Is the 2014 Jeep Cherokee really a Jeep? A first take on Jeep’s new bambino

2014 Jeep Cherokee

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee had a rocky unveiling at the New York International Auto Show.

Perhaps the most controversial car at the New York International Auto Show wasn’t a car but a sport-utility vehicle, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee.

And that’s one of the controversial elements, calling the new SUV a Cherokee. Not Jeep Grand Cherokee. But just plain Jeep Cherokee. Critics said that consumers won’t be able tell the difference between a Cherokee and a Grand Cherokee, which doesn’t say much about the critics’ opinion of the general public’s intelligence. People were able to take the addition of the Grand Cherokee as a larger SUV than the original Jeep Cherokee when the Grand arrived in 1998. And anyway, the Liberty was known as the Cherokee in other markets worldwide.

In fact, the original Jeep Cherokee arrived in 1973 as a two-door, sportier version of the Jeep Wagoneer. A four door version arrived a couple of years later. But the smaller Jeep Cherokee didn’t arrive until 1983 as a 1984 model, and that basic model would continue through 2001. With unitbody construction, the Jeep Cherokee was unique in the SUV world, which was awash with truck-framed sport-utilities, and much lighter than its predecessor. By the time the Cherokee went out of production, more than two million had been built.

Another complaint among critics at the auto show was the Jeep Cherokee’s styling. It’s polarizing, to say the least, and definitely a reach for Jeep. The Cherokee replaces the Jeep Liberty, very traditional Jeep with its vertical seven-slot grille and round headlights. The 2014 Jeep Cherokee, however, has a seven-slot grille, but it’s creased back at an angle, and the headlamps are little more than slits, definitely anything but round. But time marches on.

On the other hand, the current Grand Cherokee’s headlights aren’t round, the headlights of the Jeep Compass aren’t round, and the Jeep Patriot’s, well, the Jeep Patriot’s are round and so are the Jeep Wrangler’s. But for some traditionalists, Jeep headlights will never be right until they’re round.

The platform, it’s also argued, isn’t Jeep, but rather the Chrysler Group’s Compact U.S. Wide (CUS-wide) platform that underpins the Dodge Dart, which of course is a variation on the platform used by the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which of course is part of the Fiat Group. The new Cherokee, however, has increased torsional stiffness over the outgoing Liberty. About 65 percent of the 2014 Jeep Cherokee’s body structure is either hot stamped-, high-strength- or ultra-high-strength steel.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee gains fully-independent suspension, replacing the relatively antiquated live rear axle arrangement of the Liberty. The Liberty didn’t have a reputation for the smoothest highway ride, something the new suspension should help.

What makes it a Jeep, however, is that it is, to use Jeep’s terminology, “trail rated.” And the new Cherokee is, or at least can be, with the 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk model. Like the Liberty before it (as well as the Compass and Patriot), the base Cherokee can go off-roading but the Trailhawk also can go quite seriously, with among other things, an added inch extra ground clearance.

Consider the Cherokee’s drivetrain alternatives, three new four-wheel-drive systems, called Jeep Active Drive I with one-speed power transfer unit (PTU), Jeep Active Drive II with two-speed PTU and low range, and Jeep Active Drive Lock with two-speed PTU, low range and locking rear differential. Jeep Selec-Terrain electronic traction control system with up to five customized modes – Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud and Rock—is also available on the new Jeep Cherokee. With the two-speed PTU, the Cherokee can have up to a 56:1 crawl ratio, almost double (or able to crawl half the speed) of the Jeep Liberty.

The new Jeep Cherokee, however, is nominally front-wheel drive, and it’s notable that the rear drivetrain of the four-wheel drive system can be disconnected for better fuel economy when four-wheel traction isn’t required. That’s more in keeping with the CUS-wide platform siblings, but it also allows better fuel economy without the drag of the rear-wheel drive bits.

The standard engine will be the 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir inline four-cylinder engine, replacing the 3.7-liter V6 that produces a meager-for-its-displacement 210 hp and 235 pound-feet of torque. The 2.4-liter four is rated at produces 184 horsepower and 171 lb-ft of torque, though will have a 45-percent fuel economy improvement over the Liberty and nearly 500-mile range.

The 2014 Cherokee will be the first model to get Chrysler Group’s new 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6 engine. As its name suggests, it a derivative of the ubiquitous 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6. We don’t have numbers, but the new-design 3.2-liter V-6 is undoubtedly lighter than the old V-6 is replaces, and it definitely has higher output, at 271 horsepower and 239 lb.-ft. of torque. Jeep gives the engine credit for a claimed “best-in-class V-6” tow rating of 4,500 pounds.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee will also get a nine-speed automatic transmission. That’s not a misprint. Yes, nine speeds, and durable for any Cherokee application. The nine-speed will have a wider range of ratios for quicker take-off and lower engine speeds on the highway. As with the outgoing Liberty, no manual transmission will be available.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee will take a great leap forward in both civility and equipment, easy enough to do as the Liberty had become crude for the marketplace. The Cherokee’s interior and technical bits are now like the Grand Cherokee’s. Jeepness enough? We’ll tell you when we drive it. Anticipated arrival is this summer.

And finally, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee will be built in the Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio. And Toledo is the mothership of Jeep.

The new 2014 Jeep Cherokee’s styling seems to be the primary complaint. Well, bosh. Think of it as a new tradition, one that, when eventually changed, will be the tradition that shouldn’t be changed.

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