Versatility, power keep Jeep Cherokee on top


Even after a slew of new entries, the Jeep Cherokee remains one of America's favorite sport utility vehicles because it has an almost unbeatable combination of power, refinement, versatility and value.

The Cherokee has dominated the compact sport utility market since it was introduced in 1983. Its styling is pleasing and contemporary. The drivetrain and suspension easily cope with whatever terrain the driver prefers, and the interior is as comfortable as a family sedan; yet it can be configured to haul big payloads.

The Cherokee test vehicle, base price $15,488, sported Jeep's high-output "Power Tech" 4.0-liter, 190-horsepower, straight six engine. Chrysler claims it's the most powerful engine in its class.

I had forgotten how great a design the straight six engine is. Mostly for packaging reasons, the V-6 has replaced the straight six. Only a few manufacturers still build a straight six.

The Jeep engine is smooth and powerful. Even with the automatic, the Cherokee easily could leave a patch of rubber on the pavement. The fuel-injected six cranks out 225 pounds/feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Chrysler says the Cherokee can tow 5,000 pounds.

Cherokee is EPA rated at 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 20 mpg on the highway. I averaged 17 mpg in the city, 22 mpg on the highway, and the air conditioner was on most of the time.

The transmission, a four-speed overdrive unit, is equipped with a switch on the -- that allows a sport or economy shift setting. In either mode, it didn't shift as smoothly as others I have driven, but that may be a function of the Cherokee's four-wheel drive system. There is another shift lever to the left of the gear selector that allows the driver to engage four-wheel drive, which is available with either a high or low ratio.

In low ratio, the Cherokee effortlessly churns its way through rough terrain. The engine revs fairly high, and the vehicle doesn't go very fast, but it pulls tenaciously. In high ratio, one could drive on wet or muddy roads or in snow.

The powerful engine, coupled with the all-wheel drive and the numerous gear ratios available, give the Cherokee impressive versatility.

Chrysler did a nice job with the Cherokee's suspension system. When driven on the road, the vehicle is nearly carlike. The suspension seems rather soft gliding over smooth pavement.

But when you take it off the road, you quickly discover that the suspension system's soft travel is limited. When you drive over a pothole or large dip, the suspension stiffens, but there is minimal bouncing and shaking.

On the road the Cherokee is sure-footed, stable and as easy as a car to maneuver, with one important exception. The turning radius is quite large, making such activities as U-turns and tight moves in parking lots a bit cumbersome. However, the power steering is crisp and the wheel is easy to turn.

The power disc/drum brakes had a heavy-duty feel to them. The pedal required a bit more pressure than an average car, but they stopped the 3,057-pound vehicle easily.

The Laredo package ($5,522) adds 23 items to the Cherokee that make it into a near-luxury vehicle.

The package includes power windows, door locks, antenna, rear window wiper/washer and defroster, a full gauge package, cruise control, special wheels, air conditioning, upgraded stereo, better tires, tilt steering wheel and numerous other items.

With the rear seat folded forward, the Cherokee can swallow a fair amount of cargo, but the full-size spare tire steals some room. Chrysler says the Cherokee has an EPA cargo volume index of 127.4 cubic feet. The interior can accommodate more than 1,100 pounds of cargo.

With Jeep's reputation for toughness and quality, plus the Cherokee's power and comfort, there are few vehicles in its league.

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