"We were expecting it to be rather polarizing," admits Mike Manley, Jeep's brand president and CEO -- but Chrysler executives weren't expecting the new 2014 Jeep Cherokee to be this polarizing. Although Jeep hoped to unveil its new D-segment crossover for the very first time at the 2013 New York Auto Show, the automaker was forced to tip its hand weeks ago when photos of the new crossover leaked online, and feedback from press, pundits, and potential customers wasn't exactly as warm and fuzzy as Chrysler would have hoped for.
We're not surprised by the initial reaction. Despite the historic name, the 2014 Cherokee bears little resemblance to any past or present Jeep product, concept, or design language. Even the last Jeep concept that debuted at a major auto show -- the Renegade hybrid-electric buggy, shown in 2009 -- retained the familiar seven-slot Jeep grille and round headlamps. The Cherokee does not, for while the marketing team looked to the past for a name, Jeep designers were trying to predict the future.
"2019 is when this particular [Cherokee design] will go out of production," says Mark Allen, head of Jeep design, "so our heads were in 2019. When this goes out of production, we still want it to look at home on the road. We think it should look good for years to come."
Time will test that prediction, but Allen's other claim that the 2014 Cherokee ushers in a "little different look" for the Jeep brand rings true today, albeit as an understatement. The seven-slot grille cascades over the beveled upper edge of the front fascia, and is immediately surrounded by two razor-thin LED light assemblies, which stretch back deep into the front fenders. Those may look like headlamps, but they're only turn signals and running lamps. Headlamps are instead placed within two square bulges set below the turn signal assemblies; fog lamps are placed even lower in the front fascia, alongside a gaping lower grille opening.
Sheetmetal aft of the A-pillars is far less controversial. The rakish roof, tapered D-pillars, and strong shoulders are reminiscent of the larger Grand Cherokee, although the Cherokee's form is a little more sinewy. Allen says the trapezoidal wheel arches are another signature Jeep cue, and that the kick down in the front window opening is inspired by the Wrangler's optional half-doors. Out back, LED tail lamps ride high, and actually cut into the wrap-around backlight. Designers placed reflectors and license plate mounting points low in the bumper, leaving the tailgate stamping devoid of much ornamentation, apart from a taut, horizontal character line. Cladding along the Cherokee's lower edges is kept to a minimum on most trim levels save for the off-road Trailhawk, which sees the grey plastic material stretch up to the headlamps up front. Trailhawk models also receive a unique lower grille with red tow hooks, a blacked-out hood decal, larger fender flares, beefier skid plates, and larger 18-inch wheels inspired by those used on the Wrangler Rubicon.
What lies beneath the Cherokee's surface also breaks new ground. This is the first Jeep product with Fiat roots, as its platform -- the same Compact U.S. Wide architecture used in the Dodge Dart -- is derived from that of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Fiat Grande Punto. Like those cars, unibody structure incorporates MacPherson struts in front and a four-link, coil-sprung arrangement in back.
Although the Dart GT's 184-hp 2.4-liter I-4 serves as the Cherokee's base engine, the SUV is also available with a new 3.2-liter variant of Chrysler's familiar 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6. Despite losing four-tenths of a liter in displacement, the engine only loses about 20 ponies, as it still cranks out 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque. Regardless of the engine ordered, all Cherokees are fitted with Chrysler's long-awaited nine-speed automatic transmission, a planetary-type transmission licensed from ZF, which also supplies it for use in the Range Rover Evoque. The gearbox features a 9.81 ratio spread, and plays a big part in helping front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Cherokee models attain up to 31 mpg on the highway.
But the Cherokee just wouldn't be a Jeep without the availability of four-wheel drive. Like the Grand Cherokee, three four-wheel drive systems are available. Active Drive I features a single-speed transfer case mounted with the rear axle (Jeep calls the bundle a "power transfer unit"), and functions like a full-time all-wheel-drive setup. Step up to the Active Drive II system, and you gain a two-speed transfer unit with low-range gearing. Both units are available on all Cherokee grades, but the Active Drive Lock system, which combines the Active Drive II transfer unit with a locking rear axle, is standard only on the Cherokee Trailhawk. Trailhawks are also the only Cherokee models to offer 8.6 inches of ground clearance, 28.5-degree approach angles, 22.8-degree departure angles, and earn Jeep's vaulted "Trail Rated" seal of approval. All awd Cherokees receive a Select-Terrain control that amends stability control and driveline torque split settings for various conditions, while Active Drive II and Active Drive Lock models gain both hill ascent and hill descent controls.
We suspect most customers will employ the Cherokee's various on-road aids more frequently than they'll play with its off-road abilities. There's quite a bit of interesting equipment within the Cherokee's handsome cabin, including active cruise control, lane departure collision warning, and new park assist functions that help guide drivers during reverse perpendicular and parallel parking maneuvers. The same 7-inch LCD gauge cluster is available on higher-spec Cherokee models, as is Chrysler's 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system, which can also be paired with new UConnnect Access connectivity suite. A six-speaker audio system is standard, but an upgraded nine-speaker system -- complete with subwoofer -- is optional. An SD card slot, line-level input, and USB audio input are placed at the front of the center console, while wireless smartphone charging -- a feature previously available through Mopar's accessory catalog -- is a factory-installed option.
Jeep aims to push the 2014 Cherokee into production in Toledo, Ohio, this summer -- but honestly, it can't arrive soon enough. Dealers are pining for a product to sell that not only slots between the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee, but also has a chance of wooing shoppers looking for an efficient and modern crossover. It's also the lynchpin of Jeep's future global aspirations, as the brand hopes to move a quarter-million globally each year once the assembly line reaches its full pace.
Will Jeep purists argue over the use of the Cherokee name on a Fiat-based crossover? Probably, but given the 2014 Cherokee follows in the XJ's footsteps of being an accessible, more efficient, suburbanite-friendly Jeep that retains some off-road chops, perhaps it's a fitting choice after all.