LOS ANGELES?As if shoppers looking at mid-size SUVs weren?t already faced with a dizzying array of product, Jeep is now jumping in with an all-new 2014 Cherokee.
And why not? More than 200,000 mid-size SUV/CUVs were sold in Canada last year and Chrysler/Jeep wants a piece of the action.
With the clunky and slow-selling Jeep Liberty gone, the automaker has high hopes for this tidy crossover that?s built on the Dodge Dart front-drive platform and revives the revered Cherokee nameplate.
The original box-on-wheels Jeep Cherokee was sold from 1984 to 2001 and arguably invented the mid-size SUV segment. So this 2014 redux has pretty big hiking boots to fill.
Or maybe not. This vehicle is aimed at a completely new demographic ? one that couldn?t tell an original Cherokee from a tool shed (then again, who can?) and doesn?t care that their grocery getter?s platform with the iconic name finds its roots in the Alfa Romeo Guilietta.
Not to say Jeep has abandoned its core values here. The trail-rated Trailhawk edition can indeed negotiate mind-boggling terrain, as I discovered on a pretty extreme course Jeep set up.
But the biggest challenge facing the new Cherokee isn?t a bunch of boulders and ditches. It needs to sway buyers from segment leaders Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe and Toyota RAV4.
The Cherokee?s unique (contentious?) front-end styling and aggressive pricing will certainly get it noticed.
The new Jeep starts at $23,495 for the front-drive Sport 4×2, powered by a 2.4-L MultiAir four, generating 184 hp and 171 lb.-ft. of torque. The Sport 4×4 runs $25,695, making it the least expensive all-wheel-driver in the segment.
With the Sport, you?re getting cloth seating, air conditioning, hands-free communication, USB, 10 airbags, 17-inch steel wheels, LED taillights and tilt-only steering wheel with cruise buttons.
Other trims are the $26,495 North Edition, the $29,995 Limited and the $32,195 Trailhawk.
Although most competitors have abandoned V6 power in this segment, Jeep offers a 271-hp, 239-lb.-ft. 3.2-L Pentastar V6 right across the board. The $1,300 upgrade can be had with front or all-wheel-drive on all models, save the jacked-up, body-clad and skid-plated Trailhawk, which is 4×4 only.
This being Jeep, you know it?s going to have the traction issues covered. The Cherokee?s new fully automatic all-wheel-drive system comes in three flavours, and all decouple the rear wheels for improved fuel economy when additional traction is not needed.
Active Drive I is your basic ?slip and grip? system, and is all most customers will need. Active Drive II adds a two-speed transfer case that gives a low range and a mode that locks the front and rear axles.
Available only on the Trailhawk is Active Drive Lock, which adds a locking rear differential. All 4×4 systems have a rotary Selec-Terrain dial that calls up different driving modes ? auto, sport, snow, sand/mud and (Trailhawk only) Rock.
There is only one transmission available for all models: a new nine-speed automatic developed by German tranny guru ZF.
There were no Sports on hand at this media event, so I jumped into the next-up four-cylinder North Edition 4×2, at $26,495.
First impressions are favourable. The 2.4 L might not be a powerhouse but it is adequate. The Cherokee has a compliant, quiet ride and an alert chassis that seemed pretty happy zipping along the twists and turns of Mulholland Drive.
Steering is nicely direct and the transmission is exceptionally well-behaved. Shifts are seamless and it reads your driving style ? no undue hunting or upshifting into corners.
The North Edition?s extra $3,000 nets 17-inch alloys, exterior trim upgrades, leather-trimmed steering wheel, 115-volt power outlet, extra interior storage, one-touch front windows, one year of Sirius radio, fog lamps and integrated climate controls in the touch-screen radio.
Next to drive was a loaded Limited 4×4, with the Pentastar V6, at about $37,000. Faster, considerably more chi-chi (18-inch alloys, Nappa leather, proximity key, 8.4-inch touch screen with navigation, back-up camera, dual-zone climate control, a full-colour customizable central display) and more adept in the twisties, this version might give the Mazda CX-5 a run for class athlete.
Also available are adaptive cruise control with full stop, blind-pot warning, collision warning, ventilated seats and, for the spatially challenged, self parking (both parallel and perpendicular).
Where the Cherokee falls short of the competition is in interior space. Yes, the rear seats have six inches of travel, but in the rearmost position, legroom is just adequate. The hatch is small, has a high load floor and the raked roofline cuts into its functionality.
Cargo capacity with rear seats both up and down is about 25 per cent less than the CR-V and RAV4. It?s even less than little brother Jeep Compass, which the PR folks consider a compact SUV to the Cherokee?s mid-size classification.
That said, if ultimate haulage is not your concern, this tough little customer with the seven-slot grill and Clint Eastwood squint is worth a look, not least because it undercuts the competition in the all-wheel-drive sweepstakes.
Are you feelin? lucky, punk? The market will soon tell.
Transportation for freelance writer Peter Bleakney was provided by the manufacturer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
2014 Jeep Cherokee
Price: $23,495 base, $37,000 as tested
Engine: 2.4 L MultiAir four/3.2 L Pentastar V6
Power/torque: 184 hp/171 lb.-ft., 271/239
Fuel consumption L/100 km: 9.6 city, 6.4 hwy (2.4 L 4×2); 9.9, 7.0 (2.4 L Active Drive I); 10.0, 7.3 (2.4 L Active Drive II); 10.8, 7.0 (3.2 L 4×2); 11.1, 7.4 (3.2 L Active Drive I); 11.1, 7.7 (3.2 L Active Drive II)
Competition: Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Chevy Equinox
What?s best: Value, stand-out styling, good on-road dynamics, crazy capable off-road (Trailhawk).
What?s worst: Cargo capacity trails competition.
What?s interesting: Nine, count ?em, nine speeds in your tranny.