Reimagining a Brawny Jeep for a Less Rugged Landscape

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On Wednesday, Jeep came to New York, of all places, to take the wraps off a new S.U.V. with an old name: the Cherokee. 

The previous Cherokee, a rugged box for wilderness adventures, turned out to be a perennial top seller in the city, perhaps because it promised an escape from the urban pavement. The Cherokee benefited from a perception that it was tougher than most S.U.V.'s, capable of leaving the Upper West Side in the morning and fording rocky Vermont streams by evening.

But the 2014 model is a Cherokee for a different time and place. Boxy, rough-riding S.U.V.'s have faded in favor of car-based crossovers aimed at younger, more suburban customers. Also, Jeep plans to sell the new model in more markets around the world, requiring a design with broad appeal. The next Cherokee presents a whole new image, a softer look in keeping with its less strenuous marching orders. The company calls it "a fresh form language for the Jeep brand."

But Jeep buffs are wary of change. When the Wrangler replaced the CJ-7 for the 1986 model year, round headlamps gave way to rectangles, and a rebellion ensued. "Real Jeeps have round headlights," loyalists proclaimed, demanding the return of a signature styling cue dating to the military jeeps of World War II. Round lights returned on the next-generation Wrangler of 1997.

The 2014 Cherokee has also elicited strong feelings from the faithful. Leaked photos appeared online well before the New York auto show, and the buzz they generated was largely negative. Ralph Gilles, the Chrysler design chief who is active on Twitter, defended the design as "a new paradigm."

In an interview before the show, Mark Allen, the head of Jeep design, said the new look reflected two sides of the brand's personality. The upper half is sleek and streamlined, the lower tough and rugged. The two halves meet at what the designers call the waterline.

Mr. Allen cited two points of reference: the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee. The Wrangler's face is so recognizable, he said, that only the Porsche 911 can rival it among vehicles with long-established identities. And the Grand Cherokee established a template for upscale S.U.V.'s.

"This design speaks to both sides of Jeep," Mr. Allen said of the new Cherokee. "There are lots of little Jeep cues: the seven-slot grille, trapezoidal wheel area, big 18-inch wheels."

Mr. Allen noted that in contrast to the squared-off Cherokee of the 1990s, today's S.U.V.'s must be more aerodynamic for fuel efficiency. "This design is more muscular and modern," he said.

Rather than square headlights, the new Cherokee has protoplasmic ones. A paramecium of daytime running lamps and an amoeba of a headlight are separated in the manner of the hip Nissan Juke, that mash-up of a rally car and a frog. A broad lower grille evokes the "tiger mouth" of recent Kias. Jeep's trademark seven-slot grille is translated into seven slots set into a body-color front, each framed in contrasting trim and lined with mesh.

Although the Cherokee name appeared on Jeeps as early as 1974, it was the downsized 1984 model -- designed and manufactured by American Motors -- that made it famous. An immediate hit, the Cherokee nearly doubled Jeep sales in its first year, and the simple, honest wagon helped to set off the S.U.V. boom.

The design critic Robert Cumberford has called that Cherokee a historically significant design, balancing sport and utility in a new way. In its April issue, Consumer Reports includes it on a list of landmark vehicles.

Chrysler absorbed A.M.C. in 1987, and the basic Cherokee was canceled in 2000. Its eventual replacement, the Liberty, never gained the same respect.

The larger Grand Cherokee arrived as a 1993 model and was updated several times, with a notably successful redesign for the 2011 model year. While Grand Cherokee might sound simply like a Cherokee with grander appointments, the two vehicles are as different as ma and grandma. The Grand Cherokee shares engineering with the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, a legacy of Chrysler's short-lived merger with Daimler.

In contrast, the 2014 Cherokee is derived from a Fiat platform that is also the basis for compact cars like the Dodge Dart and Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

The new Cherokee is technically far more sophisticated, and much more efficient, than its predecessors. It comes with a Fiat-sourced 2.4-liter 4-cylinder or a 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6, both mated to a 9-speed ZF automatic transmission. Highway mileage of up to 31 m.p.g. is promised.

The horizontal crease across the Cherokee's face stands out in photos, but is less striking when you view the actual car. And the floating, blobbish front lights don't seem quite so cartoonish, especially on the Trailhawk, a full-bore off-road version -- "trail rated," in Jeep parlance. Other trim levels are the Sport, Latitude and Limited.

The Trailhawk appears calculated to woo loyalists with rock-crawling abilities and a tough look. The Trailhawk has greater ground clearance and more extreme approach and departure angles for off-roading.

A tongue of glare-reducing black paint licks across the hood. There are tough-looking black wheels with big tires. 

This model may help to reassure hard-core off-roaders and keep alive the city dweller's treasured myth of the Cherokee as an urban escape vehicle.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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