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NEW YORK — Jeep will introduce the 2014 Cherokee to the world today, debuting a long-awaited model the company hopes will re-establish Jeep as a top player in one of the most competitive segments in the new-car market.
In press materials distributed ahead of the New York International Auto Show, Chrysler Group LLC said the Cherokee will return up to 31 miles per gallon while featuring a world-class interior and a slate of features aimed at driver comfort and safety.
“The all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee will be the benchmark for midsize SUVs with a new level of on-road driving dynamics and fuel economy, while at the same time improving the four-by-four capability that customers expect from Jeep,” Mike Manley, Jeep brand chief executive, said in a statement.
The Cherokee will come in Sport, Latitude, and Limited trim levels, as well as a Trailhawk version that’s tailored toward off-road driving.
GALLERY: Toledo-built Jeep Cherokee Limited
Jeep says the Trailhawk comes equipped with a 1-inch factory lift, a locking rear differential, skid plates, and different front and rear fascias allowing for more aggressive approach and departure angles.
All 2014 Cherokees get Chrysler’s new nine-speed automatic transmission. Buyers will have the option of a more fuel-efficient 2.4-liter Tigershark four-cylinder engine, or a new 3.2-liter, 271-horsepower, V-6 based on the 3.6-liter Pentastar that powers several Chrysler products, including the Toledo-built Wrangler.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the Cherokee, both for Chrysler and for Toledo, where it will be built.
Jeep sold 701,626 vehicles worldwide last year, a 19 percent increase from 2011 and an all-time record for the company. Chrysler officials are on record as saying they want to sell 800,000 vehicles annually by 2014, and that the Cherokee is key in achieving that.
Officials haven’t given any sales forecasts for the Cherokee, but earlier this year, Mr. Manley told The Blade the Cherokee has the potential to be Jeep’s No. 1 seller worldwide. The Grand Cherokee holds that title, selling 223,000 units last year.
In anticipation of that extra volume, Chrysler is well on its way to hiring 1,100 workers for a second shift at the Toledo Assembly Complex. Chrysler also poured $500 million into the plant to expand and upgrade the assembly line.
The Cherokee is replacing the Liberty, an old-school SUV that found itself uncomfortably limboing between where the market had been and where it was headed.
Though it had best-in-class, off-road capability, the trucklike Liberty returned poor fuel economy (22 mpg on the highway) and was criticized for lacking the comfort and refinement found in many of its competitors.
Jeep says the Cherokee will retain its best-in-class, off-road performance, but it will be have much better on-road dynamics and fuel economy than the Liberty did. It will be able to tow a best-in-class 4,500 pounds, but that is still 500 pounds less than the popular Cherokee model that was discontinued in 2001.
The Cherokee is based on a Fiat platform, the same front-wheel-drive platform that underpins the Dodge Dart. Chrysler says the platform lowers development time and cost, while giving better quality and reliability.
The car-based platform also puts it in line with most of Chrysler’s sport-utility competitors, such as the Ford Escape and the Honda CR-V.
Mike Wall, an auto analyst with IHS Automotive, said the Cherokee appears much better equipped to compete in its segment than the Liberty. But as competitive as the U.S. market is when it comes to crossover vehicles, Mr. Wall thinks some of the Cherokee’s biggest gains could be outside of North America.
“We’re looking for some solid growth versus the previous Liberty, because of the international aspect,” he said.
“Jeep as a brand is getting better penetration globally, and the Liberty had gone on for some time and hadn’t been refreshed for quite a while. The volumes on Liberty had fallen off quite considerably.”
Liberty sales rose 13 percent last year to 75,483 units, but remained a long way from the peak of 171,212 sales in 2002, Liberty’s first full year on the market. Liberty sales haven’t topped 100,000 units since 2006.
Chrysler Group sales shot up 21 percent last year, but the momentum has slowed this year, caused in part by the lack of a midsize sport-utility vehicle in Jeep’s lineup.
Jeep sales were down 11 percent through February compared to last year. The Cherokee isn’t expected to go on sale until sometime in 2013’s third quarter. Its price has not been announced.
The Cherokee’s unveiling is one of the most eagerly awaited debuts of the New York auto show, though some of Chrysler’s thunder was stolen earlier this year when photos of preproduction models inside the Toledo Assembly Complex were leaked. Chrysler followed by releasing a handful of its own official photos showing the vehicle in a much better light.
Mr. Wall said it’s just a sign of the times.
“It’s a challenge,” he said of keeping new models quiet. “Automakers want to keep a tight lid whenever possible for the big unveils, and it’s tough. I think they handled it as well as you could in this case.”
There has been some controversy over the vehicle’s looks based on those early photographs. The styling is a big departure from the Liberty, with a creased grille and thin, wraparound driving lights stacked above the headlights.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: 419-724-6134 or firstname.lastname@example.org.