Consider the original Jeep Cherokee a founding member of the compact SUV club.
It defined a simple formula: Spartan, boxy, rugged. Jeep started selling the Cherokee in 1984 and discontinued it for the U.S. market in 2001. It joined the Chevy Blazer and Isuzu Trooper as retired members of this forgotten club.
The truck-like Cherokee was ushered out by the softer Liberty, a rear-drive vehicle more in touch with the burgeoning crossover trend that continues today (the Cherokee name lived on in foreign markets). The Liberty was a hit for Jeep, selling on pace with titans of the segment such as the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V.
But sales had waned by 2009, as competitors from Toyota, Kia, Nissan, Subaru and Hyundai crowded the field. Some of the Liberty's problems were self-inflicted: Jeep fragmented its small crossover lineup by adding the Compass and Patriot.
For 2014, the Cherokee name is back.
This time it's affixed to a forward-thinking crossover that starts at $23,990. Highlights include a groundbreaking design, a nine-speed automatic transmission and enough engine and trim options to draw a wide swath of shoppers. The Cherokee returns as a higher-stakes play for Jeep and parent company Fiat Chrysler, in a compact crossover segment that has doubled in size in the last decade to 10% of the market.
The Cherokee itself is surprisingly small, even in a compact segment, and that could turn away some buyers. It's built on a front-wheel-drive Fiat platform that also underpins the compact Dodge Dart and upcoming Chrysler 200 sedan. Front and rear passengers have plenty of space, but the cargo area suffers, with measurements lagging significantly behind the pack.
You might think that means the Cherokee is more nimble or easier to park, but the Jeep is no shorter than its peers on the outside.
The cabin is refined and quiet enough to match any of the Jeep's competitors. This long list includes the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Chevy Equinox, and even the tidy Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage.
The lack of hauling space is a conspicuous mark against an otherwise worthy vehicle with an eye-catching design. The traditional vertical slats in the grille — which have adorned Jeeps since the dawn of time — are still there. But nothing else on the Cherokee's face has been done before by the brand.
In photos, the new Cherokee looks like an awkward prop vehicle from a bad sci-fi movie. Thin LED lights at the upper corners of the crossover look like squinting eyes where we traditionally expect headlights. The real headlights are actually the smaller round guys hidden in plain sight just below the LEDs.
Viewed in person, however, the Cherokee looks bold rather than ugly. The look is futuristic, a risky move for Jeep. But it separates this model from the rest of the interchangeable pack in a refreshing way. Chrysler hopes it will do this for years.
"Remember that this vehicle will still be in the market in 2018 or 2019," said Mike Manley, Jeep's chief executive. "It's a very competitive segment, so we knew, across all the key elements, that we had to be progressive in every sense that we could be."
The Cherokee also happens to look good in hiking boots and a flannel jacket. Although most Cherokee buyers will opt for the pavement-friendly Sport, Latitude, or Limited versions, Jeep has tried to stay true to its off-road roots by including the optional Trailhawk version.
This package starts at $30,490 for a four-cylinder model and comes in all-wheel-drive form only. Standard gear is the kind that the mud and rock guys covet, including more aggressively styled front and rear bumpers, a 1-inch lift to the chassis, a locking rear differential, skid plates, tow hooks and five selectable modes for the AWD system.
We spent a week in a fully loaded V-6 model that stomped out the door for $38,710. This included leather seats that were heated up front, a heated steering wheel, an 8.4-inch touch-screen navigation and infotainment system, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and crash mitigation, and parallel parking assist.
The engine under our tester's hood was a 3.2-liter V-6 from the much-lauded Pentastar family of engines. Here it lives up to expectations, making 271 smooth horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy clocks in at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. During 300 miles of testing in mixed driving, we averaged 20.5 mpg.
But $38,710 is goofy money to spend in this segment. If you really are that worried about keeping your man card by buying the Trailhawk edition, skip most of the option packages. Spring for the excellent touch-screen navigation system (in any of the Cherokees), because it's a steal at $795, and a smart buyer can go home with a four-cylinder model for a much more reasonable $31,285.
But the Trailhawk edition is a savvy marketing move. Jeep can use it to appeal to brand loyalists and adrenaline-fueled outdoor enthusiasts with splashy ads like those during the Super Bowl.
At the same time, Jeep can highlight the cotton-soft, family-friendly side of the Cherokee in other mainstream advertising spaces. It's this cheaper Cherokee that will make up the lion's share of sales.
The $27,985 Latitude we tested came in front-wheel-drive guise, with the base 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine that makes 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. It's a smooth, capable unit that serves its purpose well. That is, when the transmission would allow it.
All new Cherokees use an all-new nine-speed automatic transmission to hunt for the last drops of fuel economy. Our time in the four- and six-cylinder models revealed that the transmissions in both were generally fine but a bit reluctant to downshift when more power was needed. (Stomping helped.)
With nine speeds to choose from, the reluctance to shift was surprising. We also noticed occasionally abrupt upshifts when the vehicle was cold.
But the only big drawback was cargo room. If the Cherokee lands on your shopping list — and it should — beg the salesman's forgiveness and pull over during the test drive. Pop the trunk and take a deep look at the cargo area. If you can live with the smaller space, you can live with this Jeep.