Is a new Jeep Cherokee KL as capable off-road as Jeep’s best-selling SUV of all time, the boxy old Cherokee XJ? Seeing as how I bought a 1995 Cherokee for $600 off Craigslist recently, when I got ahold of a $36,000 new Cherokee, I had no choice but to try and find out.

(Full disclosure: Fiat Chrysler, where I worked as an engineer before joining the dark side and coming to Jalopnik, kindly loaned me a new Cherokee with a full tank of gas for this test. I brought it back in one piece. Well... almost.)

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The world cried foul when Chrysler released their new car-based, mid-size SUV and called it by the same name as the rough-and-tumble old XJ Cherokee. Sure, they’ve been calling the Liberty by that sacred name for years overseas, but here in America we’ve got a special place in our hearts for that rectangular little AMC.

“That’s not a real Cherokee,” the fanboys cried. While we’re not sure what it means to be a “real Cherokee” (after all, the XJ was quite a departure from its SJ-based predecessor), it’s fair to say that the new KL is very different from the XJ.

Though both are built on unibody platforms, their structures don’t share many similarities. The old XJ sits on a more “frame-like” body-in-white, with all of the sensitive hardware tucked between two main unibody rails that run the length of the vehicle. Two tubular axle housings protect axle-shafts and differentials and bolt to the body via leaf springs in the back and control arms and a track bar up front. It’s old-school and can be fixed with a hammer, a 5/8-inch combination wrench and swear words.

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The KL’s platform is a bit more sophisticated as it is based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta’s bones. It has a very flat underbody and includes a low-sitting front cradle that contains the entire suspension and steering rack. Suspension is independent all the way around, the front differential is contained in the transmission (though on this Trailhawk trim, it’s in the Power Transfer Unit, which is bolted to the transmission), and CV axles are exposed. The KL’s car-based platform means that, even though it technically has more ground clearance than the XJ, more of its crucial components sit lower to the ground.

When the new Cherokee came out for the 2014 model year, we wrote an article describing six ways that the new Jeep is better than the old XJ when the road turns to dirt. In a bit of foreshadowing, Matt Hardigree wrote: “Comparing a stock XJ to a stock 2014 Cherokee on off-road ability will be fun. Someone will do it. Maybe it will be us.”

We did. And it was fun.

To compare the two vehicles, we did some mild off-roading and took a look at the key attributes that make a vehicle good off-road. Let’s see how the two Cherokees compared in those areas.

Vehicle Dimensions And Geometry

Probably the single most crucial attribute of an off-road vehicle is its geometry. Without large approach and departure angles, a vehicle will not make it up and down steep inclines. Without ground clearance, it can’t clear debris and will bang its fascia and underbody all over the terrain. And without a good breakover angle, a vehicle will “turtle” itself as it tries to crest hills and mounds.

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Okay, so let’s look at some numbers:

  • Approach Angle: 38º (XJ) versus 29.8º (New KL)
  • Departure Angle: 31º (XJ) versus 32.1º (New KL)
  • Breakover Angle: 21º (XJ) versus 23.2º (New KL)
  • Ground Clearance: 7.3” (XJ) versus 8.7” (New KL)

Just looking at the numbers, you might think “Wow, aside from approach angle, that new Cherokee is far better than the old XJ geometrically.” But while that holds on paper, when you actually take the two vehicles off-road, you begin to realize that those numbers are misleading.

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For one, the reason why the KL’s ground clearance is so much higher than the XJ’s is because the XJ’s ground clearance is measured at the differential pumpkin, which sits on the axle tube between the wheels. And because you’re supposed to drive over obstacles, not straddle them, the diff rarely gets caught when an experienced driver is at the helm.

Aside from the beefy transmission crossmember and the exhaust system, the rest of the XJ’s underbody is tucked up high, well above the ground.

As was mentioned earlier, on the new KL Cherokee, there’s just more of the underbody sitting closer to the terra firma. Take the sand mound below, for example. No matter how many times we tried getting the KL up, its low approach angle meant it buried its big ol’ proboscis on ascent, the low-hanging cradle kept trying to push sand up the hill, and when it got halfway up, the KL high-centered.

We didn’t take the $600 XJ up that hill, but another bone-stock Jeep XJ gave it a shot. How did it turn out? No problem at all:

But the biggest weak point wasn’t the belly, the cradle or the fascia; it was the sills, which sit over three inches lower than the XJ’s. Those babies dragged themselves all over the off-road park as we tried to crest hills and traverse stumps and rocks. I even tore a plastic rocker panel cover off.

I’ll admit that the rocker panel incident had more to do with my incompetence than anything (I ran over a large boulder), but it needs to be said that, despite what the brochure says, the KL’s lack of useable ground clearance and its so-so 29 degree approach angle meant we had to tip-toe off-road, while in the XJ we gave it the beans without a worry in the world.

Articulation

To test the two Jeeps’ articulation, or “flex,” we drove each of them up a Ramp Travel Index Ramp, also called an “RTI Ramp.” The distance the vehicle travels up the ramp before lifting one of its four wheels is divided by the wheelbase and multiplied by a thousand to come up with an official RTI value.

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A high RTI value indicates that a vehicle is better able to keep all four wheels planted when going over uneven terrain, thus allowing it to gain traction and propel itself forward over obstacles. But it’s not just about traction, it’s also about off-road ride quality. A vehicle with lots of articulation goes over uneven terrain while maintaining a nice, smooth ride without causing the vehicle to teeter.

For example, have a look at the image below, which shows the new Cherokee entering a downhill slope at an angle. The passenger-side front tire lifts off the ground until the vehicle is nearly parallel with the slope, at which point the front right tire crashes to the ground. The Jeep XJ did the same obstacle, but it kept all tires firmly planted the entire time, yielding a much nicer ride for the driver.

It should be noted that, on terrain that didn’t max out the new Cherokee’s suspension travel, the new Cherokee’s ride was significantly nicer than the XJ’s.

We’re not sure what angle our RTI ramp was, but just “eyeballing” it, it appears to be 20 or 30 degrees. The new KL traveled only 30 inches before lifting its rear tire, and the $600 XJ made it a whopping 52! Those translate roughly to RTI values of 500 for the XJ and about 300 for the KL.

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So, as far as articulation goes, the XJ wins hands down.

Robustness And Underbody Protection

The new Jeep Cherokee KL has skid plates all over its underbody. And none of this tin-can-type stuff. No, it’s got thick beefy armor down there.

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Back in my FCA engineering days, I had the pleasure of taking the new KL to Moab, and those skid plates worked their magic and kept all the crucial components from damage, and trust me, we drove those KLs hard.

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The XJ could also be optioned with skid plates covering the steering components, transfer case and gas tank. While it’s not as extensive as the new Cherokee’s skid plating, it also doesn’t need it as badly.

The old XJ’s axle tubes and U-Joints in the front really make it a lot more robust than the new Cherokee’s independent setup with exposed halfshafts and vulnerable rubber CV boots that, when torn, allow water to enter and destroy bearings. CV axles are also notoriously weaker than U-Joints. This, coupled with the cheap rocker panel covers and plastic lower fascia that always gets riddled with scratches, makes the KL seem like a less robust package than the old XJ, despite the KL’s extensive underbody skid-plating.

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But considering that our XJ had zero skid plates on it, we’ll call this one a draw.

Traction

The new KL Cherokee wins in traction, hands down. It’s got an American Axle Rear Drive Module in the rear which includes a true mechanical locker that will get you up even the steepest of grades. Not to mention, in the front, the KL uses its ABS system to brake the wheel with less traction and send the power to the wheel with grip. Also called a Brake Lock Differential, this setup, combined with the rear locker, made the KL unstoppable on the loose hill climbs.

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The old Cherokee XJ could be had with a limited slip differential back in the day, but those were clutch-based and went bad after a while. Plus, they were nowhere near as effective or robust as a mechanical locker.

When I took the then-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee to Moab a few summers ago, we climbed slick-rock so steep I had to change my trousers a half a dozen times, so the KL wins in traction, despite the fact that it sometimes struggles to get its wheels to the ground.

Low End Torque And Gearing

We’ve already written an explainer on off-road gearing, but let me just say: the new Cherokee has got gearing down pat. It has a crawl ratio of 48:1 and the four-cylinder version has an even larger crawl ratio to make up for its lack of low-end grunt.

As we mentioned in our explainer, crawl ratio isn’t everything. Tire size and low end torque are also key elements in the “tractive force” equation. And even though the KL’s 3.2-liter V6 is more of a high revving engine than the grunty old four liter in the old car, the KL felt like it had plenty of power to get up the steep stuff and driving it confidently at low speeds was a breeze.

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Neither vehicle felt like it needed more gearing to get more force to the ground, though we really appreciated the XJ’s linear cable-driven throttle response to the KL’s Just Wait A Few Seconds While I Think drive-by-wire system.

No clear winner in this category.

Tires

Our XJ had 225/75R15s on it, but they’re almost completely bald. (I paid $600 for the car, what did you expect?) Despite that, they somehow did alright.

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A stock new Jeep Cherokee comes with 245/65R17 all-terrain tires whereas a stock XJ with the Upcountry package came with 225/75R15 all-terrains. That’s a 29 inch tire for the new Cherokee and about a 28-incher for for the old XJ, though the old one could be fitted with a 235/75R15 (about a 29-inch tire) without issue. Could you fit a bigger tire on the KL without rubbing? Based on how little room there is in the wheel opening, it doesn’t look like it.

Comparing a stock XJ from the factory to a stock KL from the factory, on the tire front, neither vehicle has a significant advantage. Compare a new Cherokee’s tires to our Cherokee’s bald-ass shoes, and the new Cherokee wins all day.

Nimbleness

Neither of the vehicles are “large” by any stretch of the imagination, though the new Cherokee does feel bigger than the XJ and is much harder to maneuver in tight spots.

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The new guy not only weighs 700 pounds more than the XJ, but it’s visibility is much poorer, its turning radius is wider, and getting that transmission to shift between drive and reverse takes three decades and makes multi-point turns an enormous pain in the ass.

Tow Points

The KL has two tow points in the front and one in the rear. The XJ had a similar optional setup: two hooks jotting out below the bumper and a hook in the back on the driver’s side, but our XJ only had provisions for a tow bar (used to pull the Jeep behind an RV), so the KL definitely showed up with the better equipment in this contest.

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The KL’s tow points were designed to withstand a tremendous amount of force (something like twice the vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Weight). We put them to the test.

We didn’t intentionally get our XJ stuck, but it just kind of happened. Okay, there was a sweet mud pit and we couldn’t resist. Once the XJ was burried, we hooked up the KL and gave her a few yanks. After a few runs, we got the XJ out without issue.

Or so we thought. Upon closer inspection, it looked like we actually bent the Cherokee’s rear tow hook a little. I wasn’t expecting that.

Lift-Ability

One of the biggest letdowns of the new Cherokee is its inability to be easily and cheaply lifted. This won’t factor into our decision, as we’re comparing stock XJ to stock KL, but for a lot of die-hards, a Jeep is a platform. It’s a starting point for a wheeling rig. It’s something you can lift, put big tires on, re-gear, add winches, add aftermarket bumpers— you know, just make your own.

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And while the new Cherokee is certainly capable out-of-the-box, just like the XJ was, it will never be able to become a true Moab-crushing machine. And that’s sad.

Winner: Jeep Cherokee XJ

After all of our testing, a winner emerged. And while the new Jeep Cherokee is good, on a trail it can’t hold a candle to its older brother.

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In the conditions at our off-road test park, Rocks and Valleys, driving the XJ was much less unnerving. Not just because it’s a $600 beater, but because its dimensions allowed us to drive through ruts and over uneven terrain without worrying about scraping the fascia, rocker panels or underbody.

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Even though the new Cherokee’s trick Rear Drive Module gave it much better traction than our open-differential XJ, our $600 Jeep’s approach angle, breakover angle, articulation and usable ground clearance made it the better vehicle off-road.

If we were out at Moab trying to get up slick rock, the KL’s traction advantage may have given it the win, but in mixed off-road driving conditions like those at our off-road park, the XJ is the better Jeep every time.

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While the new Cherokee is the clear winner in terms of comfort and modern technology, if off-roading is what you want, see your local Craigslist instead of your Jeep dealer.