The four-star 2014 Jeep Cherokee is probably the most technically sophisticated SUV ever built. That it remains true to Jeep's go-anywhere heritage and scored EPA highway ratings up to 31 miles per gallon make the new Cherokee a tribute to Chrysler and Fiat's joint product development.

The Cherokee model range includes competitors for everything from economical crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 to luxury models like the BMW X3 and rugged off-roaders like the Toyota 4Runner.

Prices start at $22,995 for a front-wheel-drive Cherokee with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. All Cherokees have a nine-speed automatic transmission. The least expensive four-wheel-drive model uses the 2.4-liter engine and goes for $24,995. A 271-horsepower 3.2-liter V-6 starts at $25,990 for front-drive and $27,990 for four-wheel-drive.

The Cherokee has three four-wheel-drive systems. The most capable Trailhawk package has serious off-road features, such as a locking rear differential and low range of gears. Trailhawk starts at $29,495 with the 2.4-liter and $30,990 with the V-6.

I tested a very well-equipped V-6 Cherokee Limited with the mid-level four-wheel-drive system. It features included adaptive cruise control, lane-departure assist, blind-spot alert, navigation, voice recognition, Bluetooth music and phone compatibility, heated and ventilated leather seats and automatic parking. It cost $36,030. All prices exclude destination charges.

The Cherokee I drove targets the X3 and Audi Q5, V-6 versions of the Chevy Equinox and Hyundai Santa Fe, and the 4Runner 4x4.

The Cherokee's many features make it a bargain compared to luxury SUVs, and few if any competitors match its off-road capability.

Chrysler engineers modified an architecture Fiat developed for compact European cars on the Cherokee. They stretched and stiffened the platform to withstand off-road stress. As with most cars and crossover SUVs, the unibody chassis makes it lighter and more fuel-efficient than truck-based SUVs like the 4Runner.

The Cherokee has a roomy five-passenger cabin, but less cargo space than most competitors. The interior of the Cherokee I tested featured soft materials, but some pretty obvious fake wood trim.

The controls are among the industry's most driver-friendly, thanks to excellent voice recognition, a large touch screen, and dials and buttons for volume, tuning, fan speed and temperature.

The Cherokee's extensive safety and electronic systems make it nearly capable of autonomous driving. Adaptive cruise control maintains speed and following distance and slows the Cherokee to a full stop. Lane-departure assistance and automatic parking can steer the Jeep.

The net effect is that the Cherokee is a few lines of computer code away from being able to drive itself across the country.

It's also exceptionally capable off-road. I drove a Cherokee Trailhawk through deep mud and door-high water, over basketball-sized rocks and up and down slopes that would stymie most crossover SUVs.

The V-6 provided plenty of power for highway driving, and the four-cylinder was adequate for an afternoon's country drive. The ride is comfortable and quiet on the road, and the suspension has plenty of travel for punishing off-road conditions.

The V-6 4WD Cherokee I tested scored 19 mpg in the city, 26 on the highway and 21 in combined driving on the EPA test cycle. That's as good or better than its six-cylinder competitors, and considerably better than the 4Runner, the only one intended for serious off-roading.

The new Cherokee does so many things well that it's hard to figure out if its main competitors are front-drive crossovers, luxury models or rugged off-roaders. It doesn't really matter, though. The 2014 Jeep Cherokee is a match for any of them.

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2014 JEEP CHEROKEE LIMITED 4X4:

–Type of vehicle: Four-wheel-drive SUV

–Rating: Four out of four stars

–Engine: 3.2-liter 24-valve V-6

–Power: 271 horsepower at 6,500 rpm; 239 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm

–Transmission: 9-speed automatic

–EPA fuel economy rating: 19 mpg city/26 highway/21 combined. Regular gasoline

–Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

–Length: 182 inches

–Width: 73.2 inches

–Height: 67.3 inches

–Curb weight: 4,044 lbs.

–Reasons to buy: Off-road ability; features; value

–Shortcomings: cargo space; obviously fake wood trim

–Base price: $22,995

–Price as tested: $36,035

Prices exclude destination charge.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

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