This business of writing about and reviewing cars and trucks becomes its most personal when we criticize new exterior designs. Our own Robert Cumberford, having lived on both sides of the relationship, can skewer a new design without insulting the man or woman who first drew it. Robert’s skills in this matter are to be envied.
It’s easier with engineers. One can be objective and point out a dynamic flaw without destroying the entire car. Wait four or five years for the car’s replacement, and the same engineers will admit how they had to compromise on the current model because of time or cost constraints.
So what about all those bad reviews of the new 2014 Jeep Cherokee design, based solely on leaked photos of the new model from the factory? I recently had the opportunity to ask this of the designer with the most modest demeanor in the business, Mark Allen, Chrysler Group’s chief designer for the Jeep brand.
“I always want the people to see the car in person, and I get that all day long now, that ‘it’s not what I thought,’ ” Allen says.
The result is far better than it looked weeks before I spoke with him at the New York International Auto Show. Websites and their readers appeared to be stunned by the Cherokee’s slit-eyed daytime running lamps atop the convex seven-slot grille.
“I’ve got two design philosophies going. I’ve got the Wrangler on one end, which is a box. On the other end, I’ve got the Grand Cherokee. Those are kind of the two bookends. This [Cherokee] has got to have attributes of both, and there are two distinct flavors of them.”
The on-road-oriented Cherokee Limited’s front and rear fascias square off over the wheels for better aerodynamics. The Moab-capable Trailhawk’s fascias, with red tow-hooks distinguishing the nose, are clipped and curved in for better approach/departure angles. (There’s also the base Cherokee Sport and the volume Cherokee Latitude trim level.) The Trailhawk looks better and cooler than the Limited despite the “street” model’s aero advantage.
From the get-go, Allen says, the Cherokee had to be very efficient. “That’s what sets up the fast front end and the fast windshield. You’ll see a lot of Grand Cherokee in the body sides, the muscular surfaces, but we’ll always sneak in the Jeep cues.”
Besides the requisite seven-slot grille, the Cherokee has trapezoidal wheel arches, borrowed from the 1941 Willys Jeep. This is what designers’ dreams are made of; heritage without the retro. The good news is that Chrysler management is willing to take risks with polarizing design rather than safely choosing a design that offends no one.
“We offered our management several choices, from mild to wild. They chose wild. The appetite was there to really push it. As a designer, that’s the best.”
Allen says the convex grille is a “heritage thing,” referencing the ’74 Cherokee, “but it’s really amped up. It’s really more extreme than before… it sets up that spline line that goes all the way along that vehicle.”
The kink line in the door is derived, he says, from the half-door of a Wrangler. The Cherokee has a low beltline, continuing the trend away from high beltlines that affect outward visibility.
The base engine in the 2014 Jeep Cherokee is the 2.4-liter Multiair Tigershark inline-four. A new, 271-horsepower 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6 is optional. The new nine-speed automatic transmission, the one Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne wishes was available in time for the Dodge Dart’s launch, is the only transmission. Available 4x4 systems include Active Drive I, Active Drive II, and Active Drive Lock.
Although it’s based on the same Compact U.S. Wide (CUS-Wide) platform derived from Alfa Romeo but enlarged first for the Dart, there are no plans to build an Alfa off the derivation, Allen says, responding to a false Internet rumor that the Cherokee had been designed first for that brand. While the crossover/utility vehicle segments are quickly moving to transverse-engine layouts (see the Range Rover Evoque), the CUS-Wide front-wheel-drive, V-6 platform posed some design challenges, he says.
“The proportion was a little bit challenging to work with,” Allen says. The front-drive/V-6 origins are “what sets up the lamps like that. If you look at the plan view, the front of the car really doesn’t have a corner. The feature light is pulled back radically.”
What does the ’14 Cherokee predict about future Jeep design?
“That it won’t be predictable,” Allen says, “except for the Wrangler. I think we can safely say that [the next Wrangler] will be predictable. Grand Cherokee? I don’t know what the next one will be. It’s too soon to say. But there’s a lot of interest in elevating the brand, more premium, and worldwide.”