Good in front-wheel-drive form and exceptional with all-wheel drive (AWD). This popular compact crossover is also the class leader in off-road performance, although the particular AWD system and tires that work best in dirt and mud aren’t necessarily optimal for snow handling.
The Cherokee lineup begins with the Sport model and continues through Latitude, Limited, Trailhawk and Overland trims. The Trailhawk is the off-road champ and comes only with AWD. Front-wheel drive is standard on the others, bringing with it the inherent snow-surface advantage of engine and transmission weight concentrated above the tires that provide traction.
With the ability to also share power with another set of tires, AWD provides even better traction snow. Order it on a Sport, Latitude, or Limited and you default to Jeep’s Active Drive I system. This basic AWD setup normally operates in front-drive and automatically shuffles power fore and aft to quell tire slip.
Like the other two AWD systems available on Cherokee, Active Drive I comes with Jeep’s Selec-Terrain traction-management. This pays huge dividends in snow. It automatically dials in specific powertrain calibrations when the driver turns a console knob to select snow, sand, mud, rock, and sporty on-road driving modes. By desensitizing the powertrain to abrupt throttle inputs and gear changes that could cause tires to slip, the snow mode is a big traction advantage when the flakes fly.
Optional on Latitude, Limited, and Overland is Active Drive II. This AWD system also automatically shuffles power and incorporates Select-Terrain. But it adds low-range gearing that’s of most use in tough off-road situations. A beefed-up version of Active Drive II, called Active Drive Lock, is standard on Trailhawk. It adds a locking rear differential for maximum off-pavement traction.
Cherokee uses a nine-speed automatic transmission and offers four- and six-cylinder engines with both front-drive and AWD. Either engine should provide similar snow performance, since outright power is not essential to slippery-surface traction or handling. Tires, however, can make a big difference.
Those supplied with Sport, Latitude, and Limited models have all-season tread balanced to furnish the best grip on dry, wet, and snow-covered surfaces. The 17-inch tires on Sport and Latitude may provide marginally better stick in snow than the slightly wider 18s standard on the Limited. Consistent with its off-road orientation, Jeep fits the Trailhawk with 17-inch all-terrain tires. These have tread designed to throw off mud, claw through dirt, and stand up to rocks. In snow, they won’t quite match all-season tires for grip.
Within its competitive set, only Cherokee features a terrain-response system. Some rivals do offer AWD that can be locked in to a 50/50 front/rear torque split at low speeds, but this is not as advantageous in snow as a terrain-management system. For ground clearance and AWD performance in all conditions, look to the Subaru Forester as a strong Cherokee alternative.
And remember, regardless of system features or even tires, an AWD vehicle will allow you get moving and keep going in snow but will not significantly increase your ability to stop or turn in snow. That’s one reason you’ll see so many SUVs in ditches when roads become slick with snow. Beware of a false sense of security.