Cherokee may not show Jeep DNA until you get it stuck

Sometimes it’s best to bring a shovel on a test drive.

It’s unnecessary ballast when driving a new Honda, but a good idea when trying out the reanimated Jeep Cherokee. The 2014 Trailhawk model reads “Trail Rated” on the fender, pretty much a dare to a certain section of the populace, myself included. As if issuing the challenge, “Are we doing this, or what?”

Yes, we are.

That’s why I placed a towrope, a long-handled shovel and a hatchet in the back of my Cherokee Trailhawk 4×4, which has a starting price of $29,495, and $36,120 as tested. I was going to drive the SUV around the snow-covered roads of rural Pennsylvania until I found out just how “Jeep-y” this Jeep proved to be. Getting stuck was part of the plan.

I wouldn’t treat most vehicles this way, but Jeep products have a genuine legacy to live up to. “Since 1941”³ is stamped right on the bottom of the steering wheel. From World War II onward, Jeep, now part of Fiat SpA’s Chrysler Group, has produced America’s rough-and-tumble standards.

The original 1970s-era Cherokee was the forebear of sport- utility vehicles. It looked like a burly wagon, though with hardy internals for serious off-roading. The later models introduced in the 1980s were rugged, but drove more kindly on asphalt. You still see them in places like southern Colorado, often bearing KC roof lights and knobby, oversized tires.

The more family-friendly Grand Cherokee was released in the early 1990s. By the 2000s the base Cherokee nameplate was replaced by the rather sad Jeep Liberty.

So the announcement last year that the Cherokee would be returning was met with enthusiasm — right until fans got a look at it and universally decided they loathed the front end.

The faux vertical grille slots on the sharp-edged nose don’t bother me so much. It’s the side profile I dislike. Traditional Jeep design elements like the squared-off wheel arches feel forced on the slick, carlike profile.

In fact, the silhouette of the Cherokee reminds me too much of the front-wheel-drive Dodge Dart, which shares the same platform. (Other elements, including the on-road ride, remind me of the Dart, too, and that’s not a compliment.)

The base Cherokee has a 2.4-liter four-banger, a 184- horsepower engine that, frankly, seems dreadful. Just too little power, particularly when combined with four-wheel drive. The 3.2-liter V-6 on my test vehicle had a more acceptable 271 horsepower. It had a nine-speed transmission and, while no barnstormer, ample pep to get up hills.

I liked the Cherokee least on the freeway. The week before I’d driven a General Motors Co. GMC Sierra Denali full-size pickup on a section of fast, sinuous highway and had commented on how smooth and stable it felt. In comparison, the Cherokee’s shorter wheelbase and relatively high center of gravity left it skittish and less composed, particularly on its chunky all- terrain tires.

Still, it’s the off-road components that make it a genuine Jeep. You could opt for the front-wheel drive only, but in that case a Honda or Hyundai crossover is a better choice.

The Trailhawk model has a heightened suspension and a system for selecting specific terrains such as snow, rock, mud and sand. More essentially, it has gearing for low range and a locking mechanical rear differential, hard-core 4×4 gear you won’t find on another light off-roader, Tata Motors’ Land Rover Evoque.

After this winter’s extreme temperatures, the roads in eastern Pennsylvania were pitted and warbled, and while the Cherokee’s interior clanked and shimmied, the suspension handled bumps with a good degree of confidence.

I turned off the asphalt onto a logging road, still covered in snow. The only other interlopers had been outdoorsmen on personal ATVs who had plowed narrow tracks through the crunchy crust. I placed the Cherokee’s Active Drive II system into snow mode and headed up a steep hill. The tires never slipped.

So I headed deeper into the woods, and deeper snow. Tires scrabbled to maintain traction as they broke through virgin snow. It was imperative that I keep moving. As the Cherokee wiggled down the road, I averted my eyes from a steep slope on one side. Going that way would be worse than being stuck.

Going down on a hill on a section of crowned road, I found the truck crabbing too far to the edge, into deep snow. My rear tires spun and I relaxed off the gas. Bad move. I was stuck.

I got out to assess the situation. The Jeep was leaning toward the driver’s side, the front left wheel sunk up to the axle. I reversed and then nudged forward. No luck.

Out came the shovel and the vehicle’s floor mats, which I shoved behind the tires for added traction. I dug around the tires and reversed, gaining some ground. So it went for 20 or so minutes.

Was I worried? Well, there was a ranger station a few miles up the road. But I didn’t want to bother them, especially as this was the trouble I’d been looking for. And I was feeling pretty confident in the Jeep’s timeworn 4×4 systems.

I packed down enough snow that I could reverse back up the hill some dozen feet, and then made a run back onto the center of the road. Success.

There may be no mistaking the Cherokee for a hard-core off-roader like its cousin, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. But it’s still Jeep enough to get you into plenty of trouble.

— The 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4×4 at a glance

Engine: 3.2-liter V-6 with 271 horsepower.

Transmission: Nine-speed automatic.

Gas mileage per gallon: 18 city, 25 highway.

Price as tested: $36,120.

Best feature: Jeep enough to have fun in the outdoors.

Worst feature: Jeep enough to ride a little rough on the highway.