The classic Jeep Cherokee name has been resurrected for 2014 in the form of a very modern vehicle.
The all-new small crossover SUV is aimed squarely at the likes of the Toyota Rav4 and Ford Escape with a car-like ride and amenities wrapped in a radical style for the traditional brand, and marks a big departure from the much more truckin’ Liberty it replaces.
With a starting price of $23,900, the Cherokee is based on the front-wheel-drive chassis of the Dodge Dart, but beefed up here for Jeep duty. A 184 hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is standard, while a 271 hp V6 is also offered, both matched to Jeep’s first nine-speed automatic transmission.
The four-cylinder is rated at 31 mpg highway with front-wheel-drive, while the V6 can tow up to 4,500 pounds. Three different all-wheel-drive systems with increasing capability are available across four trim levels, and each can be had with either engine choice.
The cabin is on the large size for the class, and features a sliding rear seat for extra legroom. Top models get Chrysler’s ubiquitous 8.4-inch touchscreen and voice-controlled Uconnect infotainment system and a 7-inch configurable display in the instrument cluster.
The exterior is the real talking point, however, with its six-eyed, shark-nosed face. Please note that the headlights are the ones in the middle of the stack as they are on the Nissan Juke and Pontiac Aztek, which seems to be finally getting its due in design circles, or perhaps revenge.
Jeep says it was going for an expressive, bold look, and it definitely achieved that. While the rest of the body is fairly conventional, the overall effect is about as far as you can get from the boxy Cherokees of old. On the road, and particularly in the dirt, I think it looks great in a Mars exploration buggy sort of way.
This is especially true on the Trail Rated Trailhawk model, which gets a one-inch suspension lift, skid plates, unique wheels, bright orange tow hooks and a matte-black insert on its aluminum hood to set it apart from the rest of the lineup. It can be ordered with either engine, but has the top all-wheel-drive system with a low range transfer case, locking rear differential and 4.083 final drive ratio for dirt road cred.
Back on the street, all of the Cherokees ride big and little floaty with none of the relatively sharp moves of a Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5, but they are quiet. Controlling road is a high priority at Jeep, and apparently something it’s very good at. Optional blind spot alert, land departure warning, radar cruise control, and a self-parking system that can pull the Cherokee into parallel or perpendicular spaces let you leave more of the driving to it.
The four-cylinder has the same power as pretty much every other vehicle in this segment and is more than sufficient, though not particularly sonorous, while the V6 is spot on across the board. Since it costs just an extra $1,495 and only takes about a 10 percent hit on fuel economy, it’s probably worth stretching your budget for now that you can actually buy one.
The Cherokee was scheduled to go on sale way back in May, but is just reaching showrooms now. The holdup was mostly due to issues getting the programming right on that nine-speed transmission. Besides being an all-new technology, it needed to be calibrated for eight different drivetrain combinations. Keep it simple, stupid? Sorry, engineers don’t think that way.
As it turns out, it operates quite well on the move. It’s not a crisp-shifting unit, but shuffles through its multitude of gears smoothly and without any obvious stumbles. The only hitch is that when you first shift it into Drive it takes a noticeably long time to engage, like an actor letting a moment land during a dramatic monologue before he continues. The effect is less appealing here.
As with the Grand Cherokee, most people who buy its little sister will do so because they like its size, comfort and style, and maybe they live somewhere that it snows. They should be satisfied. That is, of course, not good enough for Jeep. It does have a self-imposed reputation to uphold, especially when it hangs the Cherokee shingle on one of its vehicles.
The next time you’re at an off-road park, look both ways before crossing the trails. You’ll probably see more than a few XJ Cherokees with their Uniframes and Dana axles scrambling around like they own the place. Next to the Wrangler, it’s the most common Jeep out in the rough stuff, but the new one is no slouch.
Jeep’s Cherokee head honcho Mitch Clauw, a veteran from the XJ days, says that even though the new one is more car than truck, it was built to a much higher durability standard than the original and can do everything its forebear can off-road, maybe more.
Assisting it in this mission is a suite of electronic aids for its all-wheel-drive system that includes hill descent control, a low-speed cruise control that works down to .6 mph, and Select-Terrain, with settings for sand, rock, unplowed mall parking lot, etc.
Even with Select-Terrain left in Auto, the Cherokee had no trouble navigating the 4x4 trails at Summit Point Motorsports park, which are sprinkled with boulders, mud pits, and a couple of very steep and slippery climbs that are as challenging as anything you’re likely to tackle with an unmodified vehicle.
Since Jeep organized the event there, that’s no surprise. What’s impressive is how the Cherokee went about its business. That cushy independent suspension has a lot of composure here, it doesn’t bounce or bang you around, and even though I scraped the skid plates a few times I don’t recall the shocks bottoming out at all.
Don’t worry, adventure guy, you can be sure that Mopar and all of those Jeep outfitters out there will soon be selling plenty of accessories to make it even more capable, but the factory truck appears to have earned its Trail Rating, not to mention the Cherokee name.
Now, about that Comanche…
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.