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Executive Wheels: The Real Cherokee; The BIG 300

Two fine, distinctive vehicles made by one parent company


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I drive and write about many vehicles throughout the year, and occasionally I get caught up and forget to do a review – as happened with these two. I put them together because they are, surprisingly, offerings from the same company, Chrysler (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, FCA) which, it seems to me, speaks volumes about the company. As in, how could you make these = under the same umbrella? As in, you can pretty much guess that even the smallest Toyota/Lexus comes from the same parentage – and you could say the same about BMW, Honda, VW, Mercedes, even General Motors – but with FCA it’s like they are accidental step-siblings. It’s not that one is bad and the other good – for what they are these are both very fine vehicles. No, it’s that they are totally different, and appeal to a totally different clientele.

I guess you have to go back a couple generations to find out why.

Jeep was born during World War II as a General Purpose (GP – get it?), that became a Willys branded vehicle in the late 1940s, then was sold to Kaiser Motors in the 1950s, and later to American Motors Corp., purchased by Chrysler in 1987. Chrysler, wisely, has kept the core of its Jeep lineup essentially the same over the years: that is, the CJ and the Cherokee, the mainstays, have remained Jeeps and nothing else, while some of the other Jeep variants (the Liberty, Compass) have shared some platforms with other things in the Chrysler and RAM truck lines. While Chrysler had more than its share of financial problems over the years, and has gone through a few owners (Mercedes and now Fiat), the essential Jeeps have maintained profitability throughout.

The Chrysler 300, on the other hand, is pretty much a throw-back. Launched as a concept at the 2003 New York Auto Show, the 300 is a rear-drive (although here an all-wheel-drive version), full-size American sedan that would in reality be recognizable to the average American of the mid-1960s. And to be honest, it is one of the few cars of this ilk still around. There has to be a reason for that.

I’ll look at the Jeep first. The venerable Cherokee debuted in 1974, and has been not just a mainstay in the lineup since, but one of the most iconic vehicles ever to grace the American roads. Some 20 years ago Jeep began growing the vehicle into the Grand Cherokee, and while it remains an icon and a mainstay in the line, I personally believe that the Grand has gotten too big. They kept the Classic Cherokee in the line for a few years, eventually dropping it, but a few years ago they re-introduced the Cherokee – this vehicle – and I think it is just right. Not too big, not too small. It’s a remake of the Classic, and it has become a classic in and of itself.

The Cherokee is handsome – some people very much like the protruding, pointed grille and some people don’t like it (I’m strongly in the “like” category – and Jeep has done something here that the great automakers do: they have made this Cherokee distinctive, while at the same time clearly part of the heritage. Smart.

I drove the Limited 4X4 and it makes no sense to go through all of the amenities. Suffice to say it has all of the modern stuff; all of the high-tech gadgetry, all of the safety stuff (blind spot, cross traffic, etc.), along with some really cool stuff like internal wi-fi.

But here’s a list of what I found, and my thoughts:

  • Very easy to use radio, climate controls, apps, Bluetooth phone; very intuitive, anybody could figure it out on the spot.
  • A handy cubby in the front of the console, along with a cubby in the armrest, both with USB, AUX and power outlets.
  • A huge – I mean HUGE – sunroof, that opens all the way from the front to the back of the rear seat. Cool.
  • Not obnoxious Start/Stop tech. Smooth operating.
  • A very solid, quiet vehicle.
  • Feels bigger than it is, yet is small enough to easily park.
  • All wheel drive with the full Jeep gamut of setting – auto, snow, sport, sand/mud and 4WD low, and hill assist. Jeep is serious about off-roading.
  • Remote start – very nice on a cold morning, if not illegal in Denver given the “no puffer” law.
  • Can turn off the ubiquitous operating screen to do away with distractions, and simply touch it to get it back on.
  • Auto up and down rear lift gate.

This is the old Cherokee, as I said, and for my money better than the Grand Cherokee. I very much liked the power of the 3.2-liter V6 with 271 horsepower – it felt like much more than that. It was quick in town, quicker on the highway, and coupled with the 9-speed auto transmission, just a pleasure to drive.

You can get a Cherokee, with a smaller 2.4-liter engine with 184 hp, starting at $23,695, but the base price on the Limited model I drove was $31,495. They added a ton of optional equipment on the test-drive model, things like all the safety tech (collision warning, park assist, adaptive cruise control, advanced brake assist, lane departure warning), and luxuries (leather seating, power liftgate), the upgraded 9-speed tranny, the upgraded engine, navigation and HD radio; the options, and the $995 destination charge, brought the bottom line to $42,945. That’s a lot, yes, but for all that’s here in this excellent vehicle – and considering I’ve driven much of the competition – I didn’t think it was out of line. I would buy this Jeep Cherokee.

RATING: 4 WHEELS PLUS THE SPARE (OUT OF FOUR)

The Chrysler 300 AWD is another matter. This car, too, was loaded with all of the modern safety and tech conveniences, of course, and it had my very favorite safety feature, all-wheel drive. But as I took notes throughout my week-long test drive, one word stood out again and again: BIG. This is a big, somewhat clunky, throwback American car. It is so reminiscent of my childhood back in Michigan that I really, really wanted to love it and recommend it. But after driving so many cars over the years for review purposes, and having had my hands on all of the competition from America, Europe, Japan and Korea, I just can’t. I can’t imagine it would appeal to many people younger than me, so obviously it probably has a disappearing clientele, to be honest, and I just felt like I didn’t see myself behind the wheel of this thing day in and day out. Not a bad car – in fact, it felt very well made – but rather just not my style, and I couldn’t imagine it would be the style of anyone I know.

Here are some of my notable notes:

  • Rear view camera on the dash in reverse and it stayed on an inordinate amount of time after you switch to “Drive.”
  • Dial-up-a-gear transmission with a big knob on the console: not a fan.
  • HUGE, four-body trunk. Or you could take a foursome golfing.
  • The front looks like a Bentley, which is probably no accident.
  • Very – very! – roomy, front seats and back. Plenty of leg room.
  • Nice dash and gauges. Beautiful, pleasant blue color.
  • Comfy.
  • Both a digital and analog clock, side by side; weird.
  • Great radio/sound system. Easy to use.
  • Climate control in the dash has temp and fan controls, as well as front and rear defroster, but you have to go the “Climate” in the screen to set the direction. Odd.
  • Navigation map is nice; clear and uncluttered.
  • Ginormous – HUGE – panoramic sunroof. Opens for air in the front and has glass all the way through rear seating. 
  • Logoed BeatsAudio premium sound system with 10 speakers, a subwoofer and a 522-watt amplifier. It has great sound and can get loud.

The engine here is a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, featuring some 300 horsepower (thus the name, I guess), and it is coupled with an 8-speed automatic transmission that runs very smooth. Of course, with a car with this much horsepower, there is little surging when accelerating, so this helps; it doesn’t need dynamic downshifts to pass on the highway. Handling, however, is somewhat clunky in that the car is so big. It’s not nimble. Having said that, though, the ride is smooth and comfortable, and this would be a great car on a road trip. With an EPA mileage rating of 18 mpg city/27 mpg highway/21 mpg combined, I must add that for a car of this size, room and power, it is fairly economical.

The base price on this 300S AWD model is $38,175 – pretty much what you’d expect from a near-luxury large sedan in today’s market. Here, though, they added on about $9,000 in options and another $1,095 in destination charges, for a bottom line of $48,145. The notable options included 19” wheels, adaptive Bi-xenon headlights, parking assist, blind spot monitoring, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, auto high beams, a panoramic sunroof, and very nice navigation. I like most of those things, but it all struck me as expensive.

For 48 grand there are other cars out there with all of this stuff that I would rather have, even if the big size wasn’t also an issue. But the size is an issue. The 300S is just too retro.

RATING: TWO-AND-A-HALF WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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