After a few years of toying around with uninspiring, forgettable designs like the Liberty and the Compass, Jeep is ready to go in a new direction. More accurately, it's going in an old direction. At this year's New York Auto Show, it will revive a name that's been retired for over a decade. The name is old, but the all-new Cherokee looks nothing like the boxy dirt warrior of its past life.
Originally launched as a smaller trim level of the truck-based rambler known as the Wagoneer in the 1970s, the Cherokee (XJ) became a unique model with unibody architecture in the 1984 model year. Because it was designed as an SUV from the ground up, and not simply adapted from truck underpinnings, some analysts consider it the first modern-era SUV.
Thanks to its car-like construction and interior, the Cherokee was more manageable and refined than other SUVs of its time. But it had a split personality, earning a reputation for being more than capable of tackling off-road obstacles. Jeep sold more than two million Cherokees before retiring the model in 2001 to make room for the Liberty, a change that many Jeep enthusiasts were less than thrilled with. It would seem that Jeep is ready to admit its mistake, however tacitly, and change back from Liberty to Cherokee.
A blog post from Rick Deneau, Head of Brands, Chrysler Group Communications, indicates the move comes as a result of listening to its customers. It reads, "... you've got to eschew the traditional and embrace the progressive. ... you've got to listen to the customer, saying keep capability, but give us more fuel economy (and a better on-road driver).
The bit about improving fuel economy and focusing on on-road performance doesn't seem to bode well for the new vehicle's future as heir to the Cherokee's off-road legacy. In fact, that makes it sound a lot like a small crossover, only with the benefit of a Jeep badge on it.
It'll take some time and independent testing before we know how the Cherokee stacks up to its predecessors on and off road. What we do know is that it's a rather radical redesign that definitely makes good on Deneau's claim of progression.
Unlike other derivative designs – we're looking at the Liberty, Patriot and Compass – the 2014 Cherokee steps away from the party line and dares to have some personality. Perhaps most noticeably, the new Jeep reinterprets the classic seven-slot grille with distinctly separated teeth. We think it's successful in giving the Cherokee a grittier, edgier face than the Grand Cherokee, much like the original-generation Cherokee had over its Grand contemporary. It's brand new but still quite familiar.
Outside of a Grand Cherokee-like roofline, nothing on the new Cherokee bears that much resemblance to other members of the Jeep family. The creased nose, the sculpted hood and the slit headlamps look like nothing we've seen on a Jeep previously. Heated arguments are already raging over whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, but the new Cherokee definitely has its own identity. That seems like the right move for Jeep, which was starting to feel like it was unable to make a splash with a new vehicle in a market segment it practically created.
Jeep has kept the details under wraps, outside of describing the new Cherokee's attributes as "best-in-class capability, exemplary on-road driving dynamics, and fuel economy improvements of more than 45 percent" over the Liberty. We'll have to wait until the New York show in late March for more information and a look at the rear end.
The Cherokee is the latest 2014 Jeep model to be revealed, following on from the 470-hp Grand Cherokee SRT that was on display last month at NAIAS in Detroit.