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Jeep's iconic nameplate has been revived, but nothing about its new crossover looks to the past.

How the automotive landscape has changed in recent years. One by one, the sacred cows have been tipped over, toppled by the invisible hands of company growth targets, increasing efficiency standards and shifting consumer preferences.

We now live in a world with an automatic-only Porsche 911 GT3, a BMW 3-Series bereft of sublime steering and a Jeep Cherokee that looks nothing like the crate it was shipped in.

Of course, change isn't always a bad thing, especially in the case of the Cherokee. Had Jeep decided to favor stylistic evolution instead of revolution, the brand might not have been able to liberate its new model from the memory of its lackluster Jeep Liberty predecessor. And that would have been a pity, because the new Cherokee is a major step forward that stands with the best the compact crossover segment has to offer.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
French philosopher Albert Camus wrote that "to breathe is to judge," and it's certainly difficult for anyone with a pulse not to have an opinion about the Cherokee's sheetmetal. Eschewing the boxy lines of the Liberty and the much-beloved "XJ" Cherokee, it adopts a menacing face marked by an unusual triple-level light treatment and a deep crease than runs all the way from the seven-slot grille onto the rear liftgate.

Whatever your take on the polarizing new look, it certainly demands attention and achieves the vital task of setting the Cherokee apart in one of the market's most crowded and viscously competitive segments.

Beneath the flashy duds, there's genuine substance to go along with the style. A version of the Fiat-derived, FWD-based Compact U.S. Wide architecture that forms the basis of the Dodge Dart provides the Cherokee with a lighter, stronger and more dynamically-gifted foundation than its forbears, which also relied on unibody (albeit RWD-based) underpinnings.

Forget all about the Liberty's primitive interior design and Rubbermaid furnishings - with an attractive layout, ample tech goodies and generous swaths of premium materials, the Cherokee's cabin is in the running for best-in-class honors. Soft-touch panels on the dashboard and doors set the tone, with details like convincing faux-metal trim and stitched accents providing pleasing garnishments.

Looking to add a few reminders of Jeep's heritage to contrast with the wild exterior, designers say they shaped the trim around the central air vents and infotainment screen to resemble the front end of the original Willys (a stretch?), included Willys as reference cars for the parking assist system's display, and also hid a depiction of the Hell's Revenge trail in Moab, Utah, as an "Easter egg" in the interior plastic.

Vehicle info is relayed through an available seven-inch screen in the instrument cluster, and Chrysler's excellent Uconnect Access infotainment system with its attendant 8.4-inch touchscreen is optional. An impressively extensive range of other safety and convenience features can also be spec'd, including heated/ventilated front seats, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring with cross traffic assist, and automated parallel and perpendicular parking systems.

Go wild with the options, and the Cherokee can approach the $40,000 mark in range-topping Limited trim, although you don't need to spend that much to get a nicely-equipped example - the volume-selling Latitude starts at $24,495 and comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, 10 airbags, a 5.0-inch touchscreen, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, Bluetooth and a household-style 115-volt power outlet.

Really our only serious gripe with the interior stems from a relative lack of cargo capacity. Jeep markets the Cherokee as a mid-size crossover, and that's certainly true with respect to the exterior, which stretches about four inches longer than rivals like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. It's a different story inside, though, with the Cherokee offering only about 55 cubic of stowage space with the rear seats folded; the Escape and CR-V can haul around 70 cubes. Still, it's worth noting that there's ample real estate for the rearmost passengers, and the 2nd-row seats feature six inches of fore/aft adjustability to prioritize people or cargo space as needed.

Engine room
The first nine-speed automatic transmission to hit the U.S. market helps the Cherokee to extract maximum mpgs from the buyer's choice of two engines, neither of which includes the old Cherokee's venerable 4.0-liter straight-six.

The standard mill is a 2.4-liter "Tigershark" four-cylinder with 184 horsepower and 171 lb-ft of torque, which is rated at 22/31 mpg in FWD form. More power can be had by spec'ing the optional V6, a rarity in a time when most rivals have switched to turbocharged four-bangers or abandoned upgrade engines altogether. Essentially Chrysler's familiar 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 with reduced bore, the 3.2-liter mill sends 271 horsepower and 239 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels while returning 19/28 mpg. Towing capacity maxes out at 4,500 lbs. for properly equipped Pentastar models.

This being a Jeep, three different four-wheel-drive systems are available, all of which feature a trick rear-axle disconnect feature to reduce fuel consumption when real 4x4 capability isn't required. Most buyers will opt for the fully automatic, AWD-like Active Drive I setup, which features a single power takeoff unit and is intended mainly to provide extra traction in inclement weather. Active Drive II adds a second PTU, low-range gearing and four different traction/stability control modes: Auto, Snow, Sport and Sand/Mud. Finally, Active Drive Lock brings a locking rear differential and an additional Rock mode.

The latter system is offered only on the off-roading-focused Trailhawk trim, where it is standard. Other items unique to the $29,495 Trailhawk include shortened bumpers front and rear that afford increased approach and departure angles, elevated ground clearance (8.6 inches), skid plates, red tow hooks, unique trim inside and out, and Jeep's "Trail-Rated" designation.

On - and off - the road
Get behind the wheel, and the Cherokee's car roots are immediately apparent. Though not quite a sports sedan on stilts, it does drive better than many of its peers - body motions are well-controlled, the steering is precise (if largely feedback-free), and brake feel is more than respectable. Things only get better in Sport mode, which livens the steering, heightens throttle response and alters shift points.

We spent the majority of our time with the Pentastar, which provided ample power and went about its business with a minimum of fuss. Also unobtrusive was the nine-speed, which quickly allayed our concerns about excessive gear hunting by smoothly and consistently grabbing the right cog for the situation.

Despite the transmission's best efforts, the four-cylinder felt slightly overmatched, especially when saddled with four-wheel-drive. That's likely a result of the Cherokee's mass, which is several hundred pounds weightier than most of the competition.
Off the beaten path, the Trailhawk proved itself more than capable, clawing its way through deep ruts and over vertiginous inclines of sand and rock. Unsurprisingly, it can't match the Wrangler's off-roading chops, but it's especially user-friendly due to a novel Selec-Speed control system that maintains a speed of 0.6 mph in 1st gear and can be hastened in 0.6 mph increments through the other eight gears. Select the gear for the speed you want, and the setup will maintain that velocity up and down hills and over obstacles.

Leftlane's bottom line
It doesn't hold with tradition, this Cherokee, and for the most part it's better for it.

While its styling can be (and most likely will be) debated endlessly, it's hard to argue with the crossover's handsome interior, impressive technology and poise on - as well as beyond - the pavement.

2014 Jeep Cherokee base price range, $23,990 to $30,490.

Photos by Nat Shirley.