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 made 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 carlike, fuel-efficient competitors like the Chevrolet Equinox and Toyota RAV4. The new Cherokee goes on sale this fall.
Jeep President and CEO Mike Manley said the new Cherokee is a capable off-road vehicle that also performs well on pavement.
"It's true to Jeep, but now will have all the attributes that those customers that may have bought an import brand, for example, or a different vehicle, have been looking for," he said.