DETROIT - The Jeep Cherokee is back, with a surprising design that could win some new buyers but lose some old fans.
The 2014 Cherokee midsize SUV makes its debut Wednesday at the New York International Auto Show. The remake is so radical that observers might not realize it's a Jeep.
The new Cherokee ditches Jeep's traditional boxy look for a more aerodynamic style. It replaces the brand's signature round headlights with sharply angled slits. The interior is plush and full of luxury options like automatic parallel parking. Even Jeep's seven-slat grille didn't go untouched — it's much smaller and creased in the middle to fold over the Cherokee's nose.
It's a look more reminiscent of a Honda CR-V than the model it replaces — the Liberty — and past Cherokees that helped establish Jeep as a symbol of toughness and off-road adventure.
All this isn't sitting well with some Jeep fans, who say the 72-year-old brand is straying too far from its rugged, utilitarian roots. They bemoan the new styling and softer ride, saying it's more suited for a trip to the mall than the Rubicon trail.
"It's the ugliest thing I've ever seen on the road and to put a Jeep badge on it, let alone call it a Cherokee, is an insult to the name and heritage that Jeep has always delivered," says Micah Myers, a longtime Jeep fan from Lexington Park, Md., who drives a 13-year-old Cherokee.
Chrysler Group, Jeep's parent, acknowledges that the design is polarizing. But Jeep needs to win back the suburbanites who have spent the last decade defecting to a newer batch of car-like, fuel-efficient competitors like the Chevrolet Equinox and Toyota RAV4. The new Cherokee goes on sale this fall.
In 2002, after Jeep replaced the aging Cherokee with the cheaper, smaller Liberty, a record 171,212 were sold in the U.S., according to Ward's AutoInfoBank. Last year that fell to 75,482. The CR-V outsold the Liberty by more than three to one.
"They need to do something different, and that kind of vehicle is something different altogether," says Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at the car-buying site Edmunds.com. "They have to stretch that brand."
Jeep — and other automakers — are also under pressure to meet increasing U.S. fuel economy requirements. That explains the aerodynamic style and the new nine-speed transmission under the hood. The all-wheel-drive Liberty currently gets 22 miles per gallon on the highway, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, making it one of the worst performers among midsize SUVs. The new Cherokee will get up to 31 mpg on the highway.
Finally, Jeep needs the SUV to appeal to customers around the world, not just adventurous types. The Cherokee will be built in Toledo, Ohio, but exported to more than 150 countries, including China.
"We wanted a design that is fluid and efficient yet still rugged and looks at home on the trail or at the theatre," said Mark Allen, Jeep's design chief.
The Cherokee first went on sale in 1974, when Jeep was still owned by American Motors Corp. In 1984, American Motors released a new Cherokee that was smaller, narrower and lighter than the original, essentially inventing the sport utility vehicle. Sales soared. More than 100,000 Cherokees were sold each year between 1986 and 2001. Off-roaders were big fans because of the Cherokee's capability.
In 2001, Jeep's new owner, Chrysler, revamped the SUV again. It changed the name to Liberty, which tested better in focus groups and helped attract new buyers. The Liberty initially sold well, but then struggled as the midsize SUV market got more crowded and Chrysler — which went through bankruptcy in 2009 — invested little money in it.
Krebs says bringing back the Cherokee name makes sense, since it fits neatly under its larger sibling, the Grand Cherokee SUV. It will also save Chrysler money, since the vehicle has always kept the Cherokee name in international markets.
But purists complain that the plush new model is nothing like Cherokees of old. For one thing, it shares a car underbody with Chrysler's Italian partner, Fiat SpA, instead of a platform designed for off-roading. Nearly 900 fans have already "liked" a Facebook petition asking Chrysler not to call the new SUV a Cherokee.
David Silecchia, who has owned three Cherokee XJs from 1988, 1998 and 2000, thinks the 2014 Cherokee will sell, but not to rock-climbing adventurers like him.
"Jeep now seems to want to appeal to the people who go to the mall, throw a bunch of shopping bags in the back, drive home and read a book," said Silecchia, a student and information technology worker in Georgia. "The 2014 Cherokee is a nice vehicle, don't get me wrong, but not a suitable "rebirth" of the Cherokee name."
Chrysler insists that the new Cherokee can capably tackle rough terrain. It has more low-gear power for towing and climbing steep grades than the 2001 Cherokee. At 184 horsepower, the base, four-cylinder engine is slightly less powerful than the 2001 Cherokee's base V6, but it's much more efficient. The new Cherokee also offers a 271-horsepower V6. The new Cherokee can tow up to 4,500 pounds, which is more than any other vehicle its size but about 500 pounds less than the 2001 version.
A Trailhawk edition of the new Cherokee carries Jeep's "trail rated" badge, which means it can handle a series of challenging off-road conditions, including fording water.
Dave Sullivan, an analyst with the consulting firm AutoPacific, says the higher-priced, fully-loaded versions of the Cherokee should be very capable. But he thinks the drastic redesign will cost Jeep some loyalists.
Jeep, like Toyota, has been successful partly because its design changes are usually subtle, Sullivan says. The two-door Jeep Wrangler, for instance, has changed little since it went on sale in 1987, but it's by far the bestselling small SUV in the U.S.
"This is not an edgy brand. It should not be about spending money on outrageous design," he said. "It's all about the off-road design and capability."