There’s a lot of equity in car names, especially ones that have been successful. For example, Mustang. Ford has used that name continuously on its sporty car since it debuted nearly 50 years ago.
Car companies sometimes discontinue car names, but they still renew the trademarks for them, sometimes for decades after production stops. They never know when they might want to bring the name back on a new model.
For Chrysler’s Jeep division, the name Cherokee had been laying dormant for about a dozen years, after the blocky small model that wore the badge went away with the creation of the Liberty that replaced it. Yes, “Grand Cherokee” remained, but the smaller, simpler Cherokee bit the dust.
It was announced a couple of years ago that Jeep would bring back the Cherokee as a compact yet capable little SUV. Soon, rumors and misinformation started flying about. Mainly, that Chrysler was just going to rebadged an Alfa Romeo vehicle sold in Europe and call it a Cherokee. (Chrysler’s parent company Fiat also owns the Alfa Romeo brand.) That would amount to blasphemy to the hard-core Jeep crowd.
The reality was that yes, a platform was going to be sourced from Europe, but that it would be designed, engineered and built here in North America to be a true Jeep. Perhaps not as hard-core a Jeep as the Wrangler, but a vehicle worthy of the brand name nonetheless.
Then, images leaked out in advance of what the 2014 Cherokee was going to look like. More “uh-oh,” as the photos were less than flattering and suggested a very strange appearance. A wedge-shaped nose with the vertical Jeep grill slots grafted on, and some wild headlight clusters.
Reality came into view earlier this year when Jeep officially started doing their press tour of the Cherokee. First, the look of the vehicle is much more pleasant than one-dimensional photos suggest. And secondly, this is a vehicle that can be taken off road like a true Jeep. To that point, Chrysler held its worldwide press debut for the car in Westlake Village, with an off-road demonstration course set up in the Malibu hills.
The one niggling thing that stuck with the Jeep in the latter part of its development time was a delay. It seems that Chrysler’s ambitious plans for a 9-speed automatic transmission (that’s not a typo – nine forward gears) didn’t keep pace with the rest of the vehicle, so the launch was delayed from early summer to early fall.
Then, after all the media people had driven the vehicle, Chrysler delayed sending Cherokees to dealers to fix a software issue with that same transmission. Thousands of them sat in storage facilities while engineers worked to solve the issue, much the same way Lincoln let MKZs sit unsold earlier this year while quality issues were dealt with.
While this looks like a bit of a black eye on the vehicle, it really isn’t. In a previous time, suspected defects weren’t dealt with properly at launch time, cars were sent to dealers, then a high percentage of customers were forced to bring the vehicles back in for warranty repairs. A hassle for the customers, a hassle for the dealership service departments, and a negative image of quality would follow the vehicle.
Okay, so 2014 Cherokees are now at Jeep dealers, ready to go, and you should start seeing them on the road. When you do, you’ll find that it does indeed look like a Jeep, albeit a much more modern one. The windshield is steeply raked, and the sides of the body are smooth.
The interior as well is modern and purposeful. That 9-speed automatic works very well, and you can choose a true four wheel drive system in the event you do want to go off onto rough terrain. A four cylinder engine powers base models, while a smooth V6 is an option. Base prices start at $23,000, and a loaded-up Trailhawk model with V6, leather and navigation will be knocking on the $40,000 door.
Is the Cherokee worthy of its name? Absolutely. Especially when you keep in mind that many, many people who bought Cherokees in the 1980s and 1990s never took them off road. The same fate will likely meet this one, especially here in Southern California. But it could go off road if you want it to.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz