CHELSEA, Mich. -- Our first 4-wheeling drive test of the 2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk sport utility vehicle occurs on a tortuous off-road track for Jeeps at Chrysler's Chelsea Proving Grounds, a vast vehicle test facility near Chelsea, Mich.
The Chelsea off-road courses include all sorts of natural obstacles -- big rocks and deep ruts to overcome, steep inclines to scale, sandy dunes to plow, slippery-rock creeks to ford, and acres of tire-sucking mud to traverse.
Cherokee in the Trailhawk special edition with full-time 4-wheel-drive (4WD) and low range gearing plus Active Drive Lock easily proves itself on the Chelsea tracks as a highly capable rock-crawling and mud-romping trail runner.
The original Cherokee (1984-2000) virtually defined the compact-size SUV.
Jeep revived the Cherokee nameplate in 2014 and applied it to a contemporary front-wheel-drive (FWD) platform for the mid-size segment and added a pair of high-tech engines linking to a knock-out 9-speed automatic transaxle plus a host of electronic vehicle controls and safety systems.
That leads us to the 2015 Cherokee, which morphs into seven trim designations: Sport-FWD, Sport-4WD, Latitude-FWD, Latitude-4WD, Limited-FWD, Limited-4WD, and Trailhawk-4WD.
The '15 Cherokee presents a roly-poly smooth body in familiar 2-box format but corners are contoured with the front aluminum hood scored by lines strafing across the top and a raked windshield tipping rearward to enhance aerodynamic efficiency.
Wheel openings use a Jeep signature trapezoidal design with wheels pinned at corners of the platform and front and rear overhangs crimped to make transitions easy on steep slopes. In back, the liftgate window tips forward while the lower section falls vertically for a squared rump. In front, there's a rearward tilt of the grille using seven slots ringed in chrome and filled by silver egg-crate mesh.
All 2015 Cherokee issues carry independent suspension components including front MacPherson struts with aluminum subframe and aluminum lower control arms plus stabilizer bar, and a rear 4-link with aluminum lateral links, isolated high-strength steel cradle and stabilizer bar.
Cherokee also stocks many active safety systems including a quick-response electric rack and pinion steering system and 4-wheel disc brakes tied to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), electronic brake control (EBC), electronic roll mitigation (ERM) and anti-skid devices via the electronic stability control (ESC) system and all-speed traction control (ASTC) with hill-start assist (HSA) and trailer sway damping (TSD).
Optional safety devices range from ParkSense Parallel/Perpendicular Park Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control-Plus to Forward Collision Warning-Plus, LaneSense Lane Departure Warning-Plus, Blind-spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Path Detection and ParkView rear backup camera.
Jeep's Selec-Terrain traction control system, which applies to 4WD editions, allows a driver to dial in one of four terrain settings (Auto, Sport, Snow, Sand/Mud), then the system tailors the vehicle's traction performance to fit the type of terrain covered through modulation of powertrain response, transmission gear selections, and electronic controls like the ESC and ASTC.
Three new 4WD systems work for Cherokee: Active Drive I, with a single-speed Power Transfer Unit; Active Drive II with a 2-speed PTU and low range, and Active Drive Lock with 2-speed PTU plus low range and a locking rear differential.
For all trim editions, the standard engine is a 2.4-liter 4-in-line Tigershark MultiAir2 plant with single overhead cam (SOHC). It generates 184 hp at 6400 rpm with 171 lb-ft of torque at 4600 rpm and links to the electronically controlled 9-speed automatic transaxle.
This powertrain earns Cherokee's top fuel-burn numbers -- 22 mpg for city driving and 31 mpg for highway cruising.
Optional power upgrade for all but Sport editions is the Chrysler Pentastar dual overhead cam (DOHC) 3.2-liter aluminum-block V6 with new engine stop-start (ESS) technology and the 9-speed electronic automatic. It delivers 271 hp at 6500 rpm and torque of 239 lb-ft at 4400 rpm yet still earns keen fuel economy numbers -- 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway for FWD and 19/27 mpg city/highway for 4WD.
2015 Jeep Cherokee
Body type: Sport utility vehicle SUV
MPG: 22 city/31 highway
Curb weight: 3,679 lbs to 4,016 lbs
Horsepower: 184 horsepower to 271 horsepower
MSRP: Starting at $22,995
2015 Jeep Cherokee Sport
2015 Jeep Cherokee Latitude 3.2-liter V6
2015 Jeep Cherokee Latitude 2.4-liter
2015 Jeep Cherokee Sport 4WD
2015 Jeep Cherokee Latitude 3.2-liter V6 4WD
2015 Jeep Cherokee Latitude 2.4-liter 4WD
2015 Jeep Cherokee Limited 3.2-liter V6
2015 Jeep Cherokee Limited 2.4-liter
2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 2.4-liter
2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 3.2-liter V6
2015 Jeep Cherokee Limited 2.4-liter 4WD
2015 Jeep Cherokee Limited 3.2-liter V6 4WD