THOUSAND OAKS, CALIF. — Like the original, the new Jeep Cherokee can take the kids to school in the morning and climb steep rutted roads in the afternoon.
But for anyone who remembers the previous version, which was discontinued in 2001, stomaching the new looks will require some adjustment.
The new front-end styling, with its slit-like daytime running lights and curved grille, is radical compared with the basic box that marked the last iteration. Instead of the wide-eyed, curious look of Jeeps of yore, the new one has more of a cocksure sneer. No wonder that Cars.com named it one of the 10 most polarizing models in recent years.
“We wanted a design that has throwbacks to Jeep, but looks forward to the future,” says Mike Manley, the head of Chrysler Group’s Jeep division in an interview in the hills north of Los Angeles, where a group of auto writers put the Cherokee through a trail-crawling test.
Sure, the looks are polarizing, but having seen such meager sales for the Liberty, the brand’s outgoing small crossover SUV, it was deemed worth taking a few risks. Jeep never made much of a dent in a growing segment with the Liberty because of poor fuel economy and so-so handling. With Cherokee, Jeep has the chance to “break into the 97% of the segment that has never bought us,” Manley predicts.
To keep purists happy, designers sprinkled familiar Jeep touchstones throughout, such as the “Since 1941” emblem on the steering wheel and a map of a famous trail near Moab, Utah, in a storage compartment. The fancy top-of-the-line trail-rated Trailhawk version has towing hooks — painted red so no one will miss noticing them — which are becoming harder to find on other vehicles.
Looks aside, there’s a lot to talk about with the new Cherokee, not to be confused with Jeep’s larger and established Grand Cherokee. Cherokee, made in Toledo, is due to hit showrooms within weeks.
For starters, it has the industry’s first nine-speed automatic transmission, one of the keys to it being billed as having a big fuel-economy improvement over the Liberty. In a drive that included both highways and hills, the nine-speed seemed to be constantly in action. But the shifting was smooth enough both at high and low speeds.
Besides the standard 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, there’s a 271-horsepower, 3.2-horsepower V6 Pentastar engine option that comes at a time when more rivals in the class have ditched six-cylinder engines over gas-mileage concerns. Because of the V6, Jeep says the new Cherokee can tow up to 4,500 pounds.
The most economical version, front-wheel-drive with the four-cylinder engine, is rated at 22 miles per gallon in the city, 31 on the highway, for a combined rating of 25. That makes it 39% more fuel efficient than the Liberty it replaces, which had a combined rating of 18 m.p.g.
Fuel efficiency numbers for the most aggressive off-road version, the Trailhawk, haven’t been issued yet. But in others with the V6 and more rugged four-wheel drive version, gas mileage is 19 m.p.g. in the city, 26 on the highway for a combined 21, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Though that might sound overly macho, Jeep says the target customers for the new Cherokee are evenly split between men and women. With buyers expected to be largely between ages 35 and 48, Jeep hopes the new Cherokee becomes a Generation X favorite, with a few millennials taking notice, too.
Pricing ranges from $22,995 to start for the cheapest Sport two-wheel-drive version, plus $995 in shipping charges — $400 less than for the Liberty, which is now out of production. At the top end, the Trailhawk 4x4 goes for $29,495.
Observers give the new Cherokee a fighting chance of success in an increasingly crowded market for compact crossovers. “What we’ll see it is the Jeep brand, backed up by off-road capability,” says Karl Brauer, analyst for Kelley Blue Book, who has driven it. Is the styling too cutting edge for those fixated on the old Cherokee?
“It’s a thing of distinctive styling,” Brauer adds, “and a lot of people think that’s a thing of beauty.”
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