NEW YORK — Jeep debuted its 2014 Cherokee on Wednesday by driving the new sport utility vehicle up a perilous-looking rock formation inside the New York International Auto Show.
It was a flashy display, and perhaps one aimed to assuage fears that the reborn Cherokee wouldn’t be able to find its footing off the pavement. But while off-road capability is what defines Jeep’s heritage, company officials said it’s no longer enough to be the brand’s sole selling point.
“With Liberty, we only had 3 or 4 percent of that [midsize SUV] market, because we were just known for capability,” Jeep brand Chief Executive Mike Manley said. “What we’ve been able to do is keep our capability, but add those other things the market’s looking for.”
Based on the same front-wheel drive platform as the Dodge Dart, Chrysler Group LLC’s Jeep Cherokee is much more in line with its crossover competitors such as the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V.
That has irked some of the brand’s diehard enthusiasts, but most analysts agree it’s the right move for Jeep as it marches toward its goal of selling 800,000 vehicles a year by 2014.
The Cherokee will be built in Toledo, where Chrysler invested $500 million in preparation for the vehicle. Later this year, Chrysler will add a second shift of 1,100 workers building the Cherokee. The company already has gathered those applications and is progressing through its hiring process.
The Cherokee will come standard with a nine-speed transmission and offer two available engines.
Buyers can choose a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that creates 184 horsepower, or a new 3.2-liter V-6 that cranks out 271 horsepower and has a 4,500-pound towing capacity.
Jeep said the four-cylinder Cherokee will get up to 31 miles per gallon highway. Estimated mileage figures for the V-6 weren’t released, but officials said it will be much better than the Liberty, which got 21 mpg on the highway.
Three trim levels will be available, as well as a more off-road-ready Trailhawk edition. Pricing has not yet been announced.
While the aerodynamic styling of the Cherokee fits in with most others in the crossover SUV segment, it’s nothing like the boxy Cherokee of a decade ago or even the recently discontinued Liberty. When it was first revealed in photos last month, the design generated a strong reaction, much of it negative.
On Wednesday, officials said they weren’t surprised by the reaction, admitting it was a very different direction for Jeep.
“The reaction is exactly what I expected. As a matter of fact, it’s reaffirming that we did do what we thought we did in terms of moving it on, making something new and fresh,” said Ralph Gilles, who oversees product design for Chrysler Group.
He said he believes more people are coming around on the design.
Mr. Manley also admitted that Jeep took some chances with the Cherokee as it developed a much different vehicle than Jeep has offered before. But he said it was necessary.
“I think we’ve really got to take Jeep into the future,” Mr. Manley said. “I think we’ve done that with our styling. We’ve certainly done that with our technology.”
The Cherokee gets a 7-inch customizable instrument panel and Chrysler Group’s 8.4-inch touch-screen entertainment system, and it is the first in Chrysler Group to get parking-assist technology that uses ultrasonic sensors to steer the vehicle into parking spots while the driver uses only the throttle and brakes. The Cherokee also gets a rear axle that can disconnect when the four-wheel-drive isn’t active to save fuel. Chrysler said that is an industry first.
“We wanted to push the envelope because it’s needed in this segment, one of the most competitive segments in the U.S. Our share historically is only 3 percent,” Mr. Manley said. “That’s not good enough. We have to push the envelope, and we’ve done it, I think, with this vehicle.”
The midsize crossover SUV segment is huge in the United States, but Jeep wasn’t getting much of the action with Liberty. Cherokee should get Jeep back into the game, but analysts say it’s too soon to know whether it can reach the same volumes as competitors such as the Honda CR-V, which last year sold more than 281,000 units.
“I wouldn’t say that it can’t happen — I would say it’s not going to happen immediately,” said Bill Visnic, an analyst with Edmunds.com.
“It’s not going to be overnight. They are going to have to win and earn that volume. You’ll get some of it because you have the Jeep name, you’ll get some of it from a certain kind of buyer who wants that extra capability, but the rest is going to have to be earned on what that vehicle is like on the road. We don’t really know that yet.”
Officials said the first vehicles should arrive in dealerships sometime in the year’s third quarter.
The vehicle is already generating excitement in Toledo.
Zach Leroux, the Toledo plant’s manager, was at the Jacob Javits Center in New York for the debut.
He said it was good to see the vehicle unveiled to the public after being kept under such tight cover for months.
“For us, this is where the work all begins,” he said. “The public sees a beautiful, brand-new vehicle, and now they’re going to be wanting it as soon as they can get it, and it’s in the plant’s hands to deliver. A lot of the preparation that we’ve been doing since we shut down the Liberty in August of last year is going to bear fruit now as we go forward launching a new vehicle.”
John Casto, an autoworker at the Toledo Assembly complex who traveled to New York for the Cherokee’s debut, was also happy with the way the news conference went.
“When you see the finished product, especially a day like today when you see everybody’s reaction to it, you say we’ve got a sellable product here,” Mr. Casto said. “We’re going to move some vehicles. ... There’s going to be a lot of people working.”
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