Winnipeg Free Press

A trip down memory lane

by Willy Williamson . Aug 02 2019
With so much going for it, the 2019 Jeep Cherokee may finally be good enough for the model to regain some of its former glory. (Supplied photo)

With so much going for it, the 2019 Jeep Cherokee may finally be good enough for the model to regain some of its former glory. (Supplied photo)

When the Jeep Cherokee returned in 2014, my initial thought was: “That ain’t my daddy’s Jeep.”

Back in the day, my stepfather, Jim Ketcheson — or Ketch, as we call him — bought himself a shiny new Jeep Cherokee and gave me his battered but beautiful Jeep Comanche pickup. For a young guy with a love of the great outdoors, that Comanche was like a gift from the gods and forged my longtime love affair with the Jeep brand — but that’s another story.

Today, we will remember Ketch’s 1994 Jeep Cherokee — and all the reasons why the new 2019 Jeep Cherokee is about 999 times better than that tank.

Now don’t get me wrong. Back then, we really, really liked that Cherokee and have many fond memories and a couple of funny stories where it plays a central role.

The clearest memory was when my brother Allen and his wife, Jenny (both RCMP officers posted in Alberta at the time), were married in Banff. My mother, Belle, Ketch and my wife, Melanie, and I loaded up that nearly new Cherokee and made a memorable trek to the mountains.

I was about 26 at the time and did most of the driving, and it is one of those great family road trip memories that always brings a smile to my face. It was a thrill to pretend the shiny Cherokee Country edition was mine when we wheeled up to the posh Banff Springs Hotel.

Back then, SUVs were certainly gaining popularity, but weren’t anywhere near as common as they are nowadays, so the local hikers and mountain bikers gave the Jeep nods of approval and offered to share their granola with us. Street cred means a lot when you’re 26.

Here’s the rub, though. As much as Ketch loved that Jeep and drove it for quite a few years, the reality is it was a bit of a lemon. Within a few years, it started to rust, and the suspension was bagged out, too, — not due to off-road adventures, but mainly Winnipeg potholes. It ate brake pads for breakfast, was always out of alignment and I’m pretty sure the radio quit working about three days after the warranty expired.

The beginning of the end occurred when some creep stole it, drove the hell out of it and dumped it on the edge of town. Unfortunately, he didn’t fully kill it and Ketch got it back. It was never the same, though, and the repair bills really started racking up.

Finally, around 2005, when it had about 150,000 km on the clock, Ketch had enough and tried to trade it in. It was so rusty, no dealer wanted it, so it wound up in our rural backyard, where it rusted away for a few more years before some local kid bought it for a few hundred bucks, got it running again, removed the doors and surely killed it once and for all in a nearby gravel pit.

Now before you old Jeep enthusiasts gang up on me here and sing the praises of the long lost Jeep XJ Cherokee, a vehicle with production numbers that reached about three million between 1984 and 2001, ask yourself: how many do you see on the road (or the trail) nowadays that haven’t been considerably restored or modified? Not too many, I’m betting.

That’s because despite their immense popularity, the reality is that in stock form, they just weren’t all that great. Even the Chevrolet Blazer and GMC Jimmy twins from that era were more comfortable and more reliable. And don’t even get me started on how superior a Toyota 4Runner or Nissan Pathfinder from back then was.

Sure, the Cherokee looked the part, and they were great in winter and fairly capable off-road, but they were pigs on fuel, prone to rust and overall, a chore to drive and maintain.

Big thanks for time travelling with me, but before we hit the present day, let’s stop briefly in 2014. For me, initially, it was a bit of a head-scratcher why the then-newly minted Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) would even bother to resurrect the Cherokee name. But the truth is, our sentimental memories have a way of forgetting the small details like the time the old Cherokee overheated 17 times on the family vacation. Instead, we remember the good times. So with that in mind, it’s a sure bet there are more than a few 40-something owners of a 2014 or newer Cherokee — which is now called the KL — whose parents owned a Cherokee back in the day, due in many cases to an undeniable fact: sentiment sells.

The new Cherokee was the first Jeep vehicle to use Fiat’s Compact U.S. Wide platform and is built at the Belvidere Assembly Plant in Belvidere, Ill.

With its squinted headlights and sleek proportions, the new 2014 Cherokee was an exciting design, and initially, sales were strong. But again, a fair number of these vehicles were plagued with mechanical demons, including a widespread transmission issue and reports the vehicle’s software could be hacked and vital controls could be operated remotely, which is awesomely terrifying.

By most accounts, FCA has gone to great lengths to remedy these issues, and if first impressions are any indication, this new 2019 Cherokee may finally be good enough to regain the popularity and sales numbers the Cherokee name once enjoyed.

Sure, it may not be as ruggedly handsome as an old XJ model, but rest assured, the new Cherokee is still a Cherokee — and a much-improved one at that.

With a new exterior design and a fresh-looking appearance that opts for a more traditional-looking front end and headlamps than the somewhat polarizing previous version, the new Cherokee is now more consistent with a classic Jeep design.

SUVs, especially mid-size models, are so wildly popular now, it’s tough to stand out from the crowd, but Jeep has managed this with a wide and commanding stance and an aggressive wheel-to-body proportion. The new front Bi-LED projector headlamps not only look great, they turn night into day on a dark country road.

The driver-oriented cockpit is also loaded with easy-to-use and useful technology. The infotainment system now features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and both are offered as standard equipment, along with a new seven-inch touchscreen — higher-end models offer an 8.4-inch touchscreen. I’m an iPhone user, and the Apple CarPlay found in the new Cherokee is a blessing. It is easy to use and communicated perfectly with my phone. The latest Uconnect system, which includes enhanced processing power, faster startup times and touchscreens that display high-resolution graphics, is simply a joy to operate.

The seats are among the most comfortable I’ve ever experienced, the sound system is crystal clear, the controls are simple to use and with more than 80 available safety and security features — including eight standard air bags — this is definitely a modern machine. Rear cargo capacity has also been increased over three inches in width and now totals more than 27 cubic feet.

Three engines are now available. The standard four-cylinder engine and optional V-6 are joined by an all-new turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder that makes 270 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. Some other testers have complained about throttle response in this new turbo engine, but I had a blast driving it. The nine-speed automatic transmission has also been revised and is so much nicer to operate than a continuously variable transmission.

The turbo-powered Cherokee can be easy-tempered around town, but mash the pedal to pass on the highway and it roars like a motorcycle on steroids.

According to FCA, direct injection, coupled with turbocharging, enables more efficient combustion, reduced emissions and increased performance. The 2.0-litre I-4 engine’s fuel pump supplies the engine’s 2,900-psi high-pressure common-rail injection system. These high pressures produce better fuel atomization and allow for more precise fuel delivery than port fuel-injected systems, which in turn improves both performance and efficiency.

You do lose some towing capacity with the new turbo four-cylinder, though, which is capable of towing 4,000 pounds, versus the Pentastar V-6 Cherokee’s towing capacity of 4,500 pounds.

Although I’ve yet to test the 2.4-litre PZEV MultiAir2 Tigershark I-4 engine, which is standard in the new Cherokee and produces 180 horsepower and 170 lb.-ft. of torque, I’m going to bet it isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as the new turbo engine, or as stout as the tried and tested Pentastar V-6.

A front independent suspension with MacPherson struts and a rear independent multi-link suspension absorb on- and off-road obstacles and really softened the notoriously mean streets of Winnipeg.

At low speeds, the electronic power steering is light and easy, which makes it a breeze to park. That steering gets progressively firmer as you speed up, and it feels solid and planted at highway speeds.

The 2019 Jeep Cherokee highlights a choice of three innovative 4x4 systems that have been enhanced for 4x4 capability for all weather conditions and off-road requirements. You can even opt for a locking rear differential, which is a clear indication Jeep continues to relish its off-road roots. All 4x4 systems feature the Jeep’s renowned Selec-Terrain traction-control system, which allows you to choose the right setting for optimum performance: Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud and Rock.

After a week behind the wheel of the new Jeep Cherokee, it was painful to give it back. It is a pleasure to drive, has a nice offering of creature comforts and looks undeniably like a Jeep. I really liked it and have a new-found respect for what FCA is doing with the legendary brand that has been so much a part of my life.

It might take a while before Ketch trades in his Subaru Crosstrek for another Cherokee though.

(Supplied photo)

(Supplied photo)

With a new exterior design and a fresh-looking appearance that opts for a more traditional-looking front end and headlamps, the new Cherokee is now more consistent with a classic Jeep design. (Supplied photo)

With a new exterior design and a fresh-looking appearance that opts for a more traditional-looking front end and headlamps, the new Cherokee is now more consistent with a classic Jeep design. (Supplied photo)