different statement during its eight-day visit. Quieter on the road, more comfortable to use, and certainly with more power and towing ability, the Jeep takes a unique position in the compact crossover class.
Turbo power is sweeping into this segment as manufacturers move away from V-6 power. The Jeep takes an alternative tack. Like the GM twins Equinox and Terrain, Cherokee offers a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine for standard power, with a 3.2-liter V-6 a 271-hp option — 87 hp more than stock. This power, found in our Latitude-trimmed tester, provides ample enthusiasm for acceleration plus the capability of 4,500 pounds of towing — more than double many contemporaries in this segment.
Four-X-four versions of the Cherokee also feature multi-mode four-wheel drive (automatic setting, plus snow, sport, and mud) as well as a lockable 4WD low selection. None of the Cherokee’s rivals comes close to this off-road arrangement.
The trade-off is weight. The Cherokee is 600 pounds heavier than a RAV4 and 800 pounds heavier than a Subaru Forester, a rival the same size externally. EPA estimates with the V-6 engine reflect this extra poundage, giving the Cherokee fuel economy estimates of 19/26/22 mpg. Our menacing looking Latitude, with Granite Metallic paint and blacked-out 18-inch gloss wheels and trim, returned a consistent 24 mpg for our 600-plus miles together.
The Jeep’s monochromatic interior color scheme lacks the visual contrast of some rivals, yet the instruments, controls, and switches are simple affairs that do not require a half-day with the owner’s manual to utilize. The U-connect screen and associated apps remains a crowd favorite no matter what demographic you slide into, while the Cherokee’s heated cloth seats are absolute bun-burners and take the morning chill off quickly.
Our Latitude also featured FCA’s stop/start programming to help fuel efficiency in city driving. Noble intent, better integration into daily use, but still a technology not smooth enough to consider spending extra for. If included in the base price (it is with the nine-speed), fine, but I can’t see ordering as an option — the payback would seem difficult to recover.
The Cherokee provided a quiet ride and respectable handling; I did not find the chassis lacking. The rear seating is comfortable and easy to access, plus the combination of proper ergonomics, supportive seats, and efficient controls make the pilot’s chair a nice place to spend time on the road.
Front-drive Cherokees start at under $24,000. Our Cherokee Latitude started at $27,195 (with V-6 and Active Drive II 4WD) before added features pushed the sticker price to $33,660. That is less than our recent RAV4 Hybrid, but the Cherokee lacked a sunroof, power liftgate, leather-like upholstery, dynamic cruise, and push-button ignition and access — all components found on that Toyota. Conversely, the Jeep can tow more, run faster and offer 4WD abilities that the RAV4 can only dream about.
If Jeep can continue to carry FCA, perhaps the corporation can find its way to stronger ground — and better cars. However, if the market turns, or if cheap gasoline goes away soon, FCA will be in a precarious spot, again. A spot that not even robust Jeep sales can save the company from.
Next week: Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Limited