Are you shocked and slack-jawed about the 2014 Jeep Cherokee that will arrive later this year?
Who can really blame you. After all, it was the immensely popular - and very square - XJ-designated Cherokee that introduced truckloads of buyers to the virtues of four-wheel-drive as far back as 1984. For the next two decades, it remained steadfastly unchanged until the Liberty stepped in for the 2002 model year.
With the Liberty's retirement, however, Chrysler-Fiat's off-road division has resurrected the Cherokee brand, but with a significant - and controversial - shift in direction.
For starters, instead of the brick-like original, the latest model has some seriously modern sculpting going on. All by itself, the pinched and pointy-nose grille says plenty about the risk that Jeep's designers have undertaken in creating the new Cherokee.
Then there are the eyelet headlights that would have been impossible to imagine on any production car, Jeep or otherwise . . . until now, that is. It's as if the designers snuck a futuristic concept model out the back door and ordered up full production before any of the higher-ups got wise to the plan.
The rest of the sheet metal appears pretty tame by comparison, but encasing the body in protective lower cladding gives the Cherokee a handsomely rugged silhouette.
The interior is also as modern as the outside. In the last few years Jeep has switched from utilitarian hard plastic dashboards to creating inviting soft-touch shapes. All but the most basic Cherokee models feature 5.0- or 8.4-inch touch-screens, depending on the trim level, that operate climate, communications and infotainment systems. The split-folding and fore-/aft-sliding second-row seat is standard, while an available fold-flat front passenger seat has storage beneath the flip-up bottom cushion.
Concurrent with its groundbreaking design, the 2014 Cherokee takes a fresh approach with its powertrain offerings. Base models feature a Fiat-designed 2.4-liter four-cylinder worth 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque.
Optional is an all-new 3.2-liter V6 that's rated at 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet. It's a subset of Chrysler's 3.6-liter V6 that's the base engine in the Jeep Grand Cherokee plus numerous other models such as the Dodge Ram.
In the case of the Cherokee, selecting the V6 provides a 4,500-pound towing capacity.
Both engines are connected to nine-speed automatic transmissions; it's the first use of that gear changer in any Chrysler. That's also five more ratios than the outgoing Liberty had, while Jeep claims it helps produce crisp off-the-line launches and contributes to the Cherokee's 31-mpg highway rating for the 2.4 and 29 mpg for the 3.2. Jeep hasn't released city mpg numbers yet.
Front-wheel-drive is the Cherokee norm, but buyers will be able to choose from three different four-wheel-drive setups, depending on trim level. Active Drive I, optional in the Sport, Latitude and Limited editions, is a single-speed unit that kicks in automatically whenever tire slip is detected.
Active Drive II, also available in the same models, comes with a two-speed transfer case and is designed for off-road use with either the four- or six-cylinder engines.
However, for rock crawling and boulder hopping, Active Drive Lock, as the name implies, locks up the rear differential in low range. This system is standard in the Cherokee Trailhawk, which is a "Trail Rated" rig outfitted with an off-road suspension (that increases ride height by an inch), skid plates, unique alloy wheels with all-terrain rubber, blacked-out trim and a full-size spare.
All 4x4 systems include Selec-Terrain traction control with five different settings to match the kind of ground you're covering (snow, sand, mud, etc.).
Pricing for the base Cherokee Sport will likely start in the mid-$20,000 range, which sits between the smaller $18,500 (base price) Compass and the larger $30,000 Grand Cherokee, effectively providing a brand-new product in a crucial size and price niche.
But what about the controversy? Forget about it. The Cherokee has veered off its traditional path to seek out new worlds and supporters.
What you should know:
2014 Jeep Cherokee
Type: Four-door, front /four-wheel-drive compact sport utility vehicle
Engines (hp): 2.4-liter DOHC I4 (184); 3.2-liter DOHC V6 (271) Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
Market position: The Cherokee name returns following a lengthy hiatus, but dressed up in more contemporary sheetmetal that belies its ability to still navigate difficult on- and off-road terrain.
Points: Gorgeous design upsets many Jeep purists, but should find favor with a much wider range of new customers; CVTs are the future? How about Jeep's new nine-speed automatic?; Virtually every safety feature in the book is included or can be added; New V6 and three separate 4x4 provide plenty of choice; Nice bridge model between Compass and GC.
Safety: Front airbags; front/rear side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; front knee airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 25/31 (2.4 FWD, est.)
Base price (incl. destination) $25,000 (est.)
Base price: $26,300
Rugged truck-based SUV offers good power plus go-anywhere capability.
Base price: $24,300
Spacious wagon comes with AWD and four- and six-cylinder choices.
Base price: $24,150
All-new 2013 model has improved looks and functionality at a great price.