Chrysler’s radical new Jeep Cherokee faces an uphill climb cracking the compact sport- utility vehicle market, and the reviews of its angry-eyed, angular face are making the ascent steeper.
When the storied Cherokee name was last affixed to a Jeep in 2001, it was on a boxy and rugged roustabout with the World War II-style seven-slot grille. The reborn 2014 Cherokee arriving in showrooms rejects the rough edges of yore for a flowing front that creases that classic face and offsets it with daytime running lights that seem to squint down from the hood.
The look created an uproar when it was unveiled earlier this year. Chrysler explained it intentionally crafted a design to elicit love-it or hate-it reactions to make some noise. Now, as the Cherokee hits the streets after delays to work the bugs out of its fuel-saving 9-speed transmissions, reviewers are finding much to like, except when it comes to its looks.
“It’s a turducken of a crossover, a city-friendly crossover stuffed with the heart of a Trail Rated Jeep,” Marty Padgett, a reviewer for the Car Connection website, wrote last month, while slamming the styling because it “flutters between brain-fighting experimentation and duller design by default.”
The irreverent automotive website Jalopnik likened the Cherokee’s face to “an angry snake with complicated orthodonture” in an otherwise positive review this month.
Motor Trend magazine called it “ugly,” yet “luxurious, capable, fuel efficient” and fun to drive on roads or trails: “Looks aside, this might just be one of the best SUVs on sale today, period.”
Chrysler welcomes the controversy, believing that being talked about is better than blending in.
“A little bit of tension is never bad,” Jim Morrison, who runs the Jeep brand in North America, said in an interview. “It’s good for the brand and it’s good for our dealers, who get to bring more people into the showroom.”
The stakes are high for Jeep, which has struggled to lure the suburban families and empty-nester Baby Boomers who have made compact crossover SUVs the fastest-growing vehicle category in the U.S. Compact crossover sales have quintupled since the turn of the century and are projected to be 12.8 percent of the vehicle market this year, compared with 2.3 percent in 2000, according to researcher LMC Automotive.
Buyers like the space, fuel efficiency and affordability of compact crossovers, said Jessica Caldwell, a senior industry analyst for Edmunds.com. The 2014 Cherokee Limited starts at $22,995, nearly $7,000 less than its larger sibling, the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
“It checks a lot of boxes for consumers,” Caldwell said of compact SUVs, once derided as “cute-utes.” “It was a chick’s car for a long time, but the mass appeal is definitely growing.”
Jeep’s last offering in the category, the Liberty, couldn’t crack the top five in sales, which includes the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4. Chrysler stopped building the Liberty a year ago as it geared up to introduce the Cherokee, which is built on the same smooth-riding chassis as Chrysler’s Dodge Dart compact car. Chrysler said it considers the new Cherokee a mid- sized SUV, though it lacks a third row typical of that size.
Under the hood, the Cherokee’s fuel-saving nine-speed automatic transmission, a segment first, helps the SUV get 31 miles (50 kilometers) per gallon on the highway, a 45 percent improvement over the Liberty. The four-cylinder engine can tow a ton, while the off-road oriented Trailhawk version rides an inch (2.5 centimeters) higher and can pull 4,500 pounds (2,000 kilograms). The Trailhawk, expected to sell to Jeep traditionalists, starts at $29,495.
“Now that we have the formula right, we’re just bringing it to the largest segment of SUVs in America,” Morrison said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to really get into the segment we’ve been missing out on for a number of years.”
Jeep missed the compact crossover craze even as it had hot SUV models on the high-end with the upscale Jeep Grand Cherokee and at the bottom with the rough and ready Wrangler, a dream car to legions of teen-aged boys. Chrysler sold 474,131 Jeeps in the U.S. last year, about 80,000 shy of the brand’s 1999 peak.
The Cherokee is the first attempt by Chrysler’s majority owner, Fiat SpA, to bring some of its Italian flair and technology to create a Jeep that is as good on gasoline as it is climbing a cliff. The model will be sold in 150 countries and is a key part of Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne’s goal of expanding Jeep globally, as he combines Fiat and Chrysler to take on the world’s largest automakers.
“If you really want volume, you have to appeal to the masses,” Reid Bigland, Chrysler’s U.S. sales chief, said in an interview.
With so much riding on the new Cherokee, some reviewers and analysts wonder why Jeep strayed so far from its rugged roots in the design.
“The direction they took certainly is a risk,” said Jeff Schuster, an auto analyst for LMC. “But they’re also trying to carve out their space in a crowded segment. Sometimes that pushes you into a design that may be a little more different and assertive.”
Ford took a risk with the Escape when it softened the styling for the 2013 model year to better compete with the rounded Asian offerings. The result: Escape sales are up 14 percent this year and nipping at Honda’s wheels. Through September, Honda sold 229,082 CR-Vs, Ford sold 228,290 Escapes and Toyota had 160,242 RAV4 deliveries. Escape and CR-V are among the 10 top-selling vehicles in the U.S. so far this year.
The Cherokee’s challenge is its own iconic history. Introduced in 1974, Cherokee was an immediate hit and, after a refined redesign in 1984, it ushered in the SUV era. Jeep sold more than 1.5 million Cherokees worldwide from 1986 through 2001. Cherokee’s success inspired the luxurious and larger Grand Cherokee and the Ford Explorer, the top-selling SUVs of the 1990s, which still attract crowds willing to pay premium prices.
To Autoweek magazine, Jeep strayed too far from its storied past with the Cherokee’s rakish new look, though it gave it an otherwise positive evaluation. It included a helpful graphic to explain the new Jeep’s three rows of front lights. “Those squinty things on top aren’t actually headlights,” it says.
“The 2014 Cherokee not only resurrects a vaunted nameplate but also presents buyers with a controversial new Jeep face, reactions to which have run a relatively narrow gamut from ‘hideous’ to ‘meh,'” wrote Andrew Stoy in the Autoweek review. “Your author began in the former camp but has slowly drifted to a more positive attitude — you get used to the look.”
If buyers do get used to the Cherokee’s polarizing new look, it could become like the summer film blockbuster that reviewers hate even as plenty of popcorn eaters fill the seats.
“You can have a movie that a critic doesn’t like for various reasons, but it can still be a money maker for the studio,” Schuster said. “That can be the case for the Cherokee as well.”