It took a long time for Jeep to bring the Cherokee nameplate back to North America. Maybe they should have waited a little longer.
The 2014 and 2015 model years have transmissions that suffer from hard shifts, odd shift points, and sudden shutdowns. It’s a trending issue on CarComplaints.com, and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
Here’s 6 things worth knowing about the Jeep Cherokee’s transmission problems.
1. It’s the World’s First 9-Speed Transmission for a Consumer Vehicle
Jeep wanted to do something drastic with the new Cherokee, and I’m not just talking about those squinty little lights.
Fiat-Chrysler of America (let’s just ‘em FCA) commissioned the ZF Friedrichshafen Group (let’s just call ‘em ZF) to build the first 9-speed automatic transmission for a consumer vehicle. That’s 50% more gears than most transmissions, so that must mean it’s 50% more awesome, right?
Why 9 Speeds?
Truth be told, the 9-speed transmission does have advantages.
First, it can help squeeze out a couple extra MPGs even though the Cherokee remains a bit heavy in the “curb weight” department. That’s extremely important given increasing fuel economy regulations via CAFE1.
Second, it can also still provide decent acceleration even though, once again, it has to push along a heavy vehicle.
Third, and somewhat miraculously, its design has remained extremely compact. Reports are it can fit in the same amount of space as ZF’s 6-speed transmission.
Complex Designs Bring Complex Problems
The gears have a wide-ratio spread, roughly 50% more than the average 6-speed or CVT. This spread allows the transmission to have those quicker takeoffs from 1st gear while maintaining the better MPGs at cruising speeds on the highway. Here’s how allpar describes it:
“Four individual gear-sets and six shifting elements made it possible to have nine speeds; yet the transmission is compact, because the gear-sets were “intelligently nested” instead of being distributed on the longitudinal axis.”
It’s increasingly clear, however, that both FCA and ZF engineers are figuring out how to keep all 9-gears humming on the fly. How does it feel being their guinea pig?
All the Chips Are on the Table
This is an important product for both FCA and ZF:
- FCA was excited to bring back the Cherokee nameplate after a decade-long hiatus in North America. The efficient 9-speed transmission was supposed to be their ticket to winning over the market of people switching to crossovers.
- ZF, meanwhile, announced plans to spend over $215 million on building these transmissions in South Carolina.
With so much on the line, it can’t fail. Except….
2. It’s Been Riddled with Problems From the Start
The Cherokee release was delayed several weeks2 because they couldn’t iron out problems with the transmission. FCA said it was “working to improve powertrain calibration” while others reported the vehicles equipped with the 2.4-liter Tigershark engine were having trouble engaging the 8th and 9th gears.
Once the SUV was finally released, early adopters were unimpressed:
“From the day I purchased this car, 2/14/14 (Valentines Day), it has shifted roughly. Jerking and violently shaking on a daily basis. I have not had this car for over a year and no one at the dealership has been able to fix it. I feel violated and ripped off by Chrysler and the dealership I purchased the car from. I will never purchase another Chrysler vehicle! Worst car in the world.” - 2014 Jeep Cherokee owner in Moore, Oklahoma
And the reviews? Well, those weren’t pretty either. FCA’s chief quality officer got the boot after a poor review of the transmission from Consumer Reports.
Things were off to a rather ominous start.
Technical Service Bulletins
It didn’t take long for FCA to start releasing transmission-related technical service bulletins (TSBs) to its dealers. TSBs are basically instructions to dealerships on how to handle problems that a customer is likely to have.
FCA has remained adamant that the problem is not mechanical, but software related. They’ve released 3 software patches to date but owners have only reported “marginal” improvements from these updates.
3. The First Few Gears are the Worst
Most owners agree that it’s nearly impossible to predict what the ZF 9-speed transmission will do.
Getting through the first 3-gears can be like playing an overly aggressive game of red-light-green-light with a toddler. Other days it can be smooth as butter — ok, well maybe slightly chunky butter.
“The transmission shifts rough in the lower 3 gears. The dealerships shop manager told us there is not a fix for it. There are software upgrades but they do not fix the problem. I have had one upgrade but it did nothing. The shop manager told me the newest upgrade make the transmission shift from 1st to 3rd, skipping 2nd. He also told me a replacement transmission would make it worse.” - 2014 Jeep Cherokee owner in Denver, Colorado
Each of the low gears has it’s own quirks:
- 1st Gear: The drivetrain engagement from a stop is … interesting. Some owners say it feels like it can take a full second from the moment they step on the gas to when the car actually starts moving. And once it does start moving, it’s a coin flip if you’re going to steadily get up to speed or squeal some tires.
- 2nd Gear: One of the most common complaints is how the 9-speed hangs out in 2nd gear far too long.
- 3rd Gear: When the transmission finally shifts into 3rd gear it can be an aggressive, lurching transition. Going from 2nd to 3rd gear is a great way to feel what whiplash feels like, without the inconvenience of having to get into an accident.
Mo’ Gears, mo’ problems.
For what it’s worth, Cars.com says the transmission pairs better with the V6 engine because the “modestly powered four-cylinder runs out of steam when the transmission upshifts too soon, like it often does from 1st to 2nd gear.”
“I had been having a really bad jumping/lurching/banging when accelerating from a stop. Less then 2 weeks after the update my transmission DIED (car totally stopped working) while driving to work in rush hour traffic on Interstate 40 going 65 mph. I am LUCKY I was not killed.” - 2014 Jeep Cherokee owner in Apex, North Carolina”
4. ZF Thinks You’re to Blame (Or Your Spouse)
When asked about drivability concerns of the 9-speed transmissions, ZF CEO Stefan Sommer said:
“We need to focus more on the regional-specific perception of how such a complex machine like an automatic transmission is working in the car, and as a consequence we have made a decision to bring more application engineering into the U.S….to be closer to the U.S. customer, to even frontload, in this tuning application work.”
I’m pretty sure the CEO just called you out as a bad driver. Or maybe it’s your spouse. According to application engineer, Frieder Mohr, it could be a problem if your significant other drives with a heavy foot while you take a more gentle approach. From [TheCarConnection]3:
If you’re the gentler driver in the household, a few lumpy shifts are to be expected each time you get in after the more aggressive one. If one driver drives rapidly most or all the time, then it’s possible that the low-speed, low-load shifts won’t work so well, because the transmission will still be assuming the style of the more aggressive driver.
That should be fun dinner conversation.
5. A Class-Action Lawsuit Wants Answers
After multiple failed software updates, a lawsuit was filed against FCA in August 2015.
The lawsuit says that the “Cherokee transmissions are so riddled with problems that Jeep dealers have no idea how to make repairs.” Even the dealerships can’t argue that point.
In addition, the lawsuit says owners have lost use of their car because they’re constantly being “repaired” and the lack of a fix greatly diminishes the vehicle’s value.
6. The Cherokee Isn’t Alone
The ZF nine-speed is currently installed in the Cherokee, as well as the Jeep Renegade, Chrysler 200, Ram ProMaster City, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, Land Rover Discovery, Acura TLX, and Acura MDX—and it’s on the way for several more vehicles within the next model year.
Will FCA or ZF find a solution before then?
A Recall is on the Way. But for Who?
In August 2016, ZF North America announced they were recalling 505,000 transmissions with sensors that can suddenly shift the vehicle into neutral. From CarComplaints.com:
“The problem is caused by a terminal crimping issue with 26-way connectors on the sensor cluster harness assemblies. The company says the star-shaped connector was not properly crimped and the problem wasn’t caught at the factory because of a manual setting used for measurements.”
ZF hasn’t mentioned which makes or models are affected yet, but said it will be vehicles equipped with a transmission called 9HP48 or 948TE.