The new 2014 Jeep Cherokee attempts to maintain the classic Jeep off-roadability while gaining better mileage and on-road manners.

What’s in a name, Shakespeare once asked. When it comes to cars, quite a bit, especially when it’s one of a handful of truly groundbreaking products. Like the Jeep Cherokee.  The folks at Chrysler had to ask themselves some serious questions before simply slapping that once-formidable badge back on the replacement for the largely unloved Liberty SUV.

The original Cherokee, known internally as the XJ, effectively invented the modern sport-utility vehicle, transforming it from a military and commercial vehicle with a modest following among rugged outdoorsmen into a truly mainstream alternative. Of course, success begets imitation and soon, SUVs were everywhere.  The market quickly moved on and by 2001, Chrysler pulled the plug on what was, by then, a dated and forgotten model.

The Liberty never quite found its groove.  It was neither fish nor fowl, not quite the rugged off-roader nor the smooth on-roader that the market has largely migrated to. So, Jeep hit the “Reset” button and set out to do it again, wisely deciding to abandon the Liberty name and bring back Cherokee. But is it a fit? That’s what we set out to discover when he headed into the hills north of Los Angeles for a good day’s driving in the all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee.

The Trailhawk edition still gets the coveted Jeep Trail Rated badge.

Like most everyone else we’ve talked to, we were more than a little shocked when we got our first look at the new compact ute prior to its official unveiling at the 2013 New York International Auto Show.  To start with, there was that distinctive face – polarizing is the term designer Joe Dehner likes to use.

There’s the familiar seven-slot Jeep grille, yes, indeed.  But the first thing you notice is the crease line that runs across the face, from lamp to lamp.  Add the fact that Dehner and colleagues adopted an unusual split lamp arrangement.  The upper, and more immediately obvious lighting arrangement, which flows into the curvaceous corners of the new Cherokee, are actually LED daytime running lights, or DRLs.

Gone are the traditional, round Jeep headlights, replaced by projector lamps that, in turn, slot into the lower corners of the grille, while the new Cherokee’s foglamps are, well, where you’d expect them, down by the lower, trapezoidal grille.

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Most buyers are likely to seldom see anything worse than gravel or snow.

The new look, to our eyes, has an almost Italian flair to it.  Perhaps that’s no surprise considering the 2014 Jeep Cherokee is based on Chrysler’s new Compact US Wide platform.  Yes, the same, Alfa Romeo-derived “architecture” we first experienced with the launch of the recently reborn Dodge Dart.  And so, yes, another controversial move: Jeep has revived that classic, truck-truck, the original body-on-frame Cherokee, only to transform it into a – dare we say it – crossover.

Which raised the question, as we reached our rendezvous point for the requisite background briefing: Why is there a “Trail Rated” badge on the A-pillar of some of those new Cherokees and not others?

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The answer, we quickly learned, is that among the various grades, Jeep has given the new Trailhawk edition an extra inch of ground clearance, skid plates, and a few other off-road necessities. It has also taken it out to that spiritual home for all Trail Rated Jeep products, the Rubicon Trail, and without a single incident – not even one vehicle needing winching – the new Cherokee held its own over the entire 2-day crawl.

Perhaps the biggest refinements have been made in the cabin of the 2014 Jeep Cherokee.

To replicate that experience, Jeep event planners took us to Canyon Ranch, a rugged patch of tall hills and narrow canyons that somehow has resisted the encroachment of ever-sprawling Los Angeles.  Was it a Rubicon moment? No, but it gave us a good sense of what all but the absolute extreme off-road buyer might experience. And while you won’t confuse the Cherokee Trailhawk for a Jeep Wrangler, the little crossover-ute held its own with reasonable aplomb.

The low-range gearbox and locking diff package let us creep along at a slow-and-steady pace while two new technologies, including a Hill Descent Control and a new Speed Control system allowed us to set fixed speeds – adjustable in 0.6 mph increments. It takes a leap of faith to crest a ridge, look down at the ground, 50 feet below, and nudge ahead. The good news is that we’re here to report on the experience, and we saw no visible damage to the Cherokee short of caked dust.

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All that is great for a fraction of today’s buyers.  But let’s get down to what the majority are asking for.

The unusual lighting layout has proved the most controversial feature of the new Jeep Cherokee.

True, they want to manage those 100-year snowstorms that seem to now be coming twice a decade, and perhaps make it down the deep sand or gravel trail to the family’s lakefront cabin. Enhancing the crossover’s capabilities, all models offer the Terrain Select system, a knob that lets you shift from automatic to Sport, Sand and Snow and Rocks.  A quick turn automatically adjusts a range of vehicle settings including transmission shifts, throttle response, braking and, in the Trailhawk, a variety of other off-road functions.

But the real concerns are on-road manners, and fuel economy.  Or perhaps it’s fuel economy and then on-road manners.

Jeep officials emphasized that the new Cherokee can deliver up to 31 miles per gallon on the highway, a full 45% better mileage than the old Liberty. In reality, you’ll see slightly lower numbers, depending on which grade – and powertrain – you opt for.  The Trailhawk equipped with the 2.4-liter MultiAir inline-four engine, for example, comes in with a 19 City/27 Highway rating, still reasonable if not a segment benchmark.

The new Cherokee offers two engines and three all-wheel-drive packages.

Credit the improved efficiency of the 184-horsepower engine which also grunts out 171 pound-feet of torque.  Give equal credit to the industry-first 9-speed automatic transmission debuting in the 2014 Jeep Cherokee.  Problems with final calibration of that gearbox delayed the originally scheduled media drive for a month but appear to have been resolved. Any fears that the 9-speed would wind up constantly hunting for the right gear proved unfounded.

And that was all the more so with the bigger engine option, a 3.2-liter V-6 – a downsized version of the familiar Chrysler group 3.6-liter six-banger – making 271 hp and 239 lb-ft.  On the rolling, and often steep, hills inland from Malibu, the V-6 was a joy to drive, able to charge up steep inclines, the transmission then seamlessly holding a gear as we swept back downhill into a sharp corner.

While the 2.4-liter engine is a bit sluggish, if acceptable, the V-6 is one of the best options in the segment from a performance perspective.

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The new Cherokee will be offered in both Front- or All-Wheel-Drive configuration, incidentally, with a choice of three increasingly competent AWD systems, topping off with the Trailhawk’s Active Drive Lock.

The Trail Rated badge.

We spent most of the day in various versions of the Latitude, trying out both engines and powertrain layouts.  The mid-range model readily reveals the steps Chrysler has taken to prepare the 2014 Cherokee for the modern world.  It is aerodynamically efficient and designed with an emphasis on on-roadability, if you will, starting with the aluminum, McPherson strut front suspension and the 4-link rear package.

The package took most of the bumps out of driving through the rugged back-country, and the dual pinion electric power-assisted steering system delivered much more of a direct and precise feel than with many of the competitors, notably the latest-generation Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.

From a creature comfort standpoint, the most appealing aspect of the 2014 Jeep Cherokee, however, is certain to be the crossover’s interior, a clear step above what key competitors have achieved, and an even more significant leap compared to the cabin of the old Jeep Liberty.  The hard plastics have, almost to a one, been replaced by more visually and tactilely appealing soft-touch materials which have been brought together with a designer’s eye for refinement.

The Jeep Cherokee's Hill Descent Control at work.

That’s complemented by seats comfortable enough to enjoy on both a long drive or, in the Trailhawk, when bouncing along a rock-strewn trail.  The second-row seats also slide, and can be folded flat – as can the front passenger seat. That improves what is otherwise a bit undersized of a cargo compartment.

Add an abundance of nooks, crannies and flip-up bins, including one atop the instrument panel, with another hidden below the front passenger seat. The Trailhawk, incidentally, tosses in a useful off-road kit with such useful features as a tow strap.  (The off-road model also gets bright red tow hooks mounted on the lower fascia.)

Add in some nice technologies, including a standard 7-inch TFT display in the gauge cluster, an 8.4-inch Uconnect and navigation display, 10 airbags, blind-spot monitor and cross traffic alert, as well as the optional auto park feature – now able to handle perpendicular, as well as parallel spots.

A base 2014 Jeep Cherokee Sport will come in at $22,995 plus destination charges, with the Trailhawk topping the line at $29,495. Add $2,000 for AWD.

But is it a Cherokee? A 2000 XJ model.

Wrapping up our drive we found ourselves of two minds about the new Jeep. By any other name, it would likely be an immediate hit, particularly when it comes to the new buyers the Chrysler off-road division hopes to attract.  Branding it a Cherokee has rubbed some traditional buyers the wrong way, at least if the online forums are any indication. But considering the alternatives available for old Liberty buyers, it would likely be switching to Wrangler, giving the new Cherokee a second look or settling for less competent competitors.

The unusual front design will take some time to get used to, but whether you think it deserves the hallowed Cherokee name or not, this 2014 Jeep crossover-utility vehicle is a great choice for those who want a great on-road package, solid mileage and at least some off-road capabilities.

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