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OFF-ROAD RUNNER: Restyled 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk excels in the boonies but high price, mediocre fuel economy raise a value issue

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Restyled for 2019, Jeep’s compact Cherokee SUV sports a handsome, more mainstream but rather clichéd look, bringing it more in line with others models in the Jeep lineup.

Looks aside, Jeep has also graced the new Cherokee with an upgraded interior featuring improved materials.

Even with its previously polarizing face, it racked up steady sales in a highly competitive market segment. The Cherokee trumped its opposition in one category in particular: its off-road ability.

And the best Cherokee model for busting through the boonies is the one that is particularly designed for the rough stuff: the Trailhawk.

Powered by a standard, stout 3.2-liter V-6 engine, our tester Trailhawk had plenty of smooth muscle for off- and on-road exigencies. Too bad about the engine’s subpar fuel economy — 18 mpg city/24 highway — that can limit distance between fill-ups.

There’s an optional, new-for-’19 turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder as the range’s top offering. It spews out 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, a mere one horsepower over the 3.2 six but a healthy 56 lb.-ft. gain. It also bumps up the fuel consumption — 20 city/26 highway — to a more palatable level.

Jeep says its oft-maligned nine-speed automatic transmission, used across a wide swath of Fiat Chrysler products, has been refined for use in the 2019 Cherokee. Shifts are indeed smoother than in earlier iterations, but the gearbox is still hesitant to downshift when more power is requested, and it still exhibits a tendency to “hunt” for an appropriate ratio. And even on a long highway drive, ninth gear was rarely reached.

The Cherokee drives with a solid, well-planted feel but the slow-acting steering feels vague. However, that could be considered a benefit bounding along rock-roughened or sand-packed wilderness trails and forest dirt tracks. This is the venue where the Trailhawk leaves its compact competitors in the dust.

Despite its suspension tuned for the rough stuff, the Cherokee Trailhawk rides smoothly on tarmac and isn’t too perturbed by pavement imperfections. Its 17-inch all-terrain tires, mounted on model-specific alloys, do create a fair amount of road noise, but that’s to be expected in such a rough-and-ready rig. There’s also a fair bit of wind buffeting around the A-pillars and exterior mirrors.

Enhancing the Jeep’s standard blind-spot monitoring and rear-cross traffic alert features, a Technology Group ($995) adds a slew of electronic sentries. In the safety category are adaptive cruise control; advanced brake assist; collision warning with crash mitigation; lane departure warning and safe distance warning.

The Trailhawk Elite package ($2,995) tosses in such niceties as a hands-free power liftgate; leather-trimmed, heated and ventilated power front buckets with adjustable lumbar; remote start system (lovely in winter!); and a rear tonneau cover to conceal adventurers’ cargo from prying eyes.

Off-road fanatics will flock to the Cherokee Trailhawk. There’s just nothing else in its size class that compares when the road ends, and it’s quite pleasant on pavement as well. But optioned up as our tester was, with its added packages and a surprisingly stiff $1,445 destination charge, the price surged over $40K. Factor in the Jeep’s middling fuel consumption, and the issue of value rears its head.

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