After more than a decade in hibernation, the Jeep Cherokee will return as a front-wheel-drive crossover and make its debut Wednesday at the New York International Auto Show.
The Cherokee returns to a much more competitive segment. No fewer than nine crossovers and SUVs will be unveiled this week at the auto show, which opens to the media Wednesday. Some of the new entries are merely midlife updates. Others, including the Cherokee, are wholesale reinventions.
The Cherokee name has been out of use since 2001, when Jeep put out to pasture the boxy, truck-based SUV that helped define the segment in the mid-1980s. When the covers come off the 2014 model Wednesday, it will bring into sharp relief how much consumer preferences have changed.
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In just the last 10 years, truck-based SUV sales have fallen to 6% of new car sales in the U.S., down from 13.5% in 2002, according to auto information company Edmunds.com. Meanwhile, sales of crossovers, based on car platforms, have jumped to 18.5% in 2012 from 8.1% in 2002.
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Reflecting this shift, the mid-size Cherokee now shares a platform with the compact front-wheel-drive Dodge Dart sedan. The five-seat Cherokee replaces the poorly received Liberty and will be positioned below Jeep’s larger Grand Cherokee in the automaker’s lineup.
The Cherokee’s radical exterior hopes to pull in shoppers who might be bored by the look of competitors such as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. With a clean-slate restart of the Cherokee nameplate, Jeep saw a rare opportunity to redefine the public’s perception of its brand.
“I like that it’s not a box,” said Mark Allen, head of Jeep’s design. “It’s a bit of a surprise coming from our brand.”
Because the design of the new Cherokee will remain largely unchanged until at least 2019, Allen said it needed to be forward-thinking. So the Cherokee wears a futuristic face with thin, LED daytime lights squinting from the side of Jeep’s traditional seven-slot grille.
The back of the Cherokee is a more traditional design, although it too features LED lights, this time in the tail lamps.
Standard on all models will be the first nine-speed automatic transmission in an SUV, according to Jeep. The gearbox will help the four-cylinder Cherokee get 45% better fuel economy than its predecessor, Jeep said. The outgoing Liberty is rated at 16 mpg in the city, 22 on the highway.
The base engine on the Cherokee will be a 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine producing 187 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. The optional engine will be a 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6, a close cousin to the highly acclaimed 3.6-liter Pentastar engine that’s in a number of Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles.
The new V-6 will generate 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque, and will be capable of towing as much as 4,500 pounds. The Cherokee’s V-6 gives Jeep a rare option in a segment in which higher-powered engines are being phased out. The Cherokee will come standard with front wheel drive, though a trio of all-wheel-drive systems will be optional.