Why this Jeep should sell -- whether you call it Cherokee or not

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee will probably sell when it appears in dealerships this summer. But it would have sold if it had been called something else.
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Here's the thing about the 2014 Jeep Cherokee that Chrysler Group was forced to reveal on Friday: It's a really good, modern take on the AMC Eagle.

But it's not a Cherokee -- and that to me is what had many Jeep enthusiasts wailing and gnashing their teeth last week when the Web site Jalopnik showed the first images of the coming crossover.

Speaking purely from a styling perspective -- because the vehicle's other details officially remain under embargo until next month's New York auto show -- the vehicle is what Chrysler executives call a "polarizing design."

They're right. I can't think of a better descriptor for styling that some consumers see as "bold" and "innovative" while others suggest, "Kill it. Kill it with fire!"

All styling is subjective, of course. On a personal level, I'm not a fan of the Cherokee's front clip and haven't been since I was first shown the vehicle at a background briefing in December.

The three-light stack to me is disjointed and confusing, and I can't imagine what a repair bill would run to fix a front-end fender-bender involving six light assemblies, seven grille pieces and a giant chromed front air dam. That said, I have very few issues with the design from the A-pillar back.

But I think a good bit of the vitriol hurled at this Jeep since its surprise appearance Friday comes because executives chose to call it Cherokee.

AMC and later Chrysler made more than 2 million copies of the boxy, solid-axle original Cherokee between 1984 and 2001. In many ways, those vehicles defined the SUV for a generation of consumers, and though it has been nearly a dozen years since the last one was built, they are still plentiful on the road and still appear regularly in movies and on TV.

By using that name, Chrysler apparently hopes to capitalize on consumer familiarity, imbuing the new Cherokee by genetics with the impressive off-road capabilities of the last Cherokee. But simply staring at the new vehicle's sizable front overhang will show that such comparisons won't be favorable, leaving Jeep enthusiasts to wonder when if ever they'll see another vehicle like the original Cherokee come down a Chrysler assembly line.

I realize that Chrysler's primary mission -- however distasteful to those that faithfully follow the Jeep gospel -- is to make money by selling automobiles.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee will probably sell when it appears in dealerships this summer. But it would have sold if it had been called something else, leaving Jeep enthusiasts to dream that their powerful, lightweight off-roader would one day return.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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